The Demand for the Arts
TEAM-CNRS, Université de Paris1 (Panthéon-Sorbonne) and CIRANO
CIRANO and Department of Economics, University of Montreal
A shorter version is forthcoming as an entry in the Handbook of Cultural Economics,
Ruth Towse (ed.), London: Edward Elgar.
This paper discusses the demand for the arts from a theoretical and an empirical
perspective. We suggest that the demand for the arts is price elastic and that art is a
luxury good. Education and learning experiences are also important factors affecting that
Ce texte discute la demande pour les arts d'un point de vue théorique et empirique. Nous
suggérons que la demande pour les arts se caractérise par une élasticité-prix relativement
importante et que l'art est un bien de luxe. L'éducation et l'expérience de l'art jouent
également un rôle important sur cette demande.
Demande pour les arts, l'apprentissage par la consommation.
Keywords: Demand for the arts, learning by consuming,
JEL Classification: Z1
"If you gotta ask, you ain't never going to know"
An economist being asked to specify and estimate demand for the arts might
begin to say that that it is not essentially different from the demand for more down-to-
earth consumer goods and services. Then, and only then, he or she would want to
consider the specificity of “art”. This short story summarises the lines of research
followed by art and cultural economics so far in the field of demand. By and large, the
first economic studies were concerned with income and price elasticities, which they
drew from scanty data, basic consumer theory and crude econometric models. The
literature is still groping towards firm answers to simple questions, like: Is art a luxury
good? Is it price-elastic or inelastic? Do art goods have close substitutes? However, the
consumption of art challenges the conventional assumptions of homogeneous goods and
services, completed learning of tastes, independence of choice among individuals and so
forth. How do we deal with aesthetic quality and the heterogeneity of tastes? How do
consumers who do not have full knowledge of their own taste decide and rely on others?
Indeed, if you are going to ask why you like the theatre of Shakespeare, the operas of
Puccini, and the paintings of Manet, you are never going to know. The subtle alchemy of
individual taste for the arts ultimately relies on self-experience.
Following the lead of Baumol and Bowen (1966) and the availability of data, a
majority of studies have dealt with live performing arts (theatre, music, opera, dance) and
the cinema, which is a good substitute (see, for instance, the early works of Moore 1968,
and Throsby and Withers 1979). A growing number of studies (see, for instance, Frey
and Pommerehne 1989, Agnello and Pierce 1996, Pesando and Shum 1999, Flôres,
Gôres, Ginsburgh and Jeanfils 1999, Locatelli-Biey and Zanola 1999) are now
investigating the pricing and choice of art works (paintings, pieces of sculpture, and other
artifacts). Since the latter have distinctive features of financial assets- when there is an
Quoted by Throsby (1994).
organised market for resale -, public goods – when they are exposed by galleries and
museums for public showing -, and uniqueness–they can be copied but not reproduced -,
we find it impossible to render justice in a short paper to the literatures that have
developed in parallel on art works and the performing arts. We focus our discussion on
the demand for live performing arts and the cinema because it has been more extensively
studied so far and raises interesting questions to demand theory. Readers who are
especially interested by art works should consult the more extensive survey of Throsby
(1994) and the additional references listed above. The aim of this review article is to
bring some clarification on the theories which can be used to understand the cultivation
of taste and estimate the demand for the arts. This exercise is followed by a brief
summary of the empirical evidence.
The cultivation of taste
The merit good nature of the classical arts is attested by the permanence of public
policies to enhance and preserve their production and consumption. The learned people,
who are generally lovers of the classical arts, think that very many others would
eventually feel like themselves if they were better exposed to them. This remark, which
needs to be taken seriously, implies that the taste for arts is acquired or discovered and
the rate of art consumption increases over time with exposure. It may well be the case
that the taste for popular culture, and even vegetables, is acquired or discovered too, but
we would expect that most children have a broad exposure to such goods. Therefore, the
difference between classical arts and popular culture or vegetables would seem to be that
the former are far less widespread in the consumption of parents than the latter. This
might occur if classical arts were a strongly inferior good but we would then run into a
contradiction because they are disproportionately consumed by the rich and the educated.
A more plausible assumption is that the classical arts are luxury goods
of which should relatively increase with economic growth. However, they run into the
danger of getting lost over the generations by lack of sufficient early exposure to them.
Subsidising the classical arts in order to give the new generations equal opportunities to
invest in the acquisition of taste or discover their unknown taste for them would be a
Pareto-improving policy. The relative price increase of classical arts due to a lack of
technical innovation in their production (Baumol and Bowen 1966) would limit rather
than legitimate the use of subsidisation.
