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Some [Don’t] Like It Hot: A Perspective on Targeting Young Audiences, Part I

by Kelly Englert

What attracts young audiences to the arts? Sometimes even an expert can’t predict.

Early in September, contributors at The Muse Dialogue had a conversation exploring generational shifts in the arts – a topic of frequent discussion in today’s arts community – and how arts organizations must evolve over the next several years to accommodate these shifts. Some classical performance arts like ballet and opera have been around for centuries and still endure in our culture. However, as cultural gaps between generations grow wider and wider and new technologies constantly evolve our interests and the way we experience art and music, what does the near future hold for the fate of these and other “traditional” arts? Are these organizations successfully attracting a young audience? What tactics are being implemented to do so? We decided that such a timely topic deserves further exploration in TMD.

Arts Encounters and Adapting Tactics

Kate Aldrich as Carmen and Roger Honeywell as Don Jose in the Pittsburgh Opera production of Carmen (Photo: Pittsburgh Opera)

I began to investigate the arts engagement levels of college students here in Pittsburgh and contacted Annabelle Clippinger, director of PITT ARTS, a program at the University of Pittsburgh that provides opportunities for students to attend discounted or free visual and performing arts events. The program’s “Free Arts Encounters” include transportation, a catered reception, and hands-on activities such as a workshop or tour. As director, Clippinger builds connections between arts organizations and her audience of tens of thousands of students in their late teens and early twenties. The combined efforts of PITT ARTS with local arts organizations serves joint goals of broadening the cultural horizons of students and, as they say in the industry, getting butts in seats. After working in this field over the past 12 years, Clippinger has some valuable insights to offer on targeting young audiences – including to sometimes expect the unexpected.

Hot v. Not So Hot Commodities

Initially I had speculated that some classical arts such as opera, for example, might be a hard sell for the young adult audience with whom PITT ARTS works. To the contrary, opera tickets are in fact a “hot commodity,” according to Clippinger. PITT ARTS works in close partnership with the Pittsburgh Opera and purchases blocks of tickets for most shows, and has no difficulty with distributing every ticket. The partnership is a win-win for everyone involved.

So, which art forms struggle with popularity in this demographic, and why? The answer seems to lie in exposure. The 18-24 year-old demographic doesn’t demonstrate a strong interest in certain classical art forms to which they have never been exposed. Baroque or chamber music concerts are not as popular with young adults because they are simply unfamiliar with these music genres. For such art forms, organizations must create openings for new exposure with students in hopes of sparking a passion or establishing a following.

The Missing Piece

I began to wonder about habitual or psychological factors that might contribute to this skew of artistic interest. This is a period of time in which we never cease to be visually stimulated; there are few moments throughout the day when people don’t have some form of entertainment at their fingertips. These constant stimuli can become a crutch, and perhaps today’s students are simply incapable of sitting through a concert devoid of visual spectacle. Maybe the elegant choreography of ballet and the dramatic visual elements of opera – costumes, makeup and sets – satisfy both this need and the natural desire for cultural enrichment and exploration. Yet Clippinger cautions against oversimplifying the situation. Attracting and holding younger audiences is not just a matter of adding flashy scenery. Nor is it as simple as having a Facebook page and a Twitter account, pushing out a deluge of still more stimuli.

It is the ongoing challenge of arts organizations to reach this audience, and one thing seems clear: this generation has an interest in art — but not the same history of exposure as earlier generations and not the same patterns of receiving their arts information. In some ways PITT ARTS represents the place where arts engagement is changing. Their model reflects some of the trends for this generation – an interest to join an arts encounter with a social experience, for example – and it suggests a model worth supporting. While it may be impossible to predict the trends in popularity among young adults, organizations can stay ahead of the curve by paying attention to popular culture and making concerted efforts to communicate to this ever-changing demographic.

In Part II of this perspective, we will explore some of the other interesting findings about successes, failures, and the factor of the unknown when targeting young audiences.

