Scathing report

I urge everyone to read a report from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation about the participation — or lack of it — of younger people in the arts. Its formal title: Involving Youth in Nonprofit Arts Organizations: A Call to Action. I was alerted to this by a reader who saw it mentioned in Andrew Taylor’s terrific blog, and when I read Andrew’s post, I thought he nailed one problem the report has. More on that later.

But the report tells some unpleasant truths, and cuts through some of the fog we still find in discussions of youth issues in classical music. Read it and see!

It outlines a crisis. Here in the fumbly confines of the classical music world, we’re still not sure (well, some of us aren’t sure) that our audience is aging. Well, it’s more than the audience. How about the staffs of arts organizations, their volunteers, their boards, their funders? Or even simply people who think the arts matter, and support arts funding? These people are aging, too, the report warns, and may not be there in the future.

And it gets worse:

There are fewer people in the generations immediately behind the 78-million-strong group of boomers, signaling greater competition for workers in every field in the near future….

According to the Employment Policy Foundation (EPF), between 2003 and 2013 over 30 million new job openings (in all fields, for-profit and nonprofit) will be created for candidates with at least a two-year college degree. However, only 23 million new graduates will be available to fill these positions, leaving a shortfall of qualified candidates for 7 million positions. And given that younger people don’t seem to care about the arts…

Which, by the way, isn’t some vague fear, or unsubstantiated theory:

According to a study released by the National Endowment for the Arts in November 2006, “The Arts & Civic Engagement: Involved in Arts, Involved in Life,” based on a 2002 survey of 17,135 adults (ages 18 and older), young adult (18 – 34) participation in the arts has declined over the past twenty-year period. Attendance at performing arts events showed a marked decline, 18-34 years old went from having the highest rate of literary reading across all adult categories to the lowest rate, and the rate of volunteerism by the 18 to 34 age cohort declined as well. If young people are less engaged in the arts than they were just twenty years ago, that may make it that much more difficult for the arts sector to recruit and retain the participation of this age group.

Another quote:

As changing global economics impact national and local jurisdictions, fierce demands on scarce resources may further reduce public funding for nonprofit arts organizations, making it even harder to maintain current, or hire new, staff. Scores of worthy causes and dramatic natural and human emergencies continue to lay claim to public generosity, resulting in donor fatigue. Future projections suggest that the nonprofit arts sector must make a concerted effort to connect with the next generation of donors in order to attract a market share of philanthropic giving. There is no guarantee that the patron system of wealthy individuals supporting certain cornerstone cultural institutions in our larger cities will continue; the new generation of civic philanthropists may indeed abandon them and shift their support to other priorities.

This new generation of civic philanthropists may have already emerged in New York, where there’s been a shift in money and power from the Upper East Side (the traditional old-money ‘hood in New York) to more recently trendy downtown areas like Tribeca. And where does the classical music audience — and hence classical music donors — come from? Still the Upper East Side. Worse yet, people from the new power neighborhoods don’t buy many tickets to classical music events. Where will the donors of the future come from?

And then there’s this:

[There is] an obvious and drastic effect on recruitment of the next generation of leaders and staff. Declining public funding of the arts and increased competition for funding from other sources make it almost impossible for all but the wealthiest arts organizations to offer competitive pay packages….This means nonprofit arts organizations invariably find themselves disadvantaged when searching and competing for the best candidates in the small pool of qualified young leaders.

Read further in the report, and you find that arts organizations aren’t doing much about any of this. The Hewlett Foundation is located in California, and the writers of the report surveyed many California arts organizations. Only 19% had programs to recruit younger audience members. Only 4% targeted young people as potential donors. Just 3% tried to involve younger people in arts advocacy. The Los Angeles Opera has one of the more promising programs aimed at younger people. Its annual budget? $2500. The total LA Opera budget is more than $10 million.

Other than nurturing the next generation of artists, the nonprofit arts sector has done little to capitalize on its present bridges to youth. To date, there is no systemic approach to the challenge of generational succession in the areas of governance, membership, advocacy, or financial support.

