Young at art: Live-art venues try to reach younger crowd in Portland

Sarting young Portland Stage’s “theatre classes” are part of the ways the organization generates interest in the theatre arts at a young age. Sarting young Portland Stage’s “theatre classes” are part of the ways the organization generates interest in the theatre arts at a young age.

When was the last time you’ve been to a ballet, theatre production or symphony orchestra performance?

Chances are, if you’re under the age of 35, you haven’t. Art organizations across the country are struggling to diversify their audiences and fill seats with a younger demographic. The National Endowment for the Arts, an independent federal agency that partners with state art agencies to stimulate the creative economy and exercise collective imaginations, conducted a study and found that audiences that attend performing or visual art shows are aging and declining.

Earlier this year, the NEA published their extensive report: A Decade of Arts Engagement, Findings from the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. Spanning from 2002 to 2012, this survey is the largest and most comprehensive survey of U.S. arts participation, with a sample size exceeding 37,000 adults. According to the study, only 37 percent of U.S. adults have been to a live performing art event in the preceding 12 months. This includes outdoor performing art festivals, musicals, plays, ballets, classical music performances, dances and opera. Only 14 percent of respondents under the age of 35 said that they attended a classical music performance in the last year and 13.6 percent attended a musical theatre show. Musical play attendance overall dropped — 12 percent from 2008-2012, with the highest number of attendees over the age of 65.

Across the nation, the aging of lifelong patrons and decline in season ticket holders is a troubling trend that art organizations are trying to reverse in creative ways; and it’s not different here in Portland, in a city that labels itself as a youthful, vibrant arts community.

During an informal questioning of people casually hanging out around the more popular entertainment venues in Portland like SPACE Gallery, the State Theatre and Nickelodeon Cinemas, I attempted to uncover some of the barriers preventing young people from attending more “traditional” shows like ballet and theatre, as opposed to a rock concert or a movie showing. Their answers were varied but lined up evenly with findings published in the NEA’s survey. Time, cost, access, a lack of compelling advertising and having nobody to go with were all cited as reasons why young people aren’t going out to traditional art shows like they used to.

“It's a pain to park in downtown Portland just to see an exhibit of chairs nailed to the wall or paint splatters on a canvas,” said one anonymous respondent from Machias. “I'd be interested in the ballet, but I just never hear about what they're doing.”

“Once you've seen the Nutcracker a few times, you remember it,” said another respondent. “The same goes for yet another rendition of Hamlet; or a cheesy musical, or overacted Broadway play. Unfortunately the quality of the entertainment I can access at home outweighs the authenticity of the live performance. Netflix always has something new.”

According to the NEA survey, 71 percent of U.S. adults (about 167 million) consume arts through electronic media like the internet, radio or television.

When asked about the lack of interest with the traditional arts, some responded with “ain’t nobody got time for that,” and “Art shows? Not my