Figure 1 will help to visualise this argument. It depicts the average variation of
taste over time. The taste for good 1 (say, popular music) increases and eventually levels
off because additional taste has been acquired through repeated exposure and experience.
By contrast, the taste for a non experienced good (say, classical music) remains stable.
Even though the average individual might have initially more taste for classical music
than for popular music, she would end up liking popular music better after a while
because she was not exposed to classical music. A statistical confirmation of this story is
given by Kurabayashi and Ito (1992) that show a positive correlation of preferences for
Browning and Crossley (2000) show, under a few technical assumptions, that luxury goods are easier to
postpone. Indeed, the consumption of classical arts seems to be easier to postpone than the consumption of
different types of music of the same genre (either classical or popular) but a negative
correlation between genres. Prieto-Rodríguez and Fernández-Blanco (2000) suggest,
from a bivariate probit model, that both groups of popular and classical music lovers have
a common “innate” taste for music. However, they also show that age has a negative and
non-linear effect on popular music listening.
The above intuition is borne by theories of specific consumption capital and
rational addiction (Stigler and Becker 1977, Becker and Murphy 1988), and learning by
consuming (Lévy-Garboua and Montmarquette 1996). These two classes of theories can
predict the dependence of current consumption of art goods upon past behaviour.
However, they have different implications for the shape of demand. The issues of quality
and risk are also discussed. We hope to bring some clarification in the theoretical
discussion by presenting the alternative hypotheses in a common framework which will
facilitate comparison and permit the derivation of closed-form equations of demand.
Assume simply two goods (i= x, y) and three periods (t=1,2, 3), and the time additive
() ( )
designates “art appreciation”, that is the subutility (household production
function) associated with the art good (factor) x in period t and
is the discount factor.
The four arguments of the utility function are the values expected at the time of decision,
that is the beginning of period 1. To illustrate the properties of these models, we assume
Figure 1 - The
Cultivation of taste
)3,2,1(for , == txsX
Expression (2) is similar to a quality-adjusted quantity, and s
(> 0) would effectively
coincide with an objective quality index if it were determined exogenously. Throsby
(1983) defines objective quality for the live performing arts by a vector of characteristics
including the repertoire classification, standards of performance, production and design,
standards of comfort, seating, acoustics, etc. Hamlen (1991, 1994) even used the vibrato
of pop singers as an index of their objective talent. Objective characteristics have been
extensively used as regressors in hedonic price functions (Rosen 1974) but they fall short
in the prediction of superstars à la Rosen (1981) and MacDonald (1988). In an
interesting study, De Vaney and Walls (1999) show that movie box-office revenues are
asymptotically Pareto-distributed and have infinite variance. Superstar movies are not
determined by awards and totally unpredictable because the informational cascade
among film-goers leads to a great many paths. The models of rational addiction or
learning by consuming under review endogenise s
in equation (2). They describe two
processes for the cultivation of taste by assuming distinct ways of updating s
(before t) behavior. The latter is the endogenous determinant of taste in both models and
we call it the “subjective quality” or, briefly, the individual’s taste for art.
For comparison purposes, we specify everywhere a quadratic period utility
with a, b, c, d > 0 and ac – d
> 0 to ensure the second-order conditions.
Specific consumption capital and rational addiction
This is the model developed by Stigler and Becker (1977) to account for musical
appreciation and consumption and further elaborated by Becker and Murphy (1988)
under an assumption of consistent forward-looking behaviour. The latter defines rational
addiction (first introduced by Spinnewyn 1981) as opposed to myopic habit formation
which was a common assumption for estimating “dynamic” consumer demand equations
(Pollak 1970). The taste for music is generated by a music-specific capital which raises
musical appreciation in the future. We write this simply
(4) )3,2(for ,
Smith (1998) substitutes music-specific training (in the form of piano lessons, for instance) for music
consumption (like listening to recorded music or attending concerts) to characterise the investment effort.
This does not alter the main qualitative conclusions that we wish to draw here. Moreover, it is often
difficult to distinguish empirically between training and consumption of music.
with r > 0
. The individual maximizes her utility function (1) under (2), (3) and (4) and
the wealth constraint,
The interest factor
and the price of art (p) are assumed constant because we focus on
the role of tastes. With positive consumption of the two goods, the first order conditions
yield the relative shadow prices of art appreciation in the three periods:
)3,2,1(, == t
The rate of addiction
, that is the rate at which the taste for art increases with the
consumption of art, is always positive. It might rise at young ages and eventually
decrease. Under the assumptions that
>> and that they are small, we can
neglect terms of the second order – like
in (8) – and show that the relative shadow
price of art appreciation declines over time.
