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
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
“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