Does getting them when they're young really work?
I spoke today to the director of the Beaufort Performing Arts Center in Beaufort, S.C. Among other things, we talked about how she has succeeded in attracting Gen X and Gen Y to the theater by appealing to their parental instincts.
"I get them through their kids," she said.
She organizes story hours, puppet theaters, interactive performance art. And every fall there's the ubiquitous "Nutcracker" in which every child and her cousin auditions for and gets a part, packing the theater with proud parents.
This venue director is not alone in targeting children. Every major arts organizations in the Savannah region devotes significant resources to attracting children -- by bussing kids in for concerts, quartering off a section of an art museum for kids or partnering with other arts groups to provide arts activities.
The thinking is: Get hooked on the arts when they're young. But does this really work? Or is this a desparate strategy of an arts community in desparate need of a strategy that works in the face of the millions of other cultural options being offered to children? Is art special enough to warrant special attention? And if it is, can this attention be maintained into adulthood?
Is it possible that at some point, given the intensity of arts marketing being leveled at children, that the arts will be something that's considered child's play? Something kids do, not adults?
Our man in LA, Mike Boehm, had some thoughts on this and other things that he shared with us last week. I wanted to bring them out front for further discussion. -- J.S.
Re: marketing to Gen X: The common wisdom based on RAND and other studies is that when it comes to creating interest in the arts, if you don't catch 'em young, you lose 'em for good.
Obviously, it's important to optimize marketing approaches to the cohort born in the '60s and '70s, but this is a generation that, generally speaking, got the short end of the stick in its arts education, due to assorted economic and political reasons.
They also came up at a time when the arts were being culturally marginalized. The Boomer vibe was influenced by the highbrow Kennedy "Camelot" aura and a celebrity culture in which Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were the ultimate Hollywood glamour couple, and Beverly Sills, Leonard Bernstein and Nureyev and Baryshnikov were mass-media figures; the latter two not just great dancers, but Cold War heroes.
Gen X, to the extent it was paying attention, saw political leaders make a whipping boy of the NEA; they were sold Hollywood glamour couples who were not apt to lead them to Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, and instead of the Beatles' omnivorous example of prominently using classical influences to enrich rock, they grew up with the pointless musical debate over what it meant to be a true punk, and whether music that didn't hew to some outsider Independent/Alternative party line could ever be "authentic."
I don't think anything has changed in the '80s and '90s that might have enabled kids born in those decades to get a contact high on the arts by inhaling the cultural air around them.
So: should the institutional arts groups practice a form of triage and put everything into educational programming and educational lobbying, in hopes of winning the children born in this century and the tail end of the last one?
Under this strategy, they could rope in some Gen X and Y parents via their kids, all the while praying that the Boomers and pre-Boomers now sustaining the arts as audiences and donors will live long and prosper.
Or do they spread scarce resources more thinly and target the Xs and Ys along with the oldsters and the kiddies? Not an easy call.
Overhanging the arts, along with society as a whole, is whether America's leaders tackle the health care and Social Security crises in a way that avoids all-out generational warfare and reaches an equitable and economically sustainable solution.
Suggestion for cultivating Gen X-Y and doing a worthy deed: lifetime passes to museums, theaters and concert halls for Iraq War veterans. Maybe lifetime newspaper subscriptions, too.
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