Art for All

Cultural groups get seriously creative to attract new crowds.

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Cocktail hours! Hands-on shows! Cheap lobster! These are just some of the tools local arts groups are using to attract newer, often younger, crowds. Why this is a new survival skill for them — and what’s in store for you as a result.

In a scene that resembles a high-end wedding reception, Leslie Jones and Kelly Nichols are standing in the center of a lavish hall, surrounded by other well-dressed 20- and 30-somethings. While a DJ spins the greatest hits of the ’50s and early ’60s, they wander among food stations offering samples—Cajun mac ’n’ cheese, an Asian quinoa salad, fish ceviche tacos. And would you like some Stella Artois or Prairie vodka to wash that down? In the next room, an orchestra tunes up.

Welcome to Happy Hour at the Symphony, an event the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra created 10 years ago with the idea that a higher-energy, shorter performance accompanied by food and drink would ease young professionals into its world.

And wow, has it worked. Nichols, 32, who works in retail, has been many times, and on this evening in late May, she brought Jones along for what turned out to be her first time at the Hilbert Circle Theatre.

“I liked the opportunity to check out some different foods and different drinks that I might not normally select on my own if I were at those places,” Jones, 28, an employee in the state’s procurement division, said after attending “The Cocktail Hour: Music of the Mad Men Era.” “And then the music was great. I didn’t really know what to expect—if everyone would be like me or there would be an older crowd. It was cool to see a good mix of Indy residents there just having a good time.”

What the ISO started is something that’s being replicated in one way or another by arts organizations across Indianapolis as they seek to appeal to the next generation of audiences. Free or discounted performances and events, more contemporary and cutting-edge repertoires, increased social media presence, more young blood on their boards—if there’s a way to attract the young-adult element, they’re giving it a try.

Arts institutions ignore the young at their own peril, says Sara Croft, 27, who by day is social media and event manager for Easter Seals Crossroads and by night is a member of the Indiana State Museum & Historic Sites’ young-professionals advisory group, the 1816 Associate Board. “By 2020, 50 percent of the workforce will be made up of millennials,” she said. “That’s a huge number of people with the time and resources to give to these organizations.”

So what does the younger set want?

To be comfortable. To be with friends. To be part of an experience—something more than just a performance. To see something new, rather than the same old stuff. To be offered tickets that are affordable.

And of all the arts organizations in the city, none has a harder job attracting new theatergoers than Indianapolis Opera, which canceled its 2014–2015 season because of budget troubles. It’s general director Kevin Patterson’s job to convince the public—young and old—that opera is not “an old, white, elitist art form that you’ve gotta be rich to enjoy.” That effort started in May with a free concert on The Lawn at White River State Park that brought out about 600 people of all ages to hear short selections from popular opera, Broadway, and orchestra music from the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra.

The opera also has moved from 2,200-seat Clowes Hall to the neighboring 450-seat Schrott Center at Butler University and lowered its ticket prices. “Young professionals don’t have the financial resources, so you have to present the model to them in a different way,” says Patterson. A season ticket for four shows can now be had for as little as $75. Similarly, when Indianapolis Opera threw its annual Lobsterpalooza bash in July, it offered both a young-adult ticket price and an even-cheaper “crash-the-party” ticket for drinks, dessert, and dancing later in the evening.

When it came to programming the 2015–16 season, the opera chose an unconventional schedule that began in August with The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and continues in January with “Opera’s Rising Stars,” featuring finalists from Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions. Nowhere on the schedule is there anything resembling a La Traviata or Madama Butterfly, despite their past successes.

“We took the 10 to 12 chestnuts that made up the core of the opera repertoire and we beat the hell out of them,” says Patterson. “It’s largely like a self-inflicted gunshot wound or a heroin addict who said, ‘That felt good. We sold it out. Let’s do it again.’ We’re not selling it out anymore. We went to that well too many times.”

“We took the 10 to 12 chestnuts that made up the core of the opera repertoire and we beat the hell out of them,” says Patterson. “It’s largely like a self-inflicted gunshot wound or a heroin addict who said, ‘That felt good. We sold it out. Let’s do it again.’ We’re not selling it out anymore. We went to that well too many times.”

Over at the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, executive director Elaine Eckhart says the orchestra is always conscientious about keeping the music relevant. Last season, the orchestra premiered the first three movements of Peacemakers, a new work in progress by composer-in-residence James Aikman. The remainder will debut in April 2016 at Butler ArtsFest. “You can’t just play the old stuff,” says Eckhart. “We’re trying to build the genre and also keep the genre relevant.”

That’s just one of the ways the ICO attempts to attract younger music-lovers. The others include filling its board with them (one-third are under 40), beefing up its social media, playing outdoor concerts (“People won’t necessarily come to us, so we need to go to them”) and continuing a longtime practice of holding post-concert receptions so the audience can mingle with the orchestra members. “It makes the orchestra accessible,” says Eckhart, “and pulls the patrons in to make them feel like they’re part of the family.”

