Those who read this blog regularly may recall that there are three phrases I forbid my students to use. One of them is “We have to get younger audiences.” (class…who can remember the other two?)
Why have I banned the younger audiences mantra? After all, I’d be a wealthy woman if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard it said. It seems logical, after all…the average age of arts audiences keeps going up (at least according to some studies). The audience for traditional “fine arts” activities is shrinking (at least according to some studies). It’s easy to conclude that traditional arts audiences are retiring from active participation (or dying) faster than we are funneling in younger people at the bottom of the ladder – and ergo the cure for our audience ills is to get more young people in the door.
This reminds me of something Mel Torme said when he visited a performing arts center where I was working in the 90s…looking out over the gray audience, he commented that “it’s nice to see so many young faces in the audience. The last place I played, the average age was dead.” Ba-dum CHICK. Especially since Mel Torme was no spring chicken at the time. But he makes a good point. For many current arts audiences, “younger” may be 50 years old, not the coveted student and young professional audience everyone is lusting after.
But getting back to the issue at hand. Why do I object so strongly to what seems to be a logical conclusion? Well, first, just think of the obvious. If you were 25 years old, would you want to go to a social or cultural event where the only other people there were thirty years older than you?
Next, think of the logistics of planning. Since most arts boards tend to look a lot like me (see photo re: gray hair), that means that older people are trying to make decisions about what will attract younger people. And those decisions are, invariably, wrong.
When I was living in California, the financially challenged San Jose Symphony decided to try and attract new, fresh, young audiences by appealing to the “Northern California lifestyle.” They offered free sunglasses to the first 100 customers, promoted the fact that you could wear shorts to the concert if you wanted, and programmed familiar fare like the 1812 Overture. The promotion bombed miserably. I didn’t have access to the data, but my guess is that those coveted fresh audiences felt patronized by the symphony. We’re going to let you wear shorts! We’re going to program easy music that won’t challenge you! But you still have to come to our venue and pay lots of money! Oops, deal-breaker.
My experience is that audiences of all ages, demographics and levels of arts experience can and will engage in challenging, high quality arts activities if they are included in the decision-making process and if their needs (and pocketbooks) are respected. Case in point: Judith Dobrzynski’s description of a teen curator program at the Albright-Knox Gallery, as presented in her Real Clear Arts blog this week. She quotes several of the curators, who are saying things that the San Jose Symphony clearly would not expect them to say. It offers an interesting road map for thinking about what new audiences are capable of handling.
This weekend, one of my students, the beautiful and talented Carrie Dorski, opened her internship exhibit at Green Bay’s ARTgarage. The ARTgarage itself is a model of intergenerational success and grassroots support — and Saturday’s opening attracted an eclectic crowd. The exhibit, entitled “Memories: Remembering the Past to Repurpose the Future,” contained works that used recycled items to connect the artists’ past and future. It was fantastic. One work used old jeans to weave a dainty placemat and hat, as a symbol of the tension between what the artist’s grandmother wanted her to wear to dinner and what she wanted to wear. One artist took a large dollhouse and rearranged the furnishings to resemble how a childhood house eventually looked to her mother with Alzheimer’s. The artists were (by my estimate) as young as early 20s and as old as 60+.
What do we need to do to connect with fresh audiences? It’s not just about using Facebook, flash mobs and text messages. It’s about creating content that involves exciting, new material along with traditional favorites. It’s about letting the people that we want to attract be a part of the decision-making process. And, it’s about getting rid of the idea that all we need to do is to “attract younger audiences.”