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.
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.