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Young at art

Performance arts organizations try to appeal to a new audience.

MARKS: "Young people don't want to commit four weeks in advance."
  • MARKS: "Young people don't want to commit four weeks in advance."

Evan Marks, the new director of marketing at the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, hasn't been on the job a month, but has a good sense of who dominates his new employer's audience base: “The industry term is ‘the blue-hairs,' ” he said recently.

The situation isn't unique to the symphony. Other prominent local performing arts institutions, like the Rep and Wildwood Park for the Performing Arts, are more hesitant to cast their base in demographic terms (or don't have the information at their disposal), but both admit that an older crowd plays a crucial role in their stability. As, perhaps you'd expect: people grow old, accumulate wealth and support their interests. But that seemingly natural trend, may be coming to an end, according to Marks.

“The big challenge we've seen in orchestra is that the lifestyle of baby boomers has been totally different than the past generation. Older generations, when they hit retirement age, they want to do the arts and culture scene, to be entertained and go for nights out. The baby boomers want to travel to Europe, to have a second career, to have adventure, to be more active.”

That prospect, of 78 million soon-to-be retirees opting not to prop those institutions up, has arts professionals in Little Rock (and countrywide) ramping up efforts to attract a long coveted group — young people.

Perhaps the most obvious impediment? Programming. Performance arts groups face the impossible task of appealing to their base and drawing new, younger patrons. The solution: something for everyone.

“We make a concerted effort to offer a diverse season,” said Kelly Ford, director of development and marketing at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. “The downside is that there will be plays in the line-up that certain segments of your subscriber base don't care for. If we were in a major market, like Chicago, we could afford to be very specialized and do nothing but the classics or nothing but Shakespeare or nothing but social justice. In this market, we can't afford to be that specialized.”

Last season, the Rep had a record-breaking year at the box office thanks to a trio of standbys. “Les Mis” was the theater's highest grossing production ever. “The Foreigner” and “It's a Wonderful Life” drew record crowds, too. The Who's “Tommy,” aimed at boomers and a younger audience, was an “artistic success,” Ford says, but ultimately lost money. This year, Second City, the Chicago-based comedy improv troupe, seems primed to have success with a younger audience.

A program built largely around opera seemed to keep young folks from Wildwood Park for the Arts in the early part of the decade. But as soon as Cliff Baker took over as CEO and artistic director in early 2008, he started talking about opening up the 105-acre park — replete with a lake and 625-seat theater — to a broader, younger audience. So far, he says, his seasonal festivals — “Blooms” in the spring, “Harvest” in the fall and “Lanterns” in the winter — have done just that. All have attracted, on average, an audience of 60 percent to 65 percent young couples with kids, he says. Each festival combines elements of crafts, food, music, nature and theater.     

“This is the idea that a multi-arts discipline builds a different kind of interactive audience. You can attract people who may only be interested cooking and expose them to a whole variety of arts.”

Interactivity is a goal the Symphony's Marks talks about, too.

“We're really struggling to move from an observational experience where you're not really interacting, to something that involves you and give you an opportunity to also interact with the musicians and the conductor.”

The solution could be as simple as getting the conductor to provide insight from the stage, he said.

Marks' relative youth — he's 26, a recent graduate of dual arts and administration and MBA graduate program at the University of Cincinnati — gives him special insight into what he needs to do to steer his peers to performances. As the ASO searches for a new conductor (most all of the candidates are young-ish), he hopes to build on anticipation excitement by creating a young professionals group this season. He's using the Toronto Symphony's group as a model. There, according to Marks, the group offers free membership to anyone under 35. A week before a concert, it releases a number of tickets at reduced prices — “Young people don't want to commit four weeks in advance” — for good seats, where members sit near like-minded people their own age. Members might also get deals at restaurants and bars around town to lend the performance a “night out” feel, too.

Pairing theater with nights out is key to the Rep's strategy to spark a youth movement. The theater hosts six or seven fund-raiser parties annually — everything from a fashion show to (for the first time this year) a day at the races.

“If they come to your special events and have a good time, then they're more likely to come see a show. If they figure out that the Rep is a cool place and can throw a great party, then they're more likely to take a chance on buying a ticket,” Ford says.

That's been the message from newly elected Rep board member Adam Melton, 30, as he tries to steer his peers to the theater. “Too many people don't know about the Rep. They don't know about the economical ways to see a good production. It's just about getting people to come try it out, building on word of mouth, on the idea that the Rep is a place where you're going to see your friends.”

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