Articles of Related Interest from TMD

Some [Don't] Like It Hot: A Perspective on Targeting Young Audiences, Part II” by Kelly Englert

“A Question of Arts Survival?” by Andrew Swensen

“Generational Shifts,” by Elyssa Jechow

“Barnett Newman and the Slashed Paintings,” by Annabelle Clippinger, Director of PITT ARTS

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. la socialisation de l’expérience de l’art contemporain est général à mon avis, aux jeunes c’est certain, mais aussi aux parents en premier lieue, les organismes + associations, de diffuser la recommandation à tout citoyen de décorer chez lui avec des oeuvres originales, d’artistes contemporains, d’éviter au maximum les reproduction et les posters, afin que les enfants s’habituent à sentir mieux ce qu’est une oeuvre d’art contemporaine, voir, c’est toucher avec l’oeil l’oeuvre d’art, c’est très important sur le comportement de l’être pour mieux valoriser et apprendre à lire une oeuvre d’art, c’est comme lire un livre, tout comme apprécier une belle musique, une pièce théatrale, un film,….Ainsi on peut s’assurer de l’équilibre intellectuel de l’être et notamment la jeunesse avec un comportement raisonnable en évitant la violence à toute circonstance…jeunesse, image de notre société du futur que nous souhaitons meilleure que la nôtre, plus sensible aux arts &Lettrres…Cette action de socialisation appartient aux responsables de l’éducation (système pédagogique), de la culture, des affaires sociales et sports,qui doivent faire un double effort pour la sauvegarde du civisme, et, la dignité de l’artiste et son oeuvre…Alyssa Yssa

  2. “It is the ongoing challenge of arts organizations to reach this audience, and one thing seems clear: this generation has an interest in art — but not the same history of exposure as earlier generations and not the same patterns of receiving their arts information.”

    Perhaps I may be oversimplifying – it makes perfect sense to me to find where your potential audiences are and how they find and receive their information and then connect with them where they are already. Maybe we are not doing this enough. And, if some of us are attempting to be where this generation is at, we might now be executing in a fashion that does not makes sense for them.

    It is complicated. We essentially have 3 or more generations to reach out to, and each one is different and special in its own way. There may be cross-generational methods for outreach, yet we may need to reach out to each generation in a different way. We also need to start listening to what they have to say, so I am glad to see you are starting to ask people specific questions.

    All in all, if you plan, research, and execute in ways that will speak to each generation, I think progress will be made.

    • sfanizza,
      I completely agree. I have observed that some small organizations, those in which a few people each wear many hats and time and budgets are tight, often don’t have the means to acquire research. However, when possible, I agree that, as you said, research, planning and reaching out and making connections to different generations in different ways are necessary for progress in bringing young audiences to attend events. Thanks for reading, and check back for more explorations on this topic.
      Kelly Englert

  3. In our Central California community, Modesto, I am acitve with the Modesto Community Concert Association, and we have the same problem: how to interest young people in the classical arts. We are able to bring some of our evening performance groups right into the schools, or provide bussing during the school day to the theater we use for evening concerts. Both methods have proved successful and appreciated by the students and their teachers. This is short term exposure to classical music, and has worked for us. Of course we hope it plants a ssed of interest that germinates and grows in them.

    • Marilyn,
      I have had similar experiences as a musician in community bands. We are always thankful for our loyal patrons, but also struggle with bringing a wider range of ages in for our performances. It sounds like you are on the right track by getting creative with providing access to concerts and reaching out to local schools. The students and teachers in your town are lucky to have a group that has made it easy for them to enjoy classical music concerts. Best of luck to you and your association, and thanks for reading our site.
      Kelly Englert

  4. Hi all. Our organisation has found that its best to offer young people the opportunity to take charge of as many aspects of the creative/production processes as you can and this indirectly assists in generating younger audiences as well as participants. This of course works better in some contexts and art forms than others.

    We partner with three businesses to deliver a youth portraiture prize (see that asks the artists to commission a portrait of a living member of our state that inspires them. Roughly 30% of all entries are self portraits. What works in Tasmania for young people will not work in London or Dubai but we struggle not to gather the entries but to find ways to reach out to new audiences while promoting these emerging artists to the existing arts audience/marketplace.

    We have no real answers as such but it is of interest that both TRA and our sponsor/partners are interested in this issue of encouraging both participation, and audience development in younger people.

    • Paul,
      It appears that your organization has developed a successful competition in which many talented artists are taking part. I commend the efforts of you and your company not only for initiating the contest but for including in it the opportunity for the artists to show their work in an exhibition. The artists are fortunate to have supporters of the arts creating this type of exposure and incentive for creativity. Thanks for checking out our site, and we’d love to hear more from Tasmania in the future.
      Kelly Englert


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  1. Developpez votre auditoire » Blog Archive » La socialisation doit être au coeur de l’expérience artistique que vous proposez aux jeunes

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