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.

You Are Paying For It After All

I was reading an article recently in the California Aggie that spoke of the trouble attracting UC Davis students to the Mondavi Center (article no longer available). Since student fees underwrite the Center’s programs, the administration would like to see more students attending. Only 13% of students attend performances that include people like Michael Moore, Bill Clinton, Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman. When dance and theatre department shows are in the spaces, attendance jumps to 50% (though ticket prices drop).

Granted, students may be required to see the departmental shows which may boost attendance. That is about the only element besides price I could see given reasons like lack of incentive and interest and difficulty securing good seats. Certainly the same could be said of the department shows.

This is a problem I have been faced with when working at universities and a question people ask if I have a solution to. I don’t really have a solution at all outside of the usual channels of student newspapers, etc. Given how much people use email and instant messaging devices, that would certainly be a direction to explore. It would just be a matter of finding an effective opportunity to get students to provide their addresses so you can send updates. How to make sure your messages don’t get ignored like so much spam is another thing altogether.

Given my philosophy of making it easy for people to make a decision to attend, I was attracted to the Mondavi Center’s tactic of putting daily ads in the student paper that only had the student prices listed rather than a half page ad with all the pricing listed which ran only once. Apparently it has begun to pay off for them as student ticket purchases for the remaining 50 shows of the season (out of a season of about 120 events) has risen to 17.2%.

The Center would also like their audience to reflect the racial diversity of their constituency base, but haven’t found as promising an answer to that as they have with their students.

It strikes me that more and more in the future appeals will be made to audience segments rather than audiences in general. The very fact that people can find programs pitched directly to their interests on the myriad cable channels means people’s vision is becoming increasingly tunneled.

I recently saw a program that pointed out that in the 1970s, a prime time program on one of the 3 available networks was ranked around 40 in the Nielsens and had something in the neighborhood of 17% of the viewers. Today shows like Survivor which are heralded as shows everyone is watching are actually only attracting 17% of the viewers because of all the choices available. The failures of yesteryear are counted as the blockbuster successes of today.

Usually, arts organizations can’t even consider advertising on TV and that is even more of an impediment today if you have to consider that one part of your demographic predominantly watches the Home and Garden channel, another A&E, another the History Channel, Discovery, TLC, etc.

The fact they are catered to changes people’s expectations slowly in other areas as well. They may seek newspapers, social groups, radio stations, etc that cater specifically to them rather than ones that are generally aligned with their interests. Trying to reach people is going to become increasingly difficult as time goes on I believe.

I will try to find some research that supports or refutes this idea, but until then. Anyone have any comments or thoughts?

Return From Detroit

So I am back from my Wayne State interview. It was very exciting and quite a valuable experience in terms of simply having a forum to explain my views on theatre management theory and practice and how to teach it. It certainly sounds different when you are talking about it than when it is part of an internal dialogue.  Honestly, in some cases I was surprised at how intelligent the words coming out of my mouth sounded. Inevitably, some of it didn’t sound as good or I couldn’t explain as clearly as I would have liked.

The program at Wayne State seems to be a very good one and I would certainly like to be affliated with it. Apparently their approach is bucking the current thinking about theatre training and their U/RTA membership is in jeopardy. To me, their program seems like a valid alternative and more valuable to the students than being in a program that does the bare minimum to be in compliance. If nothing else, my visit has provided more subject matter to mull over and present here on the blog.

I apparently hadn’t completely understood a question one of the faculty asked me. Another staff member clarified his intent later and I was a little disappointed because it was in relation to a topic I had given some thought to and could have answered more clearly than I had.

The question was in relation to attracting an audience to the theatre which was better reflective of the population of Detroit which identifies itself as 85% African-American. It is certainly a difficult question and not one I am entirely comfortable about answering given that I am white and discussing the behavior of other races is risky.

Still, it is a valid area of concern and one I have thought about because I believe theatre managers should devote some consideration to solutions in this area regardless of their race. We are among the best educated about an arts organization’s abilities and options. If we don’t think about these things, who will? I believe there is a greater sincerity in the intent of arts organizations to involve and expose diverse audiences to their product than in the motivation of most companies and politicans to attract the same groups to their products and causes.

