"Ready for the next generation?

It is September, the start of another arts season in Indy. Theaters are launching new productions, galleries are presenting new shows. It’s safe to say there’s more happening here than ever before. Take a look at the NUVO Arts Guide – it’s 56 pages.

Over at the Arts Council of Indianapolis, Greg Charleston and his team of arts advocates should allow themselves a 30-second break to bask in the afterglow of a successful Start With Art luncheon while looking forward to the official opening of London sculptor Julian Opie’s installation of public works at sites around town.

There’s no denying that the city is making headway when it comes to the arts and culture. Having said that, though, you’ve got wonder if Charleston is shaking his head as he looks over what’s on offer at many of the city’s arts institutions – I know I am.

Last February, the Arts Council hosted a gathering at the Circle Theatre to unveil the first results of a survey, “Developing Next Generation Arts Audiences,” prepared by Next Generation Consulting, a firm based in Madison, WI, that specializes in demographic research pertaining to adults between the ages of 18 and 34. Next Generation Consulting assembled a team of local interviewers and sent them into the community to talk to a cross-section of younger adults about their attitudes toward the arts and arts events. This had the potential to be ground-breaking work. Rarely, in a single city, has this generation’s relationship to the arts been studied in such a systematic way.

But this survey constituted more than an academic exercise. The motive behind it had to do with the fact that many arts presenters, particularly the older and more established organizations, are concerned about the lack of younger faces they see coming through their doors. They sense a disconnect between themselves and younger people and they know  that to survive and thrive they’re going to have to do something about this.

The room was packed at the Circle Theatre. Rebecca Ryan, the CEO of Next Generation Consulting had people smiling and knowingly nodding their heads as she flashed her findings on a screen. These findings were divided into two broad categories, the first having to do with what next generation audiences want and the second with marketing.

That first category was the most challenging. “Simply stated,” according to the text of the report, “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. Nationwide research shows that the art itself, although a critical component, may no longer be what draws patrons to arts events.” The report went on to say that we are moving into what’s called “an experience economy,” where actively engaging the customer, or audience member, is crucial. “Experience,” stated the report, “trumps mission.”

This was strong medicine. So it wasn’t surprising that most of the people in the room seemed more inclined to ask questions about the mechanics of using email for marketing. If the new art season is any indication, it appears that many of them learned this lesson well; I know my in-box is jammed with missives about plays, concerts and exhibits on a daily basis.

But I’ve got to say that it’s a little disconcerting to browse through the 2006 Arts Guide and see how little attention has been paid by local arts organizations to the first part of the Next Generation report. With the notable exception of the IMA, which, you could say, has added an entire new floor in order to woo younger patrons with contemporary art, our established organizations seem to be in a state of denial when it comes to the next generation. It’s a nice touch that some of our groups are serving drinks before performances – the better to sleep through what follows.

In fairness, of course, one must concede that it’s still early and that it will take some time for the town’s artistic directors to absorb what it means to turn what they do into experiences that younger audiences may find attractive. It is also true that, on some level, the Next Generation findings are not just a challenge but an affront. This is more than a matter of including a new style, for many it means changing the way they think about a lifetime of training and practice. That’s why you hear so many in the arts community complaining about the lack of arts education in schools. There are many reasons to lament this shortfall – but one of them is that it fails to condition people to want what’s already here.

When it comes to attracting younger audiences, it appears that the advantage lies not with our risk-averse arts institutions, but with a new breed of younger arts entrepreneurs. What smaller ventures may lack by way of regular pay and a fixed address, they can make up for with nimbleness, ambition and, yes, creativity. For the second year in a row, the recent IndyFringe festival served as an excellent introduction to a variety of new players in our performing arts scene. And the city’s gallery scene continues to grow.

Greg Charleston and his colleagues need to find innovative ways to help these folks do their work and win recognition. They are the best hope this city has of becoming a cultural destination. These artists don’t need a consulting firm to tell them what the next generation wants – they are the next generation.   

 

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