County arts groups are devising strategies to lure younger patrons
February 1, 2008 10:00 AM
John Heller / Post-Gazette
A study shows that a Pittsburgh audience such as this entering a symphony performance at Heinz Hall has the second-highest percentage of patrons age 55 or older in the nation.
By Timothy McNulty Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ever look around at the crowd when the lights come up at a live performance around Pittsburgh and get the feeling it seems a little old? No need to adjust your bifocals. Your eyes are not deceiving you.
Nearly half -- 45 percent -- of Allegheny County's arts audience is 55 and older, according to data from cultural advocates Americans for the Arts. That is higher than both the national average for that age group and higher than the 55-and-older turnout in such peer cities as Baltimore, Buffalo, St. Louis and Cincinnati.
Graying audiences are a problem for nonprofit arts and entertainment groups nationwide, but the problem gets magnified in Allegheny County, the second-oldest big county in the country. Whether younger people will grow into arts patrons -- the kind of people who will fill seats, buy subscription plans and kick in to fund-raising campaigns -- is weighing on the minds of local arts professionals like Jeremy Kraus.
"Obviously the lifeblood of our organization needs to be a younger audience,'' said Mr. Kraus, marketing director at City Theatre.
"We can't just keep maintaining the same loyal fans, as extraordinary and important as they are," he said. "We need to keep reaching out to build a younger core, and get them in the door at a younger age, and then they will be our core in later years."
To tackle the problem, City Theatre and other arts groups are developing whole new ways to market themselves, using text messaging and other technology to reach young fans; devising ways to make arts experiences unique; and providing ticket discounts, networking opportunities and a splash of booze.
Of course, they are competing with bars, restaurants, clubs, sports and entertainment districts that are trying to do the same thing.
The arts are "just another leisure choice," said Dan Martin, director of Carnegie Mellon's Institute for the Management of Creative Enterprises. "To get somebody to say, 'Yeah I'll go to the exhibit rather than go to Lidia's,' you have to help them understand why that's a better choice."
At the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, the big daddy of local arts groups, the major youth outreach effort has been its quarterly Gallery Crawls, which are entering their fifth year.
Starting with just four galleries in 2004, the crawls -- which feature free art, entertainment, and limited beer and wine -- now have up to 20 Downtown locations, and demographics to die for. The biggest proportion (43 percent) of attendees are ages 24-29; 80 percent are young professionals; and 99 percent say they want to return.
The youth influx adds a different flavor to the trust's overall mission of revitalizing Downtown through art and culture, which it does most prominently through its Broadway series and other traditional performances.
"The Gallery Crawl audience is very, very, very young, but you also get older people Downtown because it's art. ... The mix is really broad and we love that," said Janis Burley Wilson, the trust's vice president of education and community engagement.
The South Side's City Theatre has started advertising with text messages that offer ticket discounts. It has given free tickets to bloggers, adopted ticket and drink specials for groups of women and created a "Greenroom" committee of young leaders that networks for new subscribers.
Four years ago, the theater also lowered prices to its 9 p.m. Saturday shows to capture the Carson Street date crowd, and ticket sales went from a previous average of 100 up to 275-seat sellouts, Mr. Kraus said. On Saturday nights "we have a tremendously younger crowd than we normally have," he said.
Pittsburgh Public Theater offers $15 tickets to those 26 and younger, which helped sell more than 4,000 tickets -- the equivalent of 31/2 sellouts -- to last year's season opener, "Oedipus the King." A regular preopening night networking party, called "Mix@Six," has discounted tickets and free drinks and food.
For 10 years, the University of Pittsburgh, through its PittArts program, has given students thousands of free tickets (and meals and transportation) to more than 100 arts performances citywide, often including behind-the-scenes looks at a production and its stars. The university-funded office also sells some 9,500 discounted "Cheap Seats" to selected performances to Pitt students and staff.
Once the training wheels come off, it's hoped that the students will keep going to arts events after graduation. Asked in a PittArts survey last year if they would do so, 84 percent of students said "yes" and 15 percent "maybe."
"Honestly, I feel there's been an impact" from PittArts, said its director, Annabelle Clippinger. "When I go out, I see more young people and I've not seen snoring or sleeping when I go to the symphony or wherever I go," she joked.
A key to luring the younger arts crowd is simply using language or references it understands.
Kate E.H. Prescott, a Pittsburgh-based marketing consultant who works with corporate and nonprofit arts clients nationally, saw that generation gap firsthand while interviewing young music fans about Pittsburgh Symphony Pops, which traditionally gets an older audience.
"When I'd say to younger people who don't go, 'Do you like pops?' they would say, 'What, do you mean like Britney Spears?' They didn't know the word," Ms. Prescott said.
Communicating clearly also requires technology, and not just the text messages and blogs City Theatre uses. It also means being able to book and print tickets online, and to constantly monitor and respond to audience preferences. While commonplace in the for-profit arts community (such as Ticketmaster), the cash-strapped nonprofit world is still catching up to this Web-driven segment of the population.
Young people go online "in other parts of their lives, but as of yet, they are not able to do it as much in the arts. That's just essential for ease of consumer access," said Janet Sarbaugh, senior arts and culture program director of Pittsburgh's Heinz Endowments. "Organizations large and small here are thinking about that and will have to work together to pull it off."
Still, some traditional cultural organizations find it best not to focus too strongly on audience age.
A study Ms. Prescott did for the American Symphony Orchestra League in 2001 found the average orchestra attendee nationwide was age 57; fewer than 10 percent of the audience was under 35. The numbers simply reflected the fact that older attendees had more time, more spending money and had "reached a stage in life when self-improvement, continuing education, and enjoying new experiences are very important," her study found.
In other words, older audiences remain the bread-and-butter for many organizations, like the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. While it has adopted many current youth-building strategies -- increasing its Internet presence, creating a young professionals group, offering discounts and educational opportunities to students -- the PSO has found that mining its traditional, older base is the best way to fill Heinz Hall.
Since 2004, when the PSO re-focused on selling subscriptions (rather than single tickets) for its Mellon Grand Classics and PNC Pops series, it has had its best sales in a decade. "This goal," audience development senior director Doug Kinzey said in an e-mail, "tends to focus on more traditional audiences."
Some arts groups, with the help of the Heinz Endowments' Arts Experience initiative, are not focusing on audience age, income or other demographic categories at all. Rather the foundation is pushing for deeper audience participation in events, with the hope of strengthening bonds between people and the arts.
The worst thing arts groups can do, said the Heinz Endowments' Ms. Sarbaugh, is assume young people do not like art and will naturally age into seasoned arts patrons.
"I think if you have the right introduction to [art], everyone can enjoy it. Finding new ways to do that, given the huge amount of competition for young people's time, is the real challenge we have," she said.