The following is an excerpt of an email I sent him today. I believe it is a fair assessment of the situation and doesn’t make terribly erroneous or biased statements about the way things stand. I think the biggest argument against it could be is that I (and my questioner) are implying that different races should be valuing/assimilated into the entertainment choices of caucasians. This is certainly a valid point and one could engage in a lengthy debate about the value and validity of European based entertainment for people who come from outside that tradition and the benefits that caucasians can derive from exposure to multicultural arts At the moment I am only trying to find one solution for a small piece of the larger puzzle and debate. It is starting point in terms of pursuing a goal of attracting a more diverse audience for any tradition.

I wrote:

The answer, of course, is not an easy one. It is a matter that I have given some thought to over time. I have perception/theory (you may have actual evidence and feedback as a result of your efforts), that the problem is partly a matter of acculturation. There is the often cited idea that only rich, educated people attend arts events because tickets are more expensive than movies and the arts can be intimidating to understand. However, walking into a theatre, it doesn’t take much effort to conclude that only rich, educated, white people attend arts events.

I think it is easier for a caucasian to one day make the decision to start attending arts events and surmount the intimidation factor because they saw it was something their parents valued (even if they tried to rebel against all their parents stood for) or it allows them to make social contacts that will advance their career or even as a result of some idea that attendance is what one does when one reaches a certain stage in life. Even if it is not an overt influence, there is a subliminal influence of shared cultural values that may not exist as much in other racial communities. If you aren’t white and you walk in to a theatre and see who is on stage and in the audience, it is not hard to imagine there is a subliminal influence against you attending

In addition to all the things I said yesterday, I would add that attracting an audience can be a matter of tapping the resource of opinion leaders, whether it be newspapers and radio stations that serve a racial niche, or actual people. The thing that springs to mind first is churches. This is a good place to look across the board since people who are invested in regularly attending events together can be a desirable group. The fact that presidential candidates are going to churches to woo the black vote is pretty strong evidence that they are places of influence.

Theatres often invite tour operators, critics and other decision makers/people of influence to shows they are trying to promote. It might be useful to invite ministers to shows or rehearsals, have a dinner/reception before hand, provide them with educational and informational packets, talk to them about the shows and answer questions. Essentially make it easy for them to recommend the shows to other people.

Of course, there has to be a commitment to presenting suitable shows across a season. Having a single show that has a particular resonance with a group and expecting people to become enamored of your usual fare is akin to the PGA trying toget more men interested in watching golf by televising women in tight shorts and skimpy tops playing one weekend and then going back to the regular schedule the next.

As I am certain you are aware, there is a fairly limited canon of shows that might be of interest to specific groups, even including shows with universal themes which can be cast using people with a similar racial background as your target audience. And because there are so few shows like this, it is difficult to cast shows with diversity. Therefore, fewer non-whites find satisfaction in being an actor which provides fewer faces audience members can identify with on stage which keeps the audience more homogenous.

It is the old Catch-22. Audiences want to see people/themes they can identify with, actors want to see audiences and perform roles they can identify with, theatres are more willing to produce shows that will have an audience to sustain it, those shows present themes their current audience base can closely identify with. I am sure I am not telling you anything you don’t already know or haven’t considered.

Actually, if any training program has a chance of success in attracting a diverse audience, it is Wayne State. I met/saw more diversity among undergrad and grad actors there than anywhere else I have been. Of course, the truth might be that I met all the actors in both programs. When I was at the X Conservatory in Y, they had a terrible time trying to maintain diversity in their program. Because of the limited role choices, etc. many of the men and women they admitted didn’t feel fulfilled by their experience and left the program in their first or second year in search of another program that might serve them better.

I don’t have any short term solution for the problem. It is all a matter of what I was saying in the meeting yesterday. Repeated exposure to a topic/way of thinking can slowly alter perceptions and plant positive associations about the theatre in people’s minds. There has to be a long term commitment to putting the right combination of people and shows on stage, putting the touring company in front of the right groups, bringing in the right matinee groups. Eventually you hope the message will come across that the theatre is financially, geographically, intellectually, socially, etc accessible to audiences.

I don’t know if this helps at all, but perhaps it will provide some clarity and inspiration that will allow you to arrive at a solution of your own.”

Anyone with other viable solutions? Let me know.

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