Of A Certain Age

I came across a mention of the Performing Arts Research Coalition (PARC) study, The Value of the Performing Arts in Five Communities. This is an interesting study and will probably fuel a number of future blog posts.

The mention I saw today was in regard to the report’s finding that attendance at performing arts events was not strongly tied to age. The report says:

In contrast to education level and household income, age is not strongly related to attendance levels. This finding is interesting because popular discussions often assume that performing arts audiences are mostly composed of older people – a “graying” of attenders. Our findings, however, indicate that in some communities the 65 and over age category is the one with the greatest percentage of nonattenders. Austin again is an anomaly among the communities in the study. Although the relationship between age and attendance is not strong, it is negative. This indicates that in Austin, performing arts attendance is greatest among young people, with attendance declining among older age cohorts.

That put me in mind of a blog I wrote. I keep a file on my computer called “Good Ideas” where I put copies of articles I find on the web that I think might be of use at some point. (Though many times I find I only realize the value of an article months after it appeared and have a terrible time tracking it down again!) I looked in my file and found the entry I recalled was from Terry Teachout’s blog, About Last Night.

He quoted an article by Eric Felten about why it was pointless for advertisers to focus so much on the 18 to 34 male demographic and quoted a passage directly related to the arts.

A few years ago the Chicago Symphony commissioned a survey that found the average age of its concert-goers to be 55. But the orchestra’s president, Henry Fogel, didn’t fall for the actuarial fallacy. Instead he checked similar research done 30 years earlier and found that the average age at that time was also 55. “There is simply a time in one’s life when subscribing to a symphony orchestra becomes both desirable and possible,” says Mr. Fogel, now president of the American Symphony Orchestra League. Acting on this insight, the Chicago Symphony is wooing boomers who, though they may still enjoy their old Beatles records, long for a new musical experience. The orchestra has targeted new subscribers by advertising on, of all places, a local “classic rock” station.

Mr. Teachout goes on to talk about the fact that he himself didn’t become interested in visual arts until he was 40.

The study and the article gave me some reason for optimism. Certainly my tastes have evolved on many fronts as I have gotten older. As an avid reader, I have noticed that I am now intensely interested in books that bored me at one point. My taste in music has changed as I have gotten older. While I am not terribly interested in ballet and orchestra music, perhaps I will be at one point.

If these things are true for me, then there is a strong possibility that they will be true for many people my age. People may age and become more interested and open to experiences in the arts and resupply the older folks in today’s audiences. (From the study, it doesn’t sound like there are as many older folks as we think there are so that is heartening as well.)

Mr. Teachout points out however that he was already predisposed to find pleasurable experiences in the arts. He questions if it is wise to expect people who have never been exposed to the arts to grow into an appreciation of something that is unfamiliar to them, especially given the increased disappearance of school arts programs.

Indeed, most of Mr. Felten’s examples are about television programs and ads that fail to capture their target demographic and perhaps snag older demographics instead. Cars and television programs aren’t alien to 18-34 year olds. They may not have the means and interest in purchasing Volvos and watching 60 Minutes right now. However, when their interests and bank accounts mature, they won’t perceive too many barriers to their enjoyment and acquisition of things they previously regarded as the province of older folks.

Can the same be said of the arts? If you never laughed at a silly play as a child or were never moved by one of the more familiar classical music or opera piece as a teen ager, how likely are you to make the choice to attend an event when you get older? If you feel intimidated by your ignorance of the etiquette and dress code of an arts event, how willing are you to chance going to one without at least some advice from a friend?

Certainly, there are other elements that contribute to attendance that might influence someone who has never attended to start–friends who patronize an organization or the ability to make social contacts that will advance ones career, for example. But arts organizations can’t afford to depend on people’s friend’s and social/business expectations to drive audiences to their doors.

It seems to me that community outreach becomes more and more important these days. It also would seem that the interests of all arts organizations become more and more intertwined. Not all arts organizations can afford to send programs into schools and community centers. Almost all organizations can eventually benefit from the exposure a community gets to the arts if Mssrs. Teachout and Felten are correct.

It might behoove organizations who can’t afford to do outreach to lend some occasional support to those who can. Perhaps it is administrative support, contributing to study guides, constructing travelling sets, helping to book presentations.

Of course, it would also benefit organizations if they did as the Chicago Symphony did took a look at their audience very closely and determined if there were some untapped channels through which they could reach the non-attendees in their target demographic.

Thinking about what these untapped channels to the right people is going to be one of the things I mull over for awhile. I don’t know of many concrete examples like the one given about the Chicago Symphony and classic rock stations. I would love to hear of any unorthodox approaches other people have taken.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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