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Arts groups target young audiences: Research, events focus on luring new patrons

January 2, 2006

When you're trying to lure 20-somethings to your door, it apparently helps to offer booze and cheap seats.

Those are common themes of new programs at several local arts organizations concerned with cultivating new audiences and patrons to replace the aging baby boomers.

Two cases in point:

Jagermeister, a liquor usually happily forgotten by the over-30 crowd, is a sponsor of Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's upcoming Happy Hour concert series.

At Phoenix Theatre, audience members on the first Thursday of every play's run are treated to a question-and-answer session with a professional involved in the production-and the timing coincides with half-price martini night at Scholar's Inn Gourmet Café just down the street.

Both series offer tickets for less than $20 and, in the case of the Phoenix, previous events have succeeded in drawing new crowds, organizers said.

ISO, Phoenix and several other arts organizations are at the forefront of a local movement to draw younger audiences to their events. They and other groups hope a study under way by a Madison, Wis.-based research firm will give them more direction and hard evidence of what works and what doesn't with younger arts patrons.

Last month, Next Generation Consulting President Rebecca Ryan gave a midstudy update to a few dozen representatives of the local arts community. Based on early feedback, ISO, Phoenix and other groups might be able to close the liquor cabinet.

"A lot of arts groups think you are going to have to serve beer and have free tickets [to draw younger crowds]," Ryan said. "Those kinds of things aren't necessarily true."

Spreading the word

What may matter more than freebies is good, old-fashioned marketing-but with a few 21st-century twists, Ryan said. Those in their 20s have grown up with the world literally at their fingertips via the Internet. They expect information and tickets to be easily accessible-buying tickets online just a day or two before an event, for instance.

The study, which includes interviews conducted by 25 volunteers from the local arts community, also has hit on a key facet of attendance patterns: Some people are more likely to invite others to arts events, while other people go only if someone asks them. So focusing marketing on the "initiators" might do more to boost attendance at arts events than would a broader-based effort.

How to do that? Ryan touts two Web sites: San Jose, Calif.'s Artsopolis.com; and FlavorPill.com, which surveys the arts scene in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and London. Those sites point the culturally hip to the hottest new cultural and arts attractions in their respective cities, Ryan noted. More than a mere listing, the sites also offer reviews and, in the case of San Jose's site, a central ticket office.

"FlavorPill is using arts aficionados to influence people who see the arts," she said. "One of the things Indianapolis could probably benefit from is to talk to other people about what's cool."

The final results of Next Generation's study will be unveiled Feb. 24. Ryan expects the study to gain attention far beyond the local community for a couple of reasons. First, it's one of the first times an arts community-not just an individual organization-has invested in finding out more about the people who will make up tomorrow's board members, donors and audiences, Ryan said.

"Businesses understand you have to know your market intimately," she said. "Arts organizations, for some reason, have been insulated from getting into that."

Eyes on Indy

Next Generation was hired last year by the Arts Council of Indianapolis, using a grant from the locally based Lilly Endowment. This is the first time the firm has worked with an arts community, Ryan said-most of the time it's hired by businesses, or by municipalities seeking to stem brain drain and attract younger residents and workers.

And the research in Indianapolis is unusual for another reason, she said. One of the requirements of Lilly Endowment's grant was to use local people to conduct the research in an effort to get the arts community involved with the research that could shape its future.

So in September, the Next Generation staff trained 25 people to conduct 60 interviews with young people from a variety of racial and socio-economic backgrounds. Some of the interviewees already attend arts events frequently, while others don't.

Those have been finished, and the study is now focusing on Internet surveys available through the Arts Council's Web site at www.indyarts.organd at www.nextgenerationconsulting.comthat ask respondents of all ages about their arts/cultural habits. More than 600 Web surveys have been completed so far, Ryan said, with a goal of 1,000 before the project wraps up.

"We anticipate other arts communities will be really interested in this," she said, noting that some estimates put the average age of a U.S. arts patron at 52 and rising.

As audiences at arts events continue to gray, more arts communities-and even the aging patrons themselves-will seek changes in programming and marketing that draws in a wider audience, Ryan predicted.

Local arts officials, even those who are already implementing measures to take the wrinkles out of their audiences, say they are eagerly awaiting Next Generation's findings.

"It's been interesting to see some of the research they've shared. Some of it is things we've already incorporated," said Chad Miller, executive director of the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, which launched an informal "Chamber Conversations" series this year.

At Chamber Conversations, held in the main hall and Clowes Sculpture Court of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, audience members sit at tables of four to eight people and listen to short musical pieces interspersed with information from ICO members, who are dressed more casually than at typical performances.

It's not meant to be a lecture, Miller said, but is full of the sort of interesting tidbits people might repeat at a cocktail party. Audience members may bring their drinks with them into the performance-a no-no at most arts venues.

At the second Chamber Conversation event, about half of the 130 or so people attending indicated on a survey they had never attended an ICO event before, said Miller. Of those, half were under 40.

Furthermore, almost everyone under the age of 40 was new to ICO, Miller said.

After this season, Miller's not sure how long Chamber Conversations can continue. Much of the cost is underwritten by a grant from the Christel DeHaan Family Foundation, and ICO's not sure if crowds will continue to come if ticket prices rise above the current $20.

That's the kind of issue he hopes to gain insight into from Next Generation's work.

"Part of the idea is to keep it affordable," he said. "It seems to work really well, and the feedback has been phenomenal."
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