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Originally published December 8, 2013 at 5:12 AM | Page modified December 9, 2013 at 1:24 PM

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Holly Arsenault: introducing teens to the arts

Teen Tix director Holly Arsenault’s mission is to excite teens about the arts, by offering inexpensive tickets to cultural events. This year, participants have purchased 10,000 tickets through the program.


Seattle Times theater critic

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Holly Arsenault is a full-fledged adult in her 30s now, with a toddler son (Isadore, or Izzy), a marriage to a kindred spirit (Matt Richter, the cultural space liaison for the City of Seattle) and a demanding, rewarding job for an organization on the move.

But this respected Seattle arts administrator and educator, who combines an artistic sensibility with a flair for surveys and statistics, can recall vividly what it was like being a teenager — the upside, as well as the downside.

“I remember the feeling that adults weren’t taking my thoughts and opinions seriously,” says Arsenault. “Adolescence is an inherently vulnerable state, a transition time. But it can also be a challenging, exciting and great time too.”

Since she began working for Teen Tix in 2005, Arsenault has been listening closely to young folk, and offering them a special kind of excitement and challenge. The agency she directs, a program initiated by the Seattle Center, opens the local arts scene to youths under 20 by providing cheap tickets to a wide spectrum of cultural events.

Cheap in this case is dirt cheap: $5. And the spectrum encompasses some 50 arts group partners in Seattle, Renton, Bellevue, Edmonds — from scruffy fringe theaters to the Seattle Opera.

Thanks to Arsenault’s avid leadership, in 2014 TeenTix will celebrate its 10th anniversary by transitioning from a Seattle Center project to an independent organization with big plans, in-residence at Seattle Center.

A slender, intent woman with a bob of black curls, Arsenault could nearly pass for a teen herself. And she’s a fervent, articulate advocate for turning youths into active, opinionated arts-lovers.

“People think teenagers can’t be separated from their cellphones, and can’t be apart from their friends,” she says. “This hasn’t proven to be true.”

Her stats: Members (membership is free) have used their Teen Tix passes to collectively purchase a total of more than 42,000 tickets to theater, dance, music and art venues. They range “from kids who’ve never set foot in an arts institution, to those who were babes in arms when their parents began taking them to shows.”

Local arts purveyors, some skeptical at first about hawking prime seats for peanuts, now rally around the program. And they don’t consider it a giveaway, but a chance to catalyze the cultural subscribers and patrons of the future.

Pacific Northwest Ballet artistic director Peter Boal is a big booster. PNB’s acclaimed version of “Romeo and Juliet” holds the record for most Teen Tix passes sold.

“Teen Tix is a great deal, a $10 date,” says Boal. “Teens want to try everything once, and if the programming is right they want to come back. We’ve seen our numbers in this demographic rise steadily, and we hope that 30, 40 years from now these people will still be seeing our work, and keeping this art form going.”

More than just tickets

Arsenault isn’t content just getting bodies in seats. Teen Tix has offered critical writing workshops, and created a user-friendly blog where spirited, observant Teen Press Corps reviews (from a pool of 100 young critics) and member comments are posted. And it has conducted innovative research into teens’ arts-going habits and concerns. (“Intimidation is a big barrier to attending things, “ says Arsenault).

The New Guard program involves 14- to 18-year-olds in guiding Teen Tix, and learning about cultural administration through a real-world mentorship program and, in the near future, classes in arts management at Seattle University.

Arsenault is an inspiring mentor herself, says Ashraf Hasham. As a Ballard High School student, Hasham notes, “I wasn’t really interested in the arts, I didn’t know what they entailed, or what the viewer’s role was. I didn’t know and I didn’t really care.”

Then he heard about Teen Tix and thought he’d try it. What was there to lose? With friends, he attended his first Seattle Symphony concert. “It was fun, we got all dressed up and had spectacular seats in the front orchestra. We could see everything going on. It seemed like a hip place to be.”

Hasham also took the critics' workshop, and was motivated to earn an arts administration degree at New York’s Wagner College. He is now a development associate at the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery and a house manager at On the Boards.

“Profound” way of relating

Arsenault’s own career path was circuitous. Raised in Spokane, Montreal and Maine, she studied drama at UW, spent a year in France teaching English, worked at Ballard’s Dandelion restaurant.

She found her footing in the arts during an internship at Seattle Repertory Theatre under casting director Jerry Manning, now the Rep’s artistic director.

“I just thought, my goodness, here’s a really smart person,” says Manning. “And I always noticed with Holly an empathy that’s just natural to her. It doesn't surprise me that she’s able to communicate well with all kinds of people, including teens.”

“Holly has a way of talking to teens that’s very profound,” seconds Hasham. “Everyone is on the same plane.”

Arsenault began at Teen Tix part-time as program manager for the then-pilot project, based on a similar ticket program in Colorado Springs. Eager to reach more teens, she gradually went to full-time, determined to “translate the information we were putting out in a way that made more sense to young people.” The website became hipper, more user-friendly and interactive. Social media became an essential tool.

With a small staff and modest budget, Arsenault increased membership exponentially to about 23,000 teens, who in 2013 have bought more than 10,000 tickets. Now a national model, Teen Tix is still fiscally sponsored by the Seattle Center Foundation, which provides office space and other support. Now Arsenault is seeking additional funding for future plans — including, possibly, expanding services beyond the Seattle region.

For this fervent enabler, the central mission is clear. “This is about more than just buying a ticket and taking a seat,” she explains. “It’s about creating engaged citizens who have affection for the arts, and think of it as a vital part of their community. I got to inherit and grow this organization. And that’s been a huge source of joy for me.”

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com



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