Becker and Murphy (1988) deal with harmful addictions, like heroin, by assuming
their model cannot be applied to the cultivation of musical taste without the appropriate adaptations.
By (4), (6) and (7),
. This inequality is certainly verified if
> since .1≤
Similarly, by (4), (7) and (8),
yields, if terms of the second order
can be neglected : .0)1(
This inequality holds because the left hand expression
exceeds . if 0))(1(
We can then derive the taste-constant Frisch (marginal utility of wealth-constant)
demand functions for art
/= and .0
If the relative shadow price of art appreciation declines over time, the demand for
art appreciation will certainly rise over time when the discount rate does not exceed the
interest rate (i.e.
. The more impatient consumers, however, may diminish their
demand for art appreciation over time even if the relative shadow price of the latter
commodity declines. Moreover, an increase of the demand for art
appreciation over time
does not necessarily entail that the demand for
consumption also rise because the
cultivation of taste allows consumers of art to maintain their level of appreciation by a
diminishing level of consumption. Once again, the consumption is the more likely to rise,
the lower is the discount rate and the higher is the interest rate.
The choice of a quadratic utility function implies that demand be linear negative
in the marginal utility of wealth, that is that art consumption be a Frisch-normal good.
The wealth elasticity (holding shadow prices constant) is the product of the latter by the
with respect to wealth. With a decreasing marginal utility of wealth, the
consumption of art is the more likely to be a luxury, the lower the levels of wealth.
The demand functions (9) – (11) are linear negative functions of the shadow prices of art
appreciation. However, demand studies have not measured the shadow price-elasticity of
art appreciation (
) but the market price-elasticity of art consumption
The two elasticities are related by
The shadow price elasticity is always lower than the market price elasticity on the
negative scale because they differ by a term which is negative when addiction takes
place. The latter is the product of two elasticities: the negative elasticity (
) of the
expected future addiction rate (in
t) to current price, and the positive elasticity )(
The Frisch demand function is natural in the time-additive framework. It is also convenient because the
marginal utility of wealth is invariant over the life cycle and this non-observable factor can easily be
captured through socio-economic variables when current income is not known, as is often the case in
current art appreciation to the expected future addiction rate (in
t). Hence, a shadow
price-elastic demand for art appreciation is not inconsistent with a market price inelastic
demand for art consumption.
Lastly, the constant taste – Frisch demand function given by equation (9) enables
the researcher to calculate the current taste-elasticity of art consumption
The latter relates to the market price elasticity by
designates the positive elasticity of the expected future addiction rate (in t)
to current taste (in period 1). Since the products of elasticities under the summation
symbol are positive, rational addiction enhances the positive influence of cultivated taste
on the consumption of art in spite of the lesser need to consume for producing a given
level of art appreciation. Moreover, since current taste has been shaped by the past
consumption history according to (4), e
is also positively related to the elasticity of art
consumption to past exposure. Equation (13) then corroborates Stigler and Becker’s
(1977:80) claim that “the time (or other inputs) spent on music appreciation is more
likely to be addictive – that is, to rise with exposure to music – the more, not less, elastic
is the demand curve for music appreciation”.
Learning by consuming
A different approach is taken by the theory of learning by consuming
Garboua and Montmarquette 1996). Consumers are supposed to be unaware of their true
taste and to discover it through repeated experiences in a sequential process of
unsystematic learning by consuming. Tastes are given but unknown. Every new
experience of a given art form reveals to the consumer an unexpected positive or negative
increment in her taste for it. Instead of assuming a deterministic increase in taste, as
equation (4) does, the shift is now stochastic and may take negative as well as positive
values with an expected value of zero. It is certainly more realistic to assume that
individuals widely differ in their taste for specific art forms than is implied by the
pharmacological force of addiction. Some like attending concerts, while others definitely
prefer the opera. Recognition of the vast heterogeneity of tastes does not preclude the
study of taste formation, as Stigler and Becker once feared (see, for instance, Becker
1996). Furthermore, it allows for the great differentiation of art and cultural goods.
Keeping the notations defined above, the experienced taste for the art consumption of
period t is
McCain (1979) coined the term "learning by consuming" in a study on wine. McCain (1995) used this
idea in the context of a simulated model of bounded rationality to explain discontinuities in the
consumption of art events.
