Wooing Generations X and Y

David Hoppe

The Great Beast, as Alexander Hamilton called the American people, is probably the most polled, analyzed and researched animal on the planet. Lately, those parts of the beast's anatomy commonly known as Generations X and Y have been receiving special scrutiny.

In Indianapolis, that scrutiny has taken the form of a large-scale survey called "Developing Next Generation Arts Audiences." This survey was commissioned by the Arts Council of Indianapolis with funding provided by the Lilly Endowment. It was produced by a firm out of Madison, Wis., aptly named Next Generation Consulting (NGC).

The survey was born of a felt need on the part of many arts and cultural organizations here to better understand how to attract adults between the ages of 20 and 40. These folks constitute the next wave of audience development. The problem is, they're not showing up at many of our arts institutions in large enough numbers. What should be a wave looks more like a ripple.

Compounding this problem is the fact that Indianapolis has been paying attention to the ideas of urban economists like Richard Florida, whose research suggests that talented young professionals, the so-called Creative Class, are drawn to communities, not jobs, and that they place a high value on a lively cultural scene. The local embrace of Florida's ideas has been a boon for many arts organizations, resulting in increased public funding and a building boom.

But in making the arts an integral part of public policy here, there is also a new kind of pressure to perform. Implicit in the increased support for the arts is the expectation that our cultural resources will help plug the brain drain and make Indianapolis a destination for a new generation of entrepreneurs.

So where are they?

NGC studied trends affecting audience development in Indianapolis and across the country. It conducted focus groups of under-40 "high impact users" - people who attend 10 or more arts events a year. A team of 24 local arts professionals was also trained to conduct in-depth interviews with 85 diverse under-40s representing a wide range of different tastes and behaviors and, finally, recommendations were developed "for the programming, formatting, and marketing needed to successfully attract and retain younger audiences."

The survey was presented to a gathering of arts professionals and advocates at the Circle Theatre on Feb. 24. You can obtain a complete copy of it at:


Let it suffice here to say that "Developing Next Generation Arts Audiences" consists of two broad sections. The first of these addresses what younger adults are looking for when it comes to arts experiences. Then comes a fairly detailed section on how to market via e-mail.

At the Circle Theatre gathering, most of the questions from the floor concerned marketing and e-mail. I hope this was more reflex than genuine response because the heart of the survey cuts deeper than that. According to NGC's findings, "The next generation wants to be engaged at a level beyond the art itself. The next generation wants a creative experience that includes learning, connecting, and/or sensing."

The arts, says the survey, are part of the new "experience economy." This means that it's not enough to simply sell a younger customer a seat, you have to offer opportunities for that customer to directly engage with other audience members, the art being presented and the people who are creating it.

This sounds intriguing, but the report is woefully short on examples. Apparently many people who had seen Cirque de Soleil performances used that experience as a kind of shorthand for what they were talking about. Others mentioned having been moved by their visits to ancient cathedrals. And the Children's Museum came up frequently, too.

Perhaps the most interesting observation turns up in a supplement to the survey called "A Comprehensive Literature Scan," where the authors note, "Especially for the next generation, there is little discernment between arts and entertainment. Walt Disney was the grandfather of the experience economy ... Disney and the Disneyification of American life have left young consumers craving side orders of entertainment alongside experiences ranging from retail to dining ... and yes, to the arts."

This can't be good news for arts organizations whose understanding of their mission includes the upholding of certain traditions, the most notable of which may be the idea that art is something that happens in a plush piece of downtown real estate. Won't it be ironic if the end of all our building projects will be to discover that the Next Generation prefers its art site-specific? That is, more fully integrated into the web and woof of the city itself.

Rebecca Ryan, the head of NGC, seemed to recognize that what the survey suggests might represent a pretty big gulp for some organizations; that it might be too much for some of them to swallow. Ryan reminded everyone at the Circle Theatre that there was no law requiring them to go after Generations X and Y. She said this with a straight face. She said it more than once. But she didn't mention the law of the jungle - and that's what this survey is all about.


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