 

There was a time when arts organizations could draw an audience simply by opening their doors. But over the decades, they’ve found that an interest in live entertainment is not so automatic. Arts education has dwindled in schools, and some school districts have curtailed field trips to see performances. Millennials carry a world’s worth of entertainment on their phones and iPads, and if they haven’t grown up with live performances, not attending is not a problem.

“We can’t rely on people seeing our building and wanting to come in and be a part of it,” says Brandee Bryant, spokeswoman for the Indiana Repertory Theatre.

Last year, the IRT established its own Happy Hour series that brought out food trucks and local beers, a program that continues. The thinking, says Bryant, is that younger theatergoers are looking for an experience. Associate artistic director Courtney Sale also has created a new series of shows called The Edge, which begins October 20 with April 4, 1968, a look at one Indianapolis family and their experience surrounding the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and Robert Kennedy calmed tensions here.

“We’re really reaching out to the newer demo that I don’t think necessarily wants to see some of the more historic shows, but they want to see some of that new, raw, vibrant talent,” says Bryant.

Scott Stulen is 40, a member of the tail end of Generation X, and he doesn’t recall his generation getting this kind of attention from arts organizations. But he understands why it’s happening.

“The millennial generation is so large that it can’t be ignored as a demographic,” says Stulen, who was hired in 2014 to be the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s first-ever curator of audience experiences and performances. “Also, the younger generation is not responding in the way older generations may have in the past. Speaking primarily for cultural institutions, if we don’t change—and change dramatically—the way we do business and reach out to our audience and engage that audience and make things more personalized and more interactive, they’re not going to come. And if they don’t come, we’re dead.”

Stulen has in mind events that are surprising, revelatory—happenings that change a museum’s reputation so it doesn’t feel stuffy or old-hat. You don’t have to rewrite your organization’s mission to appeal to the younger crowd, he says, but you do have to revise your approach to let them shape their experience. Along those lines, the IMA offered a summer camp for young professionals in August, a kind of “digital detox” that let the campers put away their electronics to play artist in the woods. On October 21, in recognition of the 30th anniversary of the movie Back to the Future, the plan is to turn the IMA parking lot into a mall parking lot with DeLorean cars and big screens and show the first two Back to the Future films.

Arts organizations, says David Hochoy, artistic director of Dance Kaleidoscope, have to be like his idol: Madonna. That is, he says, “the essence of good marketing combined with good creativity.

“Every decade, she would reinvent herself so that it was always fresh—like a virgin, for the very first time,” he says with a chuckle. “We have to keep on reinventing ourselves and keeping ourselves fresh, because why would people come to see us if we’re stale?”

Toward that end, DK has made some adjustments to its performances to appeal to younger audiences. Works are limited to about 25 minutes maximum, and 90 minutes for each performance, with a repertoire that Hochoy describes as “meaningful and relatable.” Recent shows have featured choreography to the music of Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald, the Beatles, Elvis Presley, and Frank Sinatra. Its last show was The Next Wave, featuring the work of four young guest choreographers who “revamped the whole look of the company,” says Hochoy.

What not to do? Pander.

“Stick to your guns,” says Hochoy. “You’ve got to know what is artistically excellent and you have to stick to that. You can’t water your product down so much that you can’t recognize it. You have to do what you do and do it really, really well.”

Both of Central Indiana’s major performing-arts centers have worked to get younger adults through their doors. Elise Kushigian, who retired this summer after 20 years as executive director of Clowes Memorial Hall, has used a combination of relevant programming and comfort. Additions to Clowes in the past few years have included sippy cups—so audience members can take their drinks into the theater without worrying about spillage—and a series called Clowes Conversations, featuring casual, free discussions that introduced the art form. (One conversation, in advance of Jay Leno’s performance, was “How to Tell a Joke”).

The Clowes 2015–2016 season will include Broadway’s Next Hit Musical, a highly interactive performance; Stomp!; and It Gets Better, featuring the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles—all programmed with an eye toward the younger set. “If we do not get them through the front door, then where’s the future audience?” says Kushigian. “So this is for survival.”

The Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel convened a focus group to ask young professionals what they wanted. Anne O’Brien, vice president of marketing and communications, says the answer, overwhelmingly, was something with a social component. That has taken the form of pre- and post-event parties, and events coordinated by The Scene, the center’s group intended for people ages 20 to 41.

Ashley Albrecht, 32, an assistant Carmel city attorney, is the group’s events chair. She says one of the best events yet occurred in conjunction with a performance by the Japanese drum group Tao. The Scene coordinated with local Japanese-American groups who came in and taught calligraphy, offered an origami demonstration, and held a sake tasting. About 80 people participated.

