Arts Organizations – Do Everything You Can to Engage College and High School Students

bendoverbackwardsI’ll say it right out front.  Arts organizations, you should be bending over backward to get college and high school students in your doors;  but not just in your doors, you should be welcoming, engaging, and educating them.  In 2012, the National Endowment for the arts released it’s report How a Nation Engages with Art – Highlights from the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts.  One doesn’t need NEA data to tell us the audience for the arts is aging or shrinking (that is in there too).  Just look around the next time you attend an event.  But, for the sake of scientific back up, let’s look at their numbers for participation for 18-24 year old individuals.  For classical music, it is the 2nd lowest age range, for musical theatre – second lowest – after 75+, non-musical theatre – lowest (an abysmal 6.3%), and art museum or gallery, second lowest after 75+.

I don’t want to be too dramatic, OK, maybe I do.  But to me, the survival of the arts in our society is dependent on arts organizations rethinking their approach to young audiences.  Here are my suggestions.

  • Stop thinking of them as a revenue source, just do whatever you can to get them in the door; even if it means not charging them a cent. Find a way. Consider it an investment.
  • Start thinking of them as your future patrons, donors, and board members; as well as potential continued members of the community in which you operate.
  • Don’t just get them in the door. Welcome them. Be hospitable. Create an environment in which people their age want to be.
  • Embrace their unique qualities. They are curious. They want inside information and access. They use social media like crazy. They travel in packs. They are socially conscious; have tons of time commitments, but, they love a good reason to gather socially. Give them what they want, especially when it comes to social media.  Create space for that, and I don’t mean in the furthest darkest corner of your auditorium or facility.
  • Educate them.  Provide pre-show and post show talks regularly (conversations, not lectures), pre-show gatherings with artists, really good program notes; whatever it takes. Give them the knowledge and experience to be educated arts participants.
  • Build relationships with those who can help you gain access to them.  I am talking about me and people like me, or student activities staff, or residential life staff, faculty, and others like us on a college campus.  We want more than anything for our students to have an amazing college experience and that includes their engagement with the community. In a high school, use the PTA, the Principal’s office, teachers, tutors, you get the idea.
  • Consider your product and the packaging.  It better be great – remember they are social media experts.  And, you need to tell them what they are getting and why they should come.  Persuade them, don’t just assume they will come because they “should”. It also better be palatable. Seriously, who has the time for a three hour concert or show anymore, let alone a college or high school student?
  • Try not to separate them from your regular constituency.  There is so much value in an inter-generational arts experience.
  • And finally, track them!  If you get them in your door, get their information somehow.  You can’t invite them back otherwise.
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2 Responses

  1. Ty, Great to see this article and thank you for your inspiration all those years you were at Penn. Campus Philly just launched Open Arts (www.openartsphilly.com) to foster the relationships between students and arts organizations you describe here. Thanks!
    Deborah Diamond, Campus Philly

  2. Why stop with High Schoolers? Get the Middle Schoolers too!

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