NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

America, the Cultured

September 17, 1998

Observers of the cultural scene report that Americans are buying serious books and attending arts performances in rapidly escalating numbers. Scores of regional theaters and opera companies have sprung up in recent years. We are beginning to tune in more often to offerings on the History and Arts and Entertainment channels, rather than sitcoms.

Historically high levels of wealth, educational attainment and cultural exposure have propelled this amazing shift in American tastes over the past decade, judging by the statistics.

  • Nearly 27 million people attended theatrical stage shows during the 1997-98 season -- almost 60 percent of them outside New York -- and the number of nonprofit, professional theater companies in the U.S. has grown from fewer than 60 in 1965 to more than 800 today.
  • Since 1980, more than 110 symphony orchestras have been founded, and by the 1996-97 season opera attendance had increased 34 percent.
  • Book sales are at unprecedented levels, with about 430 million more purchased in 1995 than in 1982 -- when 1.7 billion were sold.
  • From 1982 to 1997, the proportion of Americans who listened to classical music on the radio grew from 19 percent to 41 percent.

Bookstore chains featuring coffee bars and grocery chains offering a diverse range of ethnic, regional and once uncommon specialties symbolize more demanding American tastes.

Cable television and the Internet are credited, in part, with America's greater sophistication -- a word defined as to "become more complex, developed" and to be "experienced in the ways of the world." The number of households with cable service grew to 63.4 percent in 1995, compared to less than 20 percent in 1980. Nearly half of all U.S. adults under age 55 had access to the World Wide Web last year -- giving once isolated Americans instant access to many newspapers, just-released books and complex financial analyses.

Source: Douglas A. Blackmon, "Forget the Stereotype: America Is Becoming a Nation of Culture," Wall Street Journal, September 17, 1998.


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