Seattle arts groups get creative to attract younger generations
Dance parties at Seattle Art Museum, reality TV-style Webcasts about opera, social networking: organizations are using these and more to engage broader audiences.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Long before tonight's opening of that most epic of Seattle Opera productions — the "Ring" cycle — a college student out to demystify the Wagner saga for other young people already has filmed an online reality series: "Confessions of a First-Time Operagoer."
A few blocks down the street, under a large multicolored tent, dozens of school kids leap and tumble at circus camp — for many, their first exposure to another local arts organization, Teatro ZinZanni.
And at the Olympic Sculpture Park downtown, a recent event designed to attract young people included a dance party with DJs, interactive displays of video art and nighttime tours led by guerrilla artists.
As core arts audiences grow older and attendance declines among young people, big arts organizations across the country are reaching out to potential new audiences in innovative ways. Seattle has become a center for this kind of outreach.
The attempts to create a broader base of attendees are taking many forms and using many tools, from reality TV-style webcasts to social-networking sites, dance nights and scavenger hunts.
The Seattle Opera selected the engaging Cassidy Quinn Brettler of Seattle to host its reality series — and to blog, Tweet and post updates about it on Facebook.
Brettler, 20, said she was worried when she found out the "Ring" cycle involved going to operas for some 16 hours over four nights.
"I thought: 'What did I get myself into?' "
But now that she's visited the costume shop, tried on a winged helmet and done some stunt flying in the harnesses that allow the opera's Rhinemaidens to fly, "it's made me excited to see the final opera.
"Before this project, I never would've even thought of going to the opera."
Of course, arts organizations have conducted educational and outreach activities for years. Many offer discounted tickets for younger attendees, and a program called Teen Tix allows teenagers to get $5 rush tickets at many Seattle-area arts venues.
But now, "there's a real shift in the way that people connect to arts activities," said Dwight Gee, executive vice president of ArtsFund, which raises money for the arts in Western Washington.
Experimenting with different forms of outreach is the point of $7.7 million in grants that the Wallace Foundation, a New York-based arts and culture philanthropy, gave to nine arts groups in Seattle (and the Washington State Arts Commission) — making it one of only two cities to be awarded the grants last year.
The foundation bestows the grants with the idea that recipients will share their strategies with one another and with arts organizations nationwide.
Last summer, for example, the San Francisco Opera offered a free, live simulcast of "Lucia di Lammermoor" at the Giants' baseball stadium — in an instant exposing some 23,000 people to opera, many of them younger than traditional operagoers.
The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston developed a Teen Night, which started as parties with candy, music and dancing before morphing into events the teens themselves now conceive of and organize — from T-shirt-design classes to a DJ school.
"Each of these organizations are their own little innovation lab that could possibly have great impact on the field at large and across the country," said Wallace Foundation spokeswoman Mary Trudel.
'Huge behavior shift'
Brettler, who's studying broadcasting and acting at Emerson College in Boston, was one of 49 applicants to host "Confessions."
"I think it was a really good idea, just getting somebody my age into it," Brettler said.
A National Endowment for the Arts survey conducted last year showed that arts audiences in general are older than they were 26 years ago and that the rate of attendance among 18- to 44-year-olds has declined.
Some arts organizations maintain their audiences aren't graying, saying participation remains more of a time-of-life issue — that people trying to build careers and raise kids are less likely to attend arts events.
In any case, to Kelly Tweeddale, Seattle Opera's executive director, a more interesting issue is how behavior has changed among different age groups.
People don't just decide one day to go to the opera, she said. It takes exploration and exposure. And increasingly, younger people want that exposure through Web videos or audio downloads, and to know via social-networking tools what their friends think, before they'll go to a live performance.
"That's very different from our core audience who go to a Web site and look for basics — the who and where — and who use traditional media," Tweeddale said. "It's a huge behavior shift."
In addition to "Confessions," Seattle Opera has another set of behind-the-scenes "Ring" videos, called "Road to Valhalla."
And during the run of "Ring," it will have computer kiosks at McCaw Hall and Fisher Pavilion, where people can send electronic postcards of video-captured scenes to their friends or to their Facebook pages.
"Without building a highly engaged community, this idea of building audiences — it just doesn't happen," Tweeddale said.
More new approaches
Other Wallace grant recipients are taking different tacks.
Often, younger people "want a social experience coupled with their art experience," said Seattle Art Museum's Sandra Jackson-Dumont, deputy director of education and public programs. So, for the past year, the museum has put on a monthly "young, contemporary, hip" event called Remix.
With its Wallace grant, it's turning Remix into a quarterly event, with more activities and partnerships with performers and artists who younger people like.
On Friday, SAM launched the new Remix at Olympic Sculpture Park, featuring DJs, break dancers, comics illustrators, and tours guided by guerrilla artists and writers from The Stranger.
Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestras is using its grant to broaden its work with Seattle Public Schools and to increase participation by African-American and Latino students.
One Reel's Teatro ZinZanni is holding several weeks of classes on juggling, clowning and acrobatics for kids ages 5 to 16.
It's important to reach kids at an early age because they can be less open to new experiences as they get older, said Sheila Hughes, One Reel's chief operating officer. And by their teen years, "you're competing with everything from driving licenses to peer pressure."
Some Wallace-grant recipients are concentrating not just on younger audiences.
On the Boards, the contemporary performing-arts organization, already attracts younger people. With its grant, it's seeking to establish OtBTV, capturing performances on high-definition video for its Web site, along with podcasts and audience blogs, creating an online pay-per-view "catalog" of live performances.
The idea is to "break down barriers of geography, cost, scheduling," and to create audiences for the artists and for cutting-edge art, said Sarah Wilke, On the Boards managing director.
Whether it all will lead to bigger audiences and more revenue is a gamble, acknowledged Seattle Opera's Tweeddale. The theory and the hope is that "a more engaged audience will, over time, yield benefits."
Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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