The one problem with the report? It keeps saying that younger people have to be taught the value of the arts and culture. Not so — they have arts and culture of their own. It’s just not the kind of art and culture that people in “the arts” keep talking about. If people in the arts want to sell their kind of art to a younger audience, fine, let them do it. But they’ll never succeed if they don’t respect the art that younger people already have. And maybe “the arts” need to expand to include the art that smart younger people identify with, even if, by traditional standards, much of gets labeled as popular culture. Or as Andrew put it, much more sharply than I have:

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.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    Greg, thanks for emphasizing the importance of the report. That message is consistent with one you and I developed in a dialog at With admittedly scanty data, we demonstrated that the data you had is consistent with a fall-off to zero (or very close to zero) in the inflow of new young people to audiences. We’d need better data to make a solid pronouncement, but it’s scary.

    Ann Daly made three interesting suggestions in her comment on Barry Hessenius’ blog at The first was to put young people on the boards of orchestras. Perhaps put differently, a board seat shouldn’t necessarily be a reward (or request) for big donations. Give board seats to those who can do the most good to advance the cause of the orchestra; separate giving from governance.

  2. Stephanie says

    I think the most important aspect of this blog is your statement that we need “to respect the art that younger people have.” I got into a rather heated debate today with our local classical music critic who was complaining about the high school students attending today’s matinee subscription concert and their clapping between movements. Granted, today’s crowd was a bit over-eager, clapping even in the middle of a movement when there was a rest longer than a beat. They should have been better prepared by their teachers. But the critic was adamant that the orchestra should include a no-clapping announcement with the “turn off your cell phones” announcement, and the conductor should feel free to “shush” the crowd. She felt that not demanding traditional concert behavior (“traditional” meaning 20th century tradition, which I tried to point out to her) was “dumbing down” the art form. Implicit in that statement, IMO, is that people are “dumb” until they are fully educated and converted to our way of doing things. I believe that’s part of the attitude that’s gotten orchestras to where they are today, perpetuating the elitist stigma and frightening away potential audiences. There are too many entertainment choices today for us to alienate people through simple disrespect. There is a difference between “preference” and “right-ness.”

    Good points, Stephanie. Thanks. And, you know — the “tradition” of not clapping between movements is not just a 20th century tradition, but a late 20th century tradition, not fully established in the US until the 1950s. It’s amsuing to see the things people equate with intelligence — silence, obedience, passivity. I’m tempted to look at this in a very different way. If the audience doesn’t react, we can’t tell what they’re thinking, and so we don’t know if they’re intelligent or not. From that point of view, the way we “traditionally” play classical music now looks pretty dumb.

  3. Anonymous says

    Having the arts “expand to include the art that smart younger people identify with” seems to me a purely semantic solution to the problem. If we simply call whatever it is young people happen to be interested in “the arts”, then of course “the arts” will continue to be of interest to younger people. But this is like lowering the drink driving rate by raising the legal alcohol limit, or preventing cheetahs from becoming extinct by expanding the definition of “cheetah” so as to include leopards.

    Not at all.

    The situation right now is more like this: the cheetahs are talking as if they’re the only carnivorous cats. So if their numbers begin to decline, they scream that the very existence of big cats is threatened, even if leopards and lions are thriving.

    People in “the arts” often talk as if their kind of art is the only art there is. That’s not even remotely true, and insisting on it is a likely step toward suicide.

  4. says

    Dear Sir,

    I just discovered your blog, and for sure I’ll be back.

    One short comment -it’s actually late over here right now.

    If young people read less books, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they learn less. (they have internet…) I shall say of course “we” have internet…

    A small statistic: in the Sibelius Academy (Helsinki, Finland) 70 persons applied this year to the Arts Management dept (master’s degree). Two years ago -previous program- 80. They accept finally 15. Shall I tell them to move to the US, since here the market is incredibly small?

  5. BP says

    OK, as a young person (age 22) who has been reading this and other classical music blogs on and off for some time, I have to chime in. This might be rambling, and respond to other things I’ve read on this blog as well as this post. Because I am pressed for time, and lazy, here are some loosely related points in a numbered list:

    1) Young people and their popular culture are not monoliths. Some young people listen to Top 40 radio and some listen to free jazz and art rock. These are not the same young people, and they are not going to like the same things, ever. So you need to decide which young people you want.

