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Culture Clubs

Arts organizations try to entice young professionals with cocktails and edgy content—but can they convert partygoers into patrons?

Culture Clubs
Photo by Matt Vincent (Illustration)
ON A RECENT SATURDAY EVENING at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, after regular visitors had long gone, the courtyard appeared to be the setting of a swanky wedding. But the soiree was for the Circle, the MIA’s young professionals group. Ironically, a partygoer could have made it through the entire night without encountering art, aside from some sculpture outdoors and trips to the bathroom through art-lined corridors. Yet the museum hopes these fashionably dressed crowds, sipping butler-served pomegranate martinis and listening to live music, comprise its next generation of patrons.

As audiences continue to age, the question of how to get 20- to 40-year-old bottoms off bar stools and into performance halls and galleries nags most arts organizations. And the answer, it seems, often comes down to this: Offer them a cocktail. The Ordway Center for the Performing Arts recently launched the Urbanites, a group for young professionals interested in a night out with a side of culture. The Minnesota Orchestra started the similar Crescendo Project this year. The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra began Club 20/30 in October, offering $10 tickets online along with some discounts at nearby bars. And the Guthrie Theater is convening a group of young ambassadors to help determine how to make theatergoing as hip as its new building.

The concept is not unique to the Twin Cities. The San Francisco Symphony started Symphonix in 1988 with the same idea, and New York’s Museum of Modern Art began its Junior Associates group in 1990. The Walker was among the first local arts groups to catch on. In 1997, it launched Walker After Hours, a monthly arty party designed to attract new members. (These days, After Hours is held only occasionally, to open exhibitions.) Its success—generating 5,500 new memberships before the format changed—inspired many imitators.

As many arts organizations see it, the problem is this: These days, when people enter their late twenties and focus on careers and kids, there’s often little time to sit through operas and not always the money to pay for a subscription of plays. Small wonder, then, that recent surveys indicate arts audiences, on the whole, are indeed growing gray. The highest patronage rates are among 45- to 64-year-olds, according to the National Endowment of the Arts’ 2002 Survey of Public Participation of the Arts. The median age for patrons of all art forms has increased between 1992 and 2002 to the mid-to-late forties. And the Twin Cities isn’t ducking the trend. The Guthrie audience’s median age is 45—whippersnappers compared to the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s average age of 63.

This focus on aging audiences annoys some long-term arts observers. David Hyslop, the 65-year-old former Minnesota Orchestra CEO who now serves as a consultant to arts organizations nationwide, says that with 78 million baby boomers preparing to live a lot longer, we should get used to—even embrace—the fact that gray hair will dominate the arts scene for decades. Besides, the stereotypes don’t always hold true, Hyslop says—at a recent Minnesota Orchestra performance of Bach, he sat beside a young bike messenger, still in uniform.

The fact that arts groups are eager to recruit young professionals does not necessarily mean that overall attendance is in trouble; on the contrary, the Twin Cities scene is generally healthy. It’s simply a new, less direct form of outreach. Research by Next Generation Consulting, which is based in Madison, Wisconsin, and helps arts groups reach young patrons, suggests that performances and exhibitions, in and of themselves, aren’t much of a draw for this demographic. Instead, young professionals generally “view art as a place to be social and connect with people,” says Marti, the firm’s mono-monikered co-CEO. Its surveys found that 20- to 40-year-olds attend cultural events first to learn something, second for social networking. Supporting an arts organization is last on their list of reasons to attend. In fact, the art experience itself may absorb as little as one-third of these patrons’ time and energy, a cringe-causing concept for arts community veterans used to programming for connoisseurs.

Julianne Amendola, associate director of development for the MIA, has no illusions that every attendee of the Circle gatherings is an art lover. But she hopes that “they look at the museum in a new way…maybe down the road they do come back.” Be generous with the drinks, in other words, and perhaps the drinkers will one day be generous with donations.

Past efforts to start a young patrons group at the MIA didn’t take off; it just wasn’t a priority among the board of trustees, Amendola says. But this latest attempt has been pushed by a couple of young trustees, including Eric Dayton, son of former U.S. Senator Mark Dayton—and it appears to be working. Amendola had hoped to net between 400 and 500 new members from the Circle in its first year; a few months into season two, they had just over 800 members.

Not everyone, however, agrees that the recipe for developing life-long art patrons is social hour first, art second. “I strongly feel that at the end of the day the programming either speaks to people or it doesn’t,” says Trish Santini, the Guthrie’s external-relations director. “For me, the opportunity to be successful is to put the event around a piece of work I believe will feel meaningful and relevant to an audience.” She uses Jane Eyre, a core novel in high school English classes and now a play, as an example of a story that might just strike a chord with young theatergoers.

Hyslop would rather the arts world “shake up some traditions that are off-putting,” he said, such as orchestras wearing formal attire. And, in fact, non-traditional programming by the Minnesota Orchestra has worked to draw non-traditional crowds: Recent concerts featured Elvis Costello performing with the orchestra and music from popular movies, such as Lord of the Rings. “I’ve never seen more people with pointy ears in our lobby,” says Cindy Grzanowski, the Minnesota Orchestra’s marketing director.

The Minnesota Opera’s Young Professionals Group (YPG), begun in 2003 with the expectation of attracting 20 youthful opera lovers, entered this season with nearly 160 member subscriptions. Its success seems to demonstrate that young people may be more open-minded with their time and money than some think. Or they’re discovering, at any rate, that opera isn’t as difficult or expensive as they might have presumed. “If you can go to a bar and pound a couple back, you can go to the opera,” says Minnesota Opera marketing and communications director Lani Willis. Of course, YPG membership helps: YPG members score $100 opera tickets for the bargain price of $30. The deal is a loss for the organization, Willis says, but the company is committed to the program. Eventually, after all, the gray hairs—however numerous now—will need to be replaced.

Should the party-as-culture trend fade away, what will arts groups try next? The Walker is focusing its recruiting efforts on the relatively young and affluent. Its Collectors Group has a $2,000 membership fee, and its film society attracts cinemaphiles (for a $500 fee) to special screenings and post-show receptions. The MIA is thinking about offering the well-heeled within the Circle a way to collectively acquire a piece of contemporary art. But until then, you’re invited to simply enjoy a martini with a Matisse, some vino with your Verdi.

Kara McGuire reports on personal finance for the Star Tribune.

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