X Appeal

The graying of their patrons has arts and cultural organizations making overtures to the next generation.

February 23, 2002|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

It's Saturday night and a trendy young set is mingling in a large room bathed in a funky, orange glow. In one corner, well-dressed people sipping beer and wine are tapping their feet to the sounds of a live jazz band. Hungry hipsters are delicately nibbling on sushi and baby quiches. Nearby, cute bartenders from the chic Baltimore restaurant Ixia are shaking martinis that sometimes bear naughty names like "Aphrodisiac."

The scene drips with such style it could be taking place in Baltimore's hottest new bar, restaurant or club. Instead, the setting is the lobby of the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the gathering of a pre-performance martini party labeled "Symphony with a Twist." It's part of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's spanking new effort to make its musical offerings more intriguing to a younger demographic.

"It's definitely got an anti-stuffy feel," said Erin Guthrie, a 24-year-old assistant radio station manager from Bel Air whose evening at last month's Symphony with a Twist was her first night at an orchestra performance in years. "Going to the symphony usually seems very stuffy."

"But this," her boyfriend, Jeff Brown, 23, added, "almost feels like a special, fun night out somewhere."

Guthrie, Brown and their fellow members of the under-40 set have become more important to arts organizations in Baltimore and across the country in recent years. Faced with graying audiences and a generation of Americans in their 20s and 30s who grew up more attuned to video games and the Internet than Bach and Botticelli, symphonies, museums and opera companies have been faced with a challenging task: building a hip buzz about their offerings.

Even though arts spending nationally has increased - a 2001 National Endowment for the Arts report showed that Americans spent $10.2 billion on arts performances in 1999, up from $4.4 billion in 1989 - audiences are growing older.

A recent NEA-commissioned study, which looked at the age of audiences for seven art forms between 1982 and 1997, showed that in that time period, the percentage of opera audience members over 60 jumped from 17 to 24. Opera-goers under 30 fell from 18 percent to 13 percent. In jazz - a quintessentially popular art form among younger people - 57 percent of its audience in 1982 was under 30. In 1997, the number had dropped to 23 percent, and its over-60 crowd had increased from 5 percent to 15 percent in that time.

These numbers have given arts organizations a jolt. They know that somehow, they have to make their product sexy and cool to young people who already are inundated with a multitude of fun ways to while away an evening.

"It didn't take a rocket scientist to look at our average patron's age when they came through the door, realize it was about 55 and say, `Oh, we've got to get some younger people in here,' " said Lucinda Williams, BSO's vice president of artistic and education programming, who oversaw the recent launch of the Symphony with a Twist program.

"These young audiences are our future," she added. "All things must change and evolve, and orchestras are not exempt from that role. Young people like things with lots of spin and glitz and that's OK. We can do that. Who are we to be the big old dinosaur who just sits on the corner and thinks that we don't have to evolve with the rest of the world?"

The BSO isn't the only local arts organization to realize this. The Walters Art Museum recently began organizing "After Hours" dance nights, bringing in blues or salsa bands, providing a cash bar and munchies and encouraging attendees to tour galleries with cocktails in hand. The Peabody Institute has held successful wine-tasting events called "Peabody Uncorked," and the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington is in the second month of testing a program that provides $10 tickets to select performances to college students.

The Baltimore Opera Company, meanwhile, recently decided to organize a dinner-discussion centered on its upcoming run of Verdi's Otello to generate interest among people in their early 30s.

"A lot of people in that age group are already familiar with Othello because it's a pretty popular Shakespeare play," said Cheryl Bryant, the company's events manager. "We thought that [opera] would be the one that would attract people's attention because of that. ... We thought it would be interesting to have people discuss how it went from being a play to the opera."

Efforts like these are hardly new. Jack McAuliffe, vice president of the American Symphony Orchestra League, said some orchestras began brainstorming ways to appeal to twentysomethings more than 10 years ago.

"The difference is, we've gotten a lot better at it in recent years," said McAuliffe, whose New York-based group provides support for 1,800 U.S. orchestras. "I remember 10 or 15 years ago when there was a big emphasis on singles concerts as a social endeavor. There was some success, but it wasn't particularly lasting because a night at the symphony isn't your best singles function."

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