    2) You’ve expressed concern on this blog about classical music being perceived as snobby. I’m not sure that’s the right attitude. The social snobbery associate with classical music is of course bad and should be gotten rid of. But aesthetic snobbery, I’m not so sure. In our culture the default attitude toward music is that it is good for working to, or relaxing, or partying, or singing along to in the car. This is why most people listen to mainstream pop, which is designed for this (and I won’t deny enjoying some of it). But basically, it’s music for people who don’t care about music very deeply. The people who do care a lot about music tend to have more discriminating taste, and by virtue of having this attitude they are called “music snobs” or “hipsters.” But that’s not really bad. For one thing, these people are considered, for lack of a better word, cool, and arbiters of taste. For another, it means there are already a lot of young people who are music snobs, in this sense.

    3) Classical music–the best of it, anyway–is clearly music for people who care deeply about music. I.e., music snobs, in my above, non-pejorative sense. So the question is: why are the young music snobs not already listening to classical music?

    4) Well, some are. But the ones who aren’t, I think, are put off by a combination of things. One is–and this is one of the things about which I agree with you completely–the social snobbery. Going to classical concerts seems like a kind of status symbol for old rich people; there are the arbitrary rituals (not clapping between movements), and the standing ovation has become de rigeur, suggesting that no one is listening very critically. But, paradoxically, that translates into not enough musical (as opposed to social) snobbery, rather than too much–the young people who might be inclined to love classical music are put off from classical concerts not because they treat music too reverently, but because there seems to be too much extra-musical social baggage attached.

    5) That means adding more baggage is the wrong way to go. Our young potential classical music listeners are likely to find interactive demonstrations, fancy mood lighting, programs explicitly geared at young people, etc., to be gimmicky and condescending. Having musicians mingle with the audience before the concert, I could take or leave…I think different people might react in different ways, though I think I would be inclined to find it a little forced. But one of my favorite venues is the Stone on the Lower East Side in New York, where there’s no food or bar and people, mostly young, just sit in plastic chairs and listen to music.

    6) In general, classical music should avoid trying to be “cool.” Trying to be cool is more or less the definition of lame. I remember you once held up the Apple store in New York as a positive example of the kind of space in which classical music should be presented–I would argue that it’s the opposite, a symbol of our burgeoning hyper-consumerist “indie yuppie” (to use one magazine writer’s phrase) culture. Our young music snobs will run from this like the plague.

    7) So how do you draw young people to classical music? With more interesting programming–the music itself, not the way it’s presented. But you already agree with this. I just think that if music institutions were serious about presenting lots of new, interesting music, rather than doing a new piece here and there for variety, younger audiences would come on their own, without needing to be lured.

    8) This means that certain parts of the repertoire probably will die. Anything that was basically written as light entertainment–Handel operas, Mozart’s serenades, romantic virtuoso showpieces–are just not going to be popular in the 21st century. When I want pure entertainment I listen to pop music. So stressing how fun classical music can be isn’t really the point.

    9) You’ve written that the idea that you need to be educated to enjoy classical music is a pernicious myth. I agree to a point. But symphonic movements, for example, make a lot more sense if you’re familiar with their conventions, like sonata form. You could get an intuitive sense for the logic of sonata movements by listening to a lot of them, I suppose, but isn’t it easier if someone just tells you what’s going on? Also, some of the pleasure of listening to classical music really is intellectual–it’s more fun to listen to a Bach fugue when you can delight in how artfully he employs his contrapuntal devices, or to a piece by Berg when you appreciate how much he can derive from a single tone row. There’s no point in denying the intellectual aspect–plenty of people, especially the ones who are going to be the most reliable classical listeners, like it.

    I’m probably sounding like a reactionary who thinks classical music should be really dour and no fun at all, which is not what I mean–but value as light entertainment is never going to be its selling point, and no one is going to keep coming back to classical concerts and buying classical records except for the same reason they always have: because they connect deeply with the music itself.

