THE BLOG

I Like Older People

01/24/2011 08:24 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

At virtually every discussion I have with board members of arts organizations (and many discussions with other arts managers as well), the desire to attract younger audience members is a primary topic. The issue is typically introduced by someone commenting negatively on the age of most current audience members: "Our audience is too old. Everyone has gray hair. Our audience members are likely to die away. We need a younger audience. How do we get young people to come to our performances?"

While I appreciate the spirit of this question, I don't really agree with the mindset of the speakers who speak as if the missions of our organizations are not aimed at servicing senior citizens. And the fear that the older audience members will die out is not exactly justified. Many people, as they reach middle age, increase their arts participation as their discretionary time and money increase; these people replace those senior audience members who do pass away.

I agree wholeheartedly that we must build the next generation of audience members, donors and trustees. We want younger people to enjoy our performances. Culture is for everyone, not just senior citizens. But there is an implicit bias in the way the topic is raised. Somehow, younger audience members are deemed to be more highly-valued than their parents or grandparents.

I could not disagree more. I value tremendously my senior audience members who, in most cases, have been the most loyal and generous supporters of the arts in their communities. Without their financial support, my institution, and many others in the community, would not be viable.

Looking to diversify our audiences does not mean we should turn our backs on, or reduce service to, seniors or other mainstays of our audience.

I have witnessed arts organizations that change their marketing strategies or programming to attract younger ticket buyers so dramatically that they lose their seniors. When I arrived at the Kennedy Center in 2001, the National Symphony Orchestra management was attempting to attract younger subscribers. They decided to design the season brochure in a manner that might appeal to 20 and 30-year-olds. The brochure looked more like a piece appropriate for BAM than for the NSO. In the event, not one young person was fooled by the marketing materials; the only impact of the new design was that many of the senior subscribers could not read the brochure and did not renew their subscriptions!

When older people are our most loyal ticket buyers and certainly our most generous patrons, this can't be a smart strategy.

There are ways to attract younger audience members but they rarely have anything to do with marketing gimmickry. Younger audiences are looking for repertory that appeals to them and pricing they can afford. They learn about our performances in new ways, often through social networking sites and almost always from peers. If we want younger audiences, we must make a substantial commitment to programming for them and marketing to them. We can't trick them into coming.

I am actively interested in building the participation of younger people in the arts. But I love my older audience members and will continue to court them.

I recall the song from my childhood: "Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold!"