, if 0>
E designates the expectation operator before period t’ s choice and
taste surprise experienced in period t (i.e. 0)(
). Someone who discovers that she
has a taste for music will normally experience over time repeated pleasant surprises by
listening to music and will revise her expectations upward. Since consumers base their
expectation of taste solely on their own past experience of the specific art form, the
expectation of taste one period ahead is no different than its expectation in the more
distant future. This feature of the model, which obtains whether expectations are rational
or not, preserves the intertemporal separability of the utility function conditional on past
consumption, contrary to what occurs in the rational addiction model. Consequently, the
constant taste-Frisch demand function for art in period 1, as any other period, keeps the
The shadow price of art appreciation is
, so that the shadow price-elasticity is
equal to the market price-elasticity (i.e.
eE = ) and the taste elasticity is simply related
to the own-price elasticity by:
ee +−= . If the price elasticity is greater than unity
(in absolute value), the experience of consuming a good will have a positive effect on
current consumption when the good was enjoyable overall, and a negative effect when it
was not enjoyable overall. These effects of experience are reversed if demand for the
good is inelastic, and are non existent if the elasticity is equal to unity. This implication
provides a way of measuring the price elasticity of art consumption from survey data
yielding proxies for accumulated experience and taste for a specific art form. If rational
addiction also takes place, the latter measures still provide an upper bound for the
absolute value of the market price elasticity. Equation (15) also describes the dynamics of
consumption. Since the dynamic elements of the model are the shadow prices rather than
the parameters defining the utility function, the long-term equilibrium is achieved when
all the subjective qualities have stabilised at path-dependent stationary values determined
at the end of the learning period. The “true” price and income elasticities are the same in
the short run and the long run. The learning by consuming model is thus a case where the
addition of a stochastic process does greatly simplify, not complicate, the analysis.
Rational addiction and learning by consuming describe distinct processes of taste
formation which may both be present at successive stages of consumption. West and
McKee (1983) have suggested a threshold in the demand for the arts with art
consumption climbing slowly for some time and then rising quite rapidly as the effect
strengthens. Moreover, rationality has a different meaning in the two theories. It
describes forward-looking behaviour (which is no more a controversial issue among
economists) in one case; and it describes rational expectations in another. Besides, the
sole and perhaps excessive reliance of expectations on past own experience introduces a
special sort of “myopia”, long recognised by habit formation models (e.g. Pollak 1970),
which has in fact more to do with ignorance and uncertainty than with irrationality. Part
of the ignorance and uncertainty which surrounders the demand for arts is resolved by
repeated exposure and experience. However, an element of short run uncertainty is
inevitable for live performances whose subjective quality cannot be assessed prior to own
. Abbé-Decarroux and Grin (1992) and Abbé-Decarroux (1994) suggest that
potential spectators of live performances must bet on the latter’s quality. If the coefficient
of relative risk aversion is smaller than one, the more risk averse the consumer, the less
risky the performances attended. The presence of risk also helps to explain the role of
critics and herd behavior in the consumption of arts.
The empirical evidence
A growing body of empirical research is devoted to estimating the demand for the
arts. The demand for live performing arts (theatre, dance, opera, music) and cinema has
been estimated from aggregate time-series data, cross-section surveys on the audience of
live performing companies, and individual survey data on specific groups or on the
general population. The difficulty of gathering good data is obvious to account for own
price, cross price, human capital accumulation, learning experience, quality and time
costs. Thus, the results are often partial and the methodology varies considerably from
one study to another. Since attendance to live performances is typically an infrequent
event, the use of aggregate data requires caution in interpreting the price and income
elasticities of demand when the frequency rate changes over time. The estimation of
micro demand equations for the arts requires large samples in order to obtain a sufficient
number of participants and be able to correct for a potential selectivity bias. These
sources of bias have not been largely discussed in the empirical literature devoted to the
demand for arts. Moreover, few empirical studies have relied on a structural model.
Without specific theoretical references, our previous discussion points to the difficulty of
correctly interpreting the empirical results.
Most of the empirical work on the demand for the arts is concerned with price and
income elasticities and the tracking of who is the audience of performing arts. The
characteristics of audience are often similar whether for classical music, theatre,
museums: the audience, which includes a number of tourists (Gapinski 1988), is well
educated, from upper and middle class and with well paying jobs (Dickenson 1992,
Kurabayashi and Ito 1992, Towse 1994, Prieto-Rodríguez and Fernández-Blanco 2000).
