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

by Kelly Englert

In my last article about generational shifts in the arts, I wrote about a conversation I had with Annabelle Clippinger, director of PITT ARTS at the University of Pittsburgh, and the variation of interest in arts events among Pitt students. I wanted to further explore some of her insights and experiences, and continue the conversation about methods behind attracting young audiences to arts events.

Clippinger is very experienced in targeting the 18-24 demographic, and she has observed some fascinating patterns over the years. Some of them are predictable: younger people are open to the avant-garde and edgy, new forms of art like local mixed media group the Pillow Project. Interest in photography exhibits has been in decline; Clippinger theorizes this is from an oversaturation of photography from cell phone cameras and photo-sharing sites like Instagram.

PittsburghAs I mentioned in Part I, Clippinger has found opera and ballet are “hot commodities” for twenty-somethings. Classical music can be hit-or-miss, but familiarity matters. Young audiences are usually tuned in to popular culture, and a performance featuring a highly recognizable name, such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, can be enough to grab their attention. Clippinger uses these types of observations to plan the student outings and acquire tickets that she thinks will attract students.

However, attendance predictions, even those based on experience, often fall short. For example, how many names are as recognizable in popular culture as Marilyn Monroe? The late Hollywood icon still infiltrates today’s entertainment, as seen in the 2011 film My Week with Marilyn and NBC’s show Smash. Yet, when PITT ARTS collaborated with Pittsburgh Filmmakers to screen a Monroe film series recently, only 25 students signed up to attend. Is it because the films are old? Because they were screened on a Thursday night? Clippinger asked me, “Do you know why?” I didn’t. I happen to have a propensity for Some Like It Hot.

So for college students, opera is hot and Marilyn Monroe is not? This is confusing.

Granted, many factors are at play here; this is simply one glance into student arts attendance at one university – not an exhaustive research study. But according to Clippinger, it’s no accident that opera tickets sell out at PITT ARTS. The Pittsburgh Opera is very good at attracting young people to performances.

The Pittsburgh Opera uses a variety of smart tactics. Those on a limited budget have several options for purchasing discounted tickets, including student rush, CheapSeats or group discounts. OPERAEncore is a program that offers young professionals in Pittsburgh best-available seating for Friday performances for only $35.75.

Concerts, artist talks, art song recitals, and public Master Classes that create an intimate and accessible atmosphere are all free and offered at the PO Headquarters. They screen a film series of movies based on operas at Point Park University. High school students can apply for apprenticeships at PO, and programs, workshops and online lesson plans available for teachers help to cultivate interest in opera at a young age. And of course, social media platforms are used to communicate upcoming events to the tech-savvy millennials.

I wondered how the Pittsburgh Opera’s methods compare to those of a larger organization: for example, The Metropolitan Opera. The Metropolitan Opera and the Pittsburgh Opera share the same concerns regarding marketing, audience expansion and longevity of the organization. However, with its $340 million annual operating budget, the Met is on a level unrivaled by arts organizations in smaller cities, and their marketing tactics reflect the difference.

30FUNDRAISING_SPAN-articleLargeIn Ruth La Ferla’s New York Times article, “Going Hollywood,” she writes about the September opening galas for the New York City Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera, both held at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts . The Met enlisted the service of Andrew Saffir, who runs a company that hosts premiers and screenings, to turn its opening gala into an A-list party populated with celebrities. In LaFerla’s article, Saffir refers to the longstanding “stuffy” reputation of the ballet and opera, and that attracting “a younger, more dynamic, name-driven crowd” is a necessary evolution.

Performance sponsors at the Met include luxury brands like Rolex and Yves Saint Laurent. The recent opening gala for the City Ballet included a red carpet arrival complete with celebrities of film, music and fashion. They have also taken the somewhat controversial approach of showing movie theater screenings of their operas in hopes of drawing a wider audience. Obviously, these large-scale tactics aren’t feasible for most organizations, but the marketing concepts behind them can still be adapted and applied in a different environment.

Organizations must provide some type of gateway for a young demographic to engage in their art, or their audience will eventually die out and so will the organization. Communicating strategically, offering incentives like discounts, programming performances that feature well-known artists, or hosting a glamorous gala could provide an introduction for an otherwise untapped potential audience.

Technology and methods of communication are evolving rapidly and along with them comes a rapidly changing society. The tastes of young audiences are varying and can be unpredictable, and there is no definite answer for the best way to reach them. Even seasoned veterans of arts marketing need research and a multi-dimensional approach to determine what works for their organization.

Whether it is the drama, the connection to the past, the gothic beauty, or the mystery of what lies behind the stage, within every classical art form are elusive, intangible, often transcendent qualities that intrigue patrons to return again and again. It would be a tragedy for new generations to miss out on what arts supporters have been enjoying for centuries. Hopefully, with talented and resourceful arts managers, these classical arts groups will adapt and evolve. One thing is for sure – no arts organization, whether classical or contemporary, can afford to ignore the shifts that occur as young generations enter society.


Articles of Related Interest from The Muse Dialogue

“Some [Don’t] Like it Hot: A Perspective on Targeting Young Audiences, Part I” by Kelly Englert

“Generational Shifts,” by Elyssa Jechow

A Question of Arts Survival?,” by Andrew Swensen

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