Chasing the fountain of youth

Involving Youth For those not yet concerned with the need to engage a younger generation in the nonprofit arts, cultural policy wonk Barry Hessenius offers more reason to panic in his new report, Involving Youth in Nonprofit Arts Organizations (available in PDF format), published this week with funding and guidance from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. (Barry is also blogging about the report and the corresponding ”open forum” sessions in his post today.)

According to the report’s opening salvo:

The future of nonprofit arts organizations, large and small, depends on attracting the best new talent to administer their affairs, to serve as artists and audiences, and to act as advocates, boosters, and financial supporters. Given the shrinking pool of younger people and the increased competition for their attention, action to meet this pressing, and increasingly complex, challenge can no longer be left to a vague future date.

Hessenius suggests that some meaningful efforts have encouraged younger artists, but initiatives to foster youth involvement throughout the arts — in leadership, governance, staffing, financial support, advocacy — have existed only within individual organizations, or in patchy clusters of regions or disciplines. The recommendations?

As a field, the nonprofit arts sector needs to intensify its efforts to

  • convince young people of the value of involvement in the arts,
  • widen bridges and lines of communication to the next generation, and
  • involve young people in areas heretofore outside the scope of their experience, for example, financial support and advocacy.

Two immediate challenges come to mind when implementing these recommendations:

First, the nonprofit arts sector rarely, if ever, thinks or behaves as a unified sector, even when addressing such core and common challenges as this. When individual players are already working beyond their capacity, efforts toward the common good seem perpetually on the future to-do list.

Second, the generations we’re seeking to ”convince” have already proven their distrust of marketing and expressed their demand for meaning. A better national campaign about service and leadership in the arts will mean little if the industry isn’t honestly and earnestly interested in providing value to younger generations — through listening, responding, transforming traditional structures and practices, and remaining open to significant change in ourselves.

The best and only way to ”convince” younger citizens that the arts are valuable to them is to actually be valuable to them. That requires not just a change of face, but a change of nature.

Thanks to Barry and The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for informing and advancing the conversation. Here’s hoping we can all turn this productive talk into positive action.


  1. says

    Hi Andrew!
    It’s great to see that more and more initiatives like this are popping up across North America.
    Check out the recently launched Emerging Arts Professional Network site
    We’ve featured your blog in our resources section.

  2. says

    You’ve really nailed this one. Thanks! When they say “convince young people of the value of involvement in the arts,” there’s more than a whiff of “Well, we’ve got something valuable that they just don’t understand, so we’re going to go out and sell them.” Taking the value of the arts for granted, in other words, and assuming that younger people need to be taught about that. Whereas, in reality, younger people have perfectly fine values of their own — as well as finely honed bullshit detectors — and the real challenge is for the arts to genuinely mean something to younger people. To be worthy of them, I might even say.

  3. LCook says

    Hi –
    I read your blog a couple of times a week and find it deeply valuable. Thanks for writing and sharing.
    I wanted to comment on your latest post; I’m a young producer in NYC, that has worked both in and out of the non-profit sector over the past 3 years. Somewhat to my amazement, I found a small for-profit theatre startup corporation (we’ve been called a for-profit company with a non-profit soul) that has given me much more freedom in my career. I’ve been able to pursue the more “out-of-scope” activities listed above (finance, etc) as well as developing shows, finding new artists, and the like.
    It’s also clear to me that for-profit companies seem to be focusing on involving young arts professionals more readily and urgently than non-profits, recognizing the need to begin the training before the current managers retire. The success of their businesses count on it.
    I think the point you made about not just appearing to create value for young folks, but actually BEING valuable in a crowded entertainment landscape is the key to success here for both for-profit and non-profit. It seems that content is king here, as interesting content draws both great artists and great managers of any age.
    I find it a very interesting topic and I hope you continue to post on it…

  4. says

    Good points, Andrew. I’ve got two additional links which might add to the discussion.
    First, Greg Sandow and I had a recent conversation about a quite similar topic: the seemingly low inflow of new, young people into audiences. That series, “Making musical sense by email,” can be found on my blog at . Its conclusions were at least as pessimistic as the ones you reported, although we will admit that we didn’t have good enough data to support too strong a stance, and we didn’t explore too many alternative explanations.
    Second, Drew McManus and I published an article and associated simulation model called “The Dynamic Lifecycle of a Musician” at . That model indicated there may be a structural issue that contributes to a seeming excess of musicians in the marketplace as compared to the number of available positions that pay a full-time wage.
    So, while we may have approached the topic from a slightly different perspective, we seem to have gotten similar results. That might seem to strengthen the claims you make in your essay.
    I’d be interested in your reaction to these ideas.

  5. Barry Hessenius says

    If people get into the report, they will discover that we come to precisely the conclusions you outline — that “convincing young people to become involved in the arts” has to do with informing them how they “might” want to be involved, then empowering them.
    Too often, recruiting the involvement of young people is seen primarily as a means to garner cheap labor. Arts organizations are looking for unpaid part time staff at the lowest possible levels — whereas, the environmental sector (which this study examines in comparison) grants young people real decision-making power and accords them a level of trust and respect the arts often don’t.

  6. Jodi says

    Speaking of being relevant – I recently attended a conference regarding Broadway touring shows – and watched as two members of a creative team, both above the age of 30, looked at each other and laughed at how, unexpectedly, their show had become a hit with the teenage demographic that we all are so desperate to reach. They were the creative team for Spring Awakening.
    For the traditional crowd, there is a a review available (you may have to log in) at or…gasp…lots of individual comments on I-Tunes or myspace (though myspace, by the way, is SO old school according to the teen panel at the same conference. Facebook is the place to be).
    Anyway, these guys were shocked that their show has taken on the buzz that it has – probably about as shocked as traditional Broadway purists might be at the content of the show. This is such a great illustration of what this post is talking about – the show speaks to teens – and so the teens are flocking to it. They didn’t respond to marketing telling them how much they needed to see it. They responded to their peers saying “this show is about us.” I’m not sure what that means for the future, but it’s worth paying attention to.

  7. Scullini says

    “The future of nonprofit arts organizations, large and small, depends on attracting the best new talent to administer their affairs, to serve as artists and audiences”
    This makes it sound like the artists and the audience “serve” the arts organizations — as though the organizations are the purpose, and not one of the means.