For live performances with the conventional demand equation, own price elasticity
estimates (short term) are negative, relatively low but statistically significant (see for
example, Moore 1966 and Gapinski 1984, 1986). Price inelastic demand was observed in
studies for group of companies and Felton 1992 has confirmed this result even in
Price appreciation of an art object also contains a random component. Anderson (1974) showed that
paintings are not very attractive investments when risk has been adjusted for. Similar findings are reported
in Throsby (1994) for investments in the secondary and tertiary art markets and in Pesando and Shum
(1999) for the return to Picasso's prints. However, Locatelli-Biey and Zanola (1999) find that, from 1987 to
1991, an investment in paintings (with repeat sales) performs well compared to U.S. stocks, U.S. 30 years
government bonds and gold.
restricting the econometric regressions to a sample of subscribers (long term demand).
She found an exception for metro orchestras and stressed that elasticities vary widely
among companies (this is the well-known LeChâtelier principle). Cameron (1990) and
Fernández-Blanco and Banos-Pino (1997) found that the demand for cinema (a luxury
good) is price elastic. Few studies (see Krebs and Pommerehne 1995) have estimated
cross-price elasticities, but Gapinski (1986) showed that price interdependencies with
close substitutes do matter. Income elasticity estimates are positive, not always
statistically significant, and in many studies less than one (see Gapinski 1986) This
finding, which runs counter to the impression that art goods are luxuries, may be a
consequence of the cost of time (Becker 1965). Attending live performances is a time-
intensive consumption and Withers (1980) has shown that a large full-income effect may
be partially offset by a negative leisure-price effect. He found a "pure" income elasticity
of about unity.
Do these elasticity estimates differ when quality is taken into account? Quality
matters to explain attendance to performing arts. Abbé-Decarroux (1994), observing the
paid attendance to 64 productions by one theatre company in Geneva over seven years,
showed that the demand for full price seats is inelastic but the demand for reduced price
seats has a unit price-elasticity. Schimmelpfennig
(1997) also estimated that for 3 out of
of seats, the demand for ballet is significantly downward sloping. Survey
data are generally rich in quality variables, but do not normally allow for the variation of
quality-adjusted prices. However, Lévy-Garboua and Montmarquette’s (1996) learning-
by-consuming model enabled them to recover the own-price elasticity from survey data
which provided adequate measures of art experience and taste. After controlling for many
variables including indexes of the cost of time and information, the cost of transportation
and babysitting and the price of substitutes, they conclude that the demand for theatre is
price- elastic, holding the marginal utility of wealth constant. The elasticity of price does
not significantly differ from unity in absolute value and reaches a peak of 1.47 for the
most experienced category of theatregoers. Their results also indicated a significant effect
of the marginal utility of wealth on theatregoing.
The idea that early exposure to arts or investment in human capital increases
interest in art consumption has been supported by various studies (Ekelund and
1999, Smith 1998, Dobson & West 1997, McCain 1995, Lévy-Garboua and
Montmarquette 1996). Smith (1998) concluded that culture or art is at the very least habit
forming rather than addictive. Results by Cameron (1999) on the demand for cinema
mildly support the rational addiction model.
Abbé-Decarroux and Grin (1992) have related risk with age and concluded that
risk-free ventures will attract relatively older audiences (opera and symphony), while
more risky venues will attract younger audiences (theatre). But the latter results may also
be interpreted somewhat differently: older people are more likely to gain experience with
the given stock of classical operas and symphonies, but less so with more innovative
Several studies have examined the consumer’s decision to attend a specific live
The latter depends on the alternatives one has. The set of alternatives may
differ from one individual to another. For example, the set of alternatives of a theatre
critic exclusively consists of the plays which are being currently produced while an
occasional theatregoer might consider a movie or a television show as viable alternatives.
This might help explain why the evaluation of plays appearing in press reviews has a
strong influence on attendance on a by-performance basis, according to Abbé-Decarroux
(1994) and Urrutiaguer (2001), but, according to the second author, has no influence on
the average attendance of theatre companies which often seek to attract a stable public to
their theatre and away from alternative activities.
It is likely that the demand for the arts is price elastic and art is a luxury good. But
this prediction stems more, as yet, from a theoretical conjecture than from well-replicated
empirical estimates. Careful econometric work, the increased use of large data sets, and a
more intensive use of explicit models of the cultivation of taste are certainly needed
before definite answers to these basic questions can be made. Price, income, education,
and learning experiences are important factors in the demand for the arts, but art is also
associated with emotions and feelings. The extent to which aesthetic emotions are
amenable to economic analysis and measurement remains to be shown. However, we
believe that this is perhaps not an impossible task. For instance, aesthetic emotions may
be simply approached by the reported satisfaction for an experienced art event (Lévy-
Garboua and Montmarquette 1996), which is an easily observable variable. Thus, the
endogenisation and cultivation of taste, the role of emotions and the many distinguishing
features of demand for the arts are important fields for future research.
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