I’m an arts buff. I love the theater, live music, dance, and the visual arts. You will often find me attending two or three plays in a weekend, or going to a museum and then on to a performance of jazz or modern dance. The more I dive into the arts, the happier I am personally, but the more fearful I am for the future of the arts. Why? I’m in my 60s, and I’m usually one of the youngest people in attendance, regardless of the genre. (Okay, so I’m not going to the rap concerts, but still….) I constantly worry about the future. Who will occupy the seats in another 20 years, especially in our classical venues?
Yes, there will always be a few young people who love Mozart or Swan Lake. In my own family, I have a nephew and niece that are classical musicians. However, while young people will continue to make art, as people have done since the beginning of time, I worry whether there will be anyone who will support their art, who will buy tickets and attend the performances, allowing them to work at what they love.
This is an issue that I feel too few boards seriously grapple with. Yes, you see organizations that open up their space after work for networking and wine and cheese, but is that going to convert generations of younger people into dedicated audiences for the future? I think not. After all, it hasn’t yet. And if I’m right, what will?
Clearly, there are no easy answers. If there were, I wouldn’t be writing this essay. But I think our boards can take a more proactive role in trying to find solutions. Here are two specific approaches they can take to mitigate the loss of the arts as we know them.
Spend Time Wrestling with Generative Questions
Generative questions deal not with the “how,” but the “why.” Instead of asking, “How do we attract Millennials?” arts boards need to first understand the underlying nature of the problem. They need to ask, “Why aren’t they coming?” Is it, for instance, a lack of money to buy tickets? A lack of exposure to what is currently being offered – after all, very few people of any age are willing to spend money on an unknown? A dislike of what is being offered? A “coolness” (or lack of “coolness”) factor? An issue of not having the right clothes? A discomfort with being surrounded by people their grandparents’ age?
The board also needs to pay attention to the cues it is relying on to come to its conclusion. Is it assuming, perhaps, that young people don’t have the right clothes to wear because, on the rare occasions they do come to the theater, they always come in jeans? Or, did the board focus on the fact that less time is spent teaching the classics in school, and therefore the issue must be lack of previous exposure? To get it right, directors have to challenge their colleagues and ask questions like, “Are we focusing on the on the most logical explanations? Why do we think that? What else aren’t we considering?” They might even reframe the issue by asking questions such as, “What has our experience as parents/teachers/bosses taught us?”
The more information you have as a board, the more likely your decisions will be on target. Spend a significant part of each board meeting asking questions, delving into the “why” behind the “what” before attempting to answer “how.”
Include Young People on Arts Boards
If we want to attract the younger generations to the arts, we have to hear their voices. The best way to do that is put young people on our boards. Of course, “young” is a relative term. In Florida, for instance, “young” is often defined as under 60! But I’m advocating for YOUNG, including, though not limited to, high school and college-age youth. These people are our future. They are the ones you want to attract as audience members. And, nobody knows better than they what is important to them.
Young people can serve on boards, even if state law prohibits them from are voting. Organizations like the Girl Scouts have been including them on boards for years. They serve next to adult directors and have all the same responsibilities for preparation and participation. In such organizations, the adults have learned to respect the input of their young colleagues because they see the young people taking their job seriously and providing valuable insights to the group. (To learn more about how the Girl Scouts have successfully incorporated youth, read “Preparing the Board Leaders of Tomorrow by Involving Youth in Governance Today” by Olivia Selinger and Deb Walters, p. 187 of YOU and Your Nonprofit Board: Advice and Practical Tips from the Field’s Top Practitioners, Researcher, and Provocateurs, Terrie Temkin editor, CharityChannel Press, 2013)
Be sure to bring enough young people on the board to ensure a cohort. Nobody wants to be the only one “under 30” on a board. Typically recruiting three of anything – 20-somethings, Latinos or people with a dance background – ensures a comfort level for the directors, leading to better input and, ultimately, the best decisions for the organization.
These two approaches take work and neither is a magic bullet. However, invest the effort in experimenting with both and you will see a definite change for the better. Doesn’t your arts organization deserve the chance to enrich and extend its life?
By Terrie Temkin