    Thanks for this. Very thoughtful, very important. I could add that there are many kinds of classical music, and many reasons anyone (young or old) might like those many kinds. There are many ways to present music, too, and many responses people will have to these presentations.

    So, for whatever it’s worth, I’ve seen younger people respond to classical music in a less austere way than you suggest — responding to lighting, etc., because the groups that use it (the Kronos Quartet, most famously) seem to do as an essential part of the way they present the music. Certainly I agree that nobody smart is likely to respond to gimmicks, but one person’s gimmick might be another person’s delightful art. You find these debates going on among people who like all kinds of art forms. Why not classical music?

    Finally, I don’t think that the older generation of classical listeners came to the music for any deeply serious reason. It was there. It was expressive. Above all, it was familiar. That’s my story — my parents both listened to classical music, so it was natural for me to do it. I didn’t understand it in any deep way when I first discovered it. I just got caught up in the sound, and that sound seemed to me the most natural thing in the world. I didn’t have any gap between myself and Mozart, when I first heard Mozart. His music could have been written the day before. How would I know that it hadn’t been? It showed up in my household with no baggage from the past.

    Later on I became a professional, and learned all sorts of sophisticated things (about classical music, I mean). But I really can’t stress this enough: The deeply serious side of classical music (and especially its formal constructs) were not at all why I started to like it. And I think that’s true for most classical music lovers of my generation, which means the current (older) classical music audience. For someone coming to classical music from the outside now, and certainly someone who’s older than I was when I started liking classical music (I was a kid in single digits) things will obviously be very different. Classical music is only one of many kinds of music out there, and it carries a reputation for seriousness and complexity. Maybe, for some people, that’ll be the appeal.

    But I suspect that younger people (and others new to classical music) will — and in fact already do — find classical music appealing for all sorts of reasons. That suggests that all sorts of presentations are likely to be effective. My own goal would be to break down some of the external differences between classical concerts and other kinds of musical events, so that the music can start to speak for itself, and evoke — in a more diverse audience than it has today — all the responses it possibly can.

  6. Anonymous says

    How many decades are we going to keep lamenting the graying of audiences? This “sky is falling” routine has to be at least 50 years old by now, and here it is surfacing again. (Remember “The Quiet Crisis” about 20 years ago? Same thing.) Friends, if all the folks with gray hair and money haven’t died off by now, then when? Oh! That’s right! They keep making old people with money!

    And what if the time comes when there is no viable market for professionally organized classical music concerts? If that were to happen, what would go away are the fund raising executives, boards of directors, women’s committees, the paid staffs of music organizations, artist managers, and most of the rest of the parasitic infrastructure and hangers-on. But take heart: there will always be musicians making music. They are, happily, the cockroaches who survive the nuclear winter; the bumblebees who fly because it’s their nature, whether they are aeronautically endowed or not. And music listeneners.

    And, as long as music is made, people will listen.

    If you’re an arts manager, don’t put too much stock in these occasional studies that inevitably point to diminishing revenue streams and lack of music education causing the demise of future of classical music. That prediction is flawed and ultimately false, but insidiously negative because if you become convinced you’re in a death spiral industry, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, snap out of the thrall and make up your mind that you are going to succeed no matter what, then roll up your sleeves and make it happen. As compelled as your musicians are to perform, that is how dedicated you must be to succeed in making their performance possible.

    My advice is to focus on creativity and musical artistry because stimulating programs performed powerfully by talented and passionate musicians is what keeps and builds audiences. Anything else is a distraction.

    In another 30 years when the Boomers are in nursing care, global warming is causing poverty, disease, starvation and global migrations, and Jenna Bush is running for President of Iraq, you are not going to be worrying about who is pouring tea at the Tuesday afternoon reception or whether the ignorant, unwashed masses are clapping between movements. Trust me on this.

    Oh, dear. Blind optimism shows up here once again. And very nicely written its latest statement is, too. But notice the lack of facts, data, specifics.