Albrecht says pairings like this make the event attractive. “A lot of people are intrigued about the music that occurs at the Palladium but are maybe slightly intimidated by it,” she says. “Our demographic might not be as familiar with a lot of artists who come to the Center for the Performing Arts, but they’re great performances, and we’re trying to make it approachable for the 20-to-41 group. We want it to be more of a night out, an event that they would want to spend the money for—which is tight in that demographic. We want it to be an experience for them.”

“If we don’t change—and change dramatically—the way we do business and reach out to our audience and engage that audience and make things more personalized and more interactive, they’re not going to come. And if they don’t come, we’re dead.”

 

The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art also looks to its young-adult group, Agave, to make the museum accessible to others in their age group. Sarah Farthing, the museum’s individual giving and events coordinator, is also its liaison to Agave, whose calendar includes four happy hours a year centered around socializing and learning about an aspect of the museum. For one event, they created a live-action version of The Oregon Trail computer game around the museum—a scavenger hunt that ended with a tour of a new exhibit and social time.

This year, the Eiteljorg will also add a young-professionals’ component to all major events—meaning a lower ticket price. For the museum’s annual fundraiser, the Buckaroo Bash, on October 10, young adults will have the option of a $100 ticket (compared with $250 for others) and even a $15 after-party featuring a silent auction, desserts, drinks, and entertainment. “They’re receiving the 2.0 version of the event,” says Farthing. “They don’t get to go to the whole thing, but they get to go to the really fun end part.”

Farthing is 31, and she says outreach to people in her age group is a must—not only because, as she so succinctly says, “we are the future,” but because “it’s very competitive out there right now, and it’s also very intimidating for this generation. We want to welcome them. We want them to learn to appreciate what we have to offer, but at the same time, do it in a way that doesn’t feel overwhelming to them.”

The challenge for the Eiteljorg is to let the younger generation know that it presents more than Western art. Farthing says that after a 2013 exhibition of guitars, she heard from a number of people in her age group who said, “Who would have thought you would have had guitars from Kurt Cobain in the Eiteljorg Museum? I didn’t know I could have this kind of experience here.”

 

Even organizations that would figure to be magnets for the younger, hipper set have to work to make sure they’re in the mix. The Phoenix Theatre, which typically offers some of the most cutting-edge theater in town, has noticed its audience graying a bit. A search of its database confirmed what the Phoenix already suspected: The typical audience member is 45 to 50 years old, living in a household making $80,000 and up.

“We’ve always done contemporary, social justice–oriented shows and looked at ourselves as the young rebel,” says Phoenix marketing and media relations director Ben Rose. “But the truth is, our patron base is a very educated, cultured group who aren’t necessarily young people. We’ve been very comfortable because they’ve been very supportive, but we’re just starting to reach out a little bit.”

The outreach included this summer’s production of Green Day’s American Idiot and Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, a tribute of sorts to The Simpsons.

A few blocks away, at IndyFringe, which specializes in short, avant-garde, and inexpensive entertainment, executive director Pauline Moffat says her group is working with the Jaycees of Indianapolis and the Indy Eleven’s Brickyard Battalion, many of whom are young small-business owners and entrepreneurs.

 

So, have outreach efforts worked for these organizations?

Back at the Hilbert Circle Theatre, Jessica DiSanto, director of communication for the symphony, says it took until 2009 for Happy Hour at the Symphony to truly reach the place the ISO hoped for. That was when the group Time for Three came on board. The trio, which features Zach DePue, Nick Kendall, and Ranaan Meyer playing a kitchen-sink mix of musical styles, opened its residency with a performance called “Who Says Beethoven and Coldplay Can’t Mix?” a mashup of Beethoven’s Third Symphony and Coldplay’s “Fix You.”

DePue says that as concertmaster of the orchestra, he was nervous. “I was terrified because if this doesn’t work, it’s going to be my ass.” But the performance had the intended effect: It brought out a lot of people to see what the event was and whether anyone could pull off that musical combination. “And they left, I think, very inspired and happy,” says DePue.

Now, DiSanto says, Happy Hour typically brings in as many as 1,000 people eager to mingle, eat, drink, and listen, and the ISO’s young-professionals group Forte uses the events as a springboard to entice audiences to enjoy all the orchestra has to offer. DePue sees the happy-hour performances as the way to open the door for future attendance at the Yuletide shows, Symphony on the Prairie, the 40-minute summer Lunch Break concerts, and, eventually, at the Lilly Classical Series.

“It’s important for people to have things to do culturally in their life,” says DePue. “If you take away the museums, the Cultural Trail, the investments people have made to make our city a better place, what are we going to do: sit around and wait for the Colts’ eight home games? And the Pacers season? They’re great. But that doesn’t seem like enough.”

This article appeared in The Ticket, a 2015 special publication.

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