April 22, 2002

What Arts Organizations Are Doing to Attract Younger Patrons


By Mary E. Medland

It was not a single epiphany, says Todd Schultz, when the Los Angeles Opera realized it should begin courting younger audiences, no moment when he and his colleagues looked out in the crowd and were taken aback to discover that the audience was predominantly middle aged or older. And yet the awareness, however slow in dawning, spurred the organization to action.

The opera's leaders came to realize that to maintain sufficient numbers of subscribers and donors, it needed to continually add younger ones, says Mr. Schultz, the organization's director of sales and marketing. So about five years ago, it began courting young professionals by creating two membership programs, Urbanites for Opera and Opera Nouveau. Opera Nouveau, geared toward novice opera fans, features only one production, while Urbanites for Opera offers a discount subscription to four productions. The Urbanites' group doubled its initial 100 subscribers in a year, thanks to an aggressive advertising campaign. The two programs' members are gathered for a joint social event, organized by Mr. Schultz's department in the hope that the more established Urbanites for Opera members will persuade the Opera Nouveau audience to join their ranks.

One result of such efforts: Mr. Schultz reports that the median age of the company's audience has dropped from about 50 in the early 1990s to 44 now.

While a decade or so ago most fine- and performing-arts organizations were not overly concerned about attracting younger audiences, that is no longer the case today, says Barbara Sacerdote, director of development for the Pacific Northwest Ballet, in Seattle. As their current audiences and donors age, many arts groups are aggressively seeking to court younger professionals -- whom they hope will become significant donors. And the approaches they are taking could serve as models for other types of charities that hope to attract more young supporters. A scan of arts groups around the country reveals that they are wooing younger patrons though a variety of interconnecting efforts: membership programs that feature special social and fund-raising events, recruiting younger trustees, reaching out to members of ethnic groups, and, to a limited degree, creating special programming.

Tracking Donors' Ages

Continually attracting young patrons is crucial to any organization's future, say arts-group fund raisers: They are the buffer against economic downturns, state and federal spending cuts, and the inevitable loss of older donors. "These are the individuals we will depend upon in the coming years, and their support is very important to the future of arts organizations," says Larry Horne, director of planning and development at the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival. "Attracting them requires more thought and needs focused attention to understand their interests -- what they want to see and what they want to do -- and to keep the momentum going."

But even finding out exactly how old a group's current donors are can be difficult, says Sandra Gibson, president of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, in Washington. Such information is scarce among arts organizations. "People tend to have a bit more demographic information about their audiences than about their donors," she says. "It's a critical issue, and we just don't have the data we need."

In addition to data about donors' ages, says Mr. Schultz, many arts groups lack an understanding of how long it takes a new subscriber to become a donor and how long they can expect new donors to take to increase the amount they give.

Asking people for their ages has often been viewed uncomfortably, much like requesting information about religious affiliation or marital status, says Ann Kaufmann, assistant director of development and membership at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, in Kansas City, Mo. The museum, she says, has begun asking donors to check an age range, such as 25 through 30, instead of a specific age, when filling out donation forms.

While it is important to find out how old an arts group's patrons are, says Mr. Schultz, it is also key to know why they go to performances and exhibits or why they stay home. "We realized that people in their 20s and 30s are busy getting married, raising children, and establishing careers," he says. "Many in this age group were not exposed to arts-education programs in school, and they have other preoccupations, so it made sense that most of our audience was above 40. These are the people who have the time and the money to become subscribers and donors."

Like the Los Angeles Opera, the Pacific Northwest Ballet was slow to realize the need to attract younger donors. "Even as recently as 10 years ago, the focus was on high-end donors, while age was a secondary consideration," says Ms. Sacerdote.

Yet the slow but steady increase in the average age of its audience grew harder to ignore: By 2000, the average age of a season-ticket holder had crept up to 55, compared with 53 nine years earlier. "We realize we have to instill a love of ballet in younger audiences, so that when they have the time and money, they will be more likely to support us," says Ms. Sacerdote.

The ballet began by chipping away at the perceived barriers between its art form and its prospective audience. In the spring of 2001, it began a new advertising campaign, which uses images of individual dancers in street clothes, rather than the traditional tights and tutus. The intention, Ms. Sacerdote says, is for donors to sense a more personal connection to the artists, and for younger people to feel that ballet is more accessible to them.