    Any response I might make would have two parts. First, the facts unfortunately show that the classical music audience has been getting older for 50 years, which is (to put it mildly) quite a long time. The graying of the audience would therefore not be a trivial thing, not a random cultural fact, which might shift the other way at any moment. Instead, the trend would seem to be a really long-term development, with deep cultural meaning. Especially when you look at the data on younger people in the audience, whose numbers (as a proportion of the total) have been falling drastically for more than two decades now. That would suggest that the audience (at least for mainstream classical events) will grow smaller. And in fact the data shows that over the past 10 to 20 years it in fact has been growing smaller. Thus the mainstream part of the field is contracting. And while there are still younger people who absolutely do want to play classical music, they now assume that it’ll be harder for them to make careers.

    But that’s the boring part of my response. The other part is simpler, and more lively. It’s really a shoddy use of history — or rather a shoddy disregard for it — to blithely say “things have always been thus, and always will be.” Look around. Many things do change. Many change drastically. Imagine someone in Hollywood in the 1950s: “Westerns? We’ll always make westerns. The power of the frontier in the American consciousness will never diminish. Besides, the public loves westerns.” Or an educator in the 1920s: “Educated men [women wouldn’t have been mentioned] will always study Latin and Greek. That’s the basis of our civilization.”

    Or, for God’s sake, the repeated, disgusting, affirmations of male supremacy and white supremacy that routinely showed up, for centuries, even in the most sophisticated, progressive circles. One of the biggest (and happiest) surprises of my era was the emergence of the women’s movement. Iin 1950, nobody was predicting that true equality for women would become an active social issue in less than two decades. Instead, all the old assumptions were largely unquestioned — women belonged in the home, they should serve men, women whose primary focus was their careers (there was even a disparaging name for them: “career women”) were cold, and emotionally deficient.

    If this could change, after centuries — millennia — of unquestioned acceptance, the shrinking of classical music would be seem relatively unremarkable.

  7. Paul A. Alter says

    I want to ensorse the posting by bp. I agree with some of it and disagree with some of it, but I respect all of it.

    It is possible that I am reading meaning into it, but my inference from what bp writes is that more young people will come to classical music when classical music becomes more relevent to young people. I emphasize, over and over, that through most of its history, classical music incorporated dance music, marches, and other aspects of physical movement. I’m not saying that all of a composition was dance or march, but there were sections of the music that was. For example, as recently as Mahler, we have the landler popping up.

    We are just now coming out of an era in which composers who wanted to be taken seriously avoided connections to popular styles. It is also an era in which interest in classical music waned. Maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe it’s cause and effect; I’m not in a position to say.

  8. Paul A. Alter says

    I don’t understand the objections of Paul Botts to the arguments offered by BP and — I infer — my approval of (but not necessarily complete agreement with) that message.

    In fact, I flipped to the posting by PB on another site and found points of agreement between BP and PB.

    Among the several arguments stated by BP is that a lot of the crud being done now — light shows, meet the musicians, topless cello sections, et al — are likely to drive young people away rather than suck them in. And, since BP appears to be part of the demographic we are trying to reach, we should welcome, and give serious consideration to his/her comments.

    The portion of BPs message that I would like to emphasize is that young people have their own culture, and it is not necessarily inferior to that of the older generation — the generation that brought you Enron, Vietnam, Iraq, global warming, muti-ton automobiles, AIDS, the decline in newspaper subscriptions and TV news viewing, and other accomplishments too numerous to mention.

    For example, us old fogies moan and groan that young people don’t read and are, therefore, not literate. But the literary medium today is motion picture and TV and the computer, and they are far more literate in those fields than their predecessors. Whereas, movie making used to be an arcane art, mastered by only a few, today kids in grammar school are producing impressive works. I’m not a literary historian, but I’d say the movies of the last century have developed to about the level of “Beowulf” or “The Canterbury Tales” of the blood and gore dramas of Shakespeare’s time. Now, we are getting documentaries from Gore, Moore, etc, and fictional shows that we can start to regard as literature.

    Orchestras need to serve as museums that preserve the works of the past. But they can best accomplish that by providing some thing that fits the oncoming cultural change.