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August 20, 2007

Does getting them when they're young really work?

John Stoehr

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.

Posted by John Stoehr at August 20, 2007 3:30 PM

COMMENTS

The "get 'em while they're young" school of thought seems to inform the giving strategy of both private and public funding sources as well. It is near impossible, in cities outside of the Big Four, to get funding for educational programs that target adults; however, children's programming, especially if it is pitched as remediating the lack of same in public schools or audience-building for the future, is an easy sell.

Posted by: Julia at August 21, 2007 6:59 AM

What the "get-em-while-they're-young" strategy fails to address is that when kids grow up, they're going to buy tickets the same way as their Gen X/ Y parents: one event at a time. Season subscriptions are basically dead for people under 40; who wants to commit to that much, that far in advance, with entertainment dollars? When kids now become adult arts consumers, the marketing models will have to evolve to meet their of-the-minute desires. Gen X and Y'ers are a bit lost to theatre because the funding models don't match the realities of how they spend money.

One advantage of marketing the arts to kids is that it, in effect, markets the arts to families. I have a two-year-old and getting a babysitter more than doubles the cost of even a cheap theatre ticket, so I don't see half the shows I used to when I was childless. Museums that make it possible to bring my child, and theatres that offer family/ children's options, are going to get the majority of my dollars at least for the next few years.

I love great adults-only edgy theatre, don't get me wrong, but the effort involved to orchestrate a night out is almost more than it's worth. I don't expect theatres to provide babysitting, but boy, do I patronize "pay what you can" events. Not to be cheap in supporting good work, but because my true cost of attending the event is invisible to the theatre companies (It's between $5-$10 an hour for babysitting where I live). Perhaps marketing to families actually does more to reach Gen X'ers who missed out on arts ed, because it addresses the financial realities of patronizing the arts by incorporating kids into the experience.

Posted by: habeas at August 21, 2007 8:19 AM

... now that I've caught up with the rest of your recent postings (when do you have time to do *real* work?): A chief reason that "marketing the arts to the young" has become a basic strategy has little to do with Gen X or Y or Z and their changing tastes/contexts/outlooks.

Polls have repeatedly shown that Americans are queasy about public funding for the arts (or can be made queasy when the culture wars rage and congressmen wave pictures of naked gays and pundits go on about pointless abstract modern art). But our approval shoots up when the
arts funding is tied to education. Education has become a major way for arts institutions to sell themselves -- every art museum, theater, dance company has some form of "outreach program," as I'm sure you know. The positive factor in this is that they're stepping up when No Child Left Behind has pretty much eviscerated what was left of public school arts education (the good/bad news about NCLB's effect on arts education -- my wife teaches elementary school theater -- is that while the arts aren't getting any attention or money in the frantic race to
boost test scores, the arts aren't having to race to boost test scores).

The arts can use whatever money they can get in this country, and arts education needs all the help it can get, too. But as you note, even with arts education helpfully "shielding" the arts from political criticism (it's Shakespeare for kids, for God's sake, you gonna attack that?), it ultimately "infantilizes" the arts. Artists and arts administrators keep getting reduced to cultural nannies, limited in what they can say or present.

Posted by: book/daddy at August 21, 2007 8:35 AM

Putting myself back into my youth, "the arts" made a real impact when the event came as a surprise, not as an even flow that I was accustomed to. LP vinyl discs and that great thing called stereo!!! came out while we were children, and my dad threw together his own Heathkit system. He had an early stereo tape recorder, with rudimentary earplug headphones. No one "arts" impacted me more than that novel sound. In fact, we played "Thousand Strings" albums constantly, and my mom was a painter. It wasn't until a disgruntled college professor literally locked us up for an hour in the classroom and put on a Haydn symphony that I became passionate about classical music. "Switched on Bach" was another level. I designed sets for a small opera company, but it wasn't until the death of the grey and stodgy conductor and the arrival of a passionate pinch hitter replacement that I even cared. He was the kind who threw cast parties with piano and chamber music starting at midnight. I took up the cello and violin as a result. One could also look at China, deprived of classical music for so long...now its most passionate advocates. Just a few ideas. Perhaps we ought to "lock up" so it is discovered and cherished.

Posted by: Carol at August 21, 2007 8:48 AM