Membership Groups

The most common method used by arts groups to attract young patrons appears to be the development of membership programs aimed at this audience. Such groups garner their members through a combination of advertising and word-of-mouth referrals. The members are nurtured with special ticket prices and social events, and sometimes are offered more contemporary programming. Such membership programs also give an organization's staff members, board of directors, and longtime donors a chance to get to know which young people might be most likely to support the group in the future.

In addition to social gatherings and special performances, virtually all of these young groups sponsor an annual fund-raising event aimed at younger audience members -- often with discounted tickets designed to appeal to people at the beginning of their careers. For example, the Young Friends of Art, a membership group of the Nelson-Atkins Museum, offered tickets to its event for as little as $10 apiece -- and still managed to raise $10,000 from ticket sales alone. And the revenue produced from those events can be significant: The Dallas Museum of Art's Junior Associates' membership rates start at $50, for example, but its most recent event raised $80,000, according to Diana Duncan, the museum's director of development.

The work that goes into planning such events not only raises capital, but also educates young men and women about the needs of an organization, and can increase their commitment to that organization, says Ms. Kaufmann, of Nelson-Atkins. Then, she says, as those younger members become more financially and professional secure, they are typically asked to give more.

Some arts organizations solicit the grown children of current donors in building their membership rolls. The Public Theater's Young Patrons Committee, aimed at supporters ages 25 to 32, is led by a woman whose family has supported the theater for several decades. Over the course of four years, the program's membership has doubled from 250 to 500. "Many of these young professionals come from families where supporting the arts is an important venture," says Mr. Horne.

Arena Stage, a theater in Washington, began going after even younger patrons four years ago, as it inaugurated its "Arena Stage College Nights," which feature $10 seats for students. The program, which draws about 100 students per night, was advertised in college newspapers, and the theater was careful not to schedule college nights when students were on break or studying for exams, according to Denise Schneider, the theater's media-relations director. Last year, a $125,000 grant from American Express enabled Arena Stage to expand the program to include College Night discussions with its artistic director. Arena hopes to expand the program further to include pre- and post-show events like receptions and poetry slams.

Seeking Diversity

But bringing in younger donors, says Ms. Gibson, often means more than simply offering discounts and giving a current fund-raising approach a more youthful veneer. Arts organizations, she says, are increasingly bearing in mind that many young professionals today are immigrants -- frequently from non-Western cultures -- and also present important potential for recruiting subscribers and donors. For example, she says, the Long Beach Opera Company, in California, noted the large number of Cambodian immigrants in the region and performed a version of Carmen that had been translated into Khmer.

Some arts groups are making a point of getting board members to help in the push to attract more young people. Each month Ms. Sacerdote, of Pacific Northwest Ballet, presents her board with a list of prospective donors -- names she has gathered from the newspapers about who is running the fastest-growing businesses, for example. Making use of board members to identify potential donors, she says, is also efficient and cost-effective.

At the Goodman Theatre, in Chicago, turnover on the board over the past three years has presented opportunities to add younger members -- and that alone has helped drive down the age of the average donor, says Rock Schulfer, the theater's executive director.

A decade ago, he says, the trustees also instituted an auxiliary board of directors made up of professionals younger than 40. Called the Discovery Board, it has become a tool for both fund raising and audience development. The Discovery Board is responsible for an annual benefit, he says, and the board members host a social event. On opening nights, for example, members may invite friends to the play and a reception afterward.

Arts organizations are seeking nontraditional routes to advertise their appeals to younger patrons. As it strove to market to 20- to 45-year-olds, the Los Angeles Opera drew on a number of sources: advertising in publications and on radio stations known to have a young constituency, encouraging young people to bring friends to events, and arranging joint promotions with organizations known to have strong young-professional groups. Mr. Schultz adds that the opera's advertising makes it very clear that those young professionals who attend these events will be joining a group of like-minded individuals.

Pursuing a younger audience, Mr. Schultz says, not only adds new donors but also can be seen as part of an arts group's mission: to further public appreciation of its medium. "Opera has been an important art form since the 1600s," he says, "and if it is to continue enriching lives, and more importantly, to thrive for future generations, it is imperative that we pay close attention to each succeeding generation."

Does your arts organization go out of its way to recruit younger donors? Share your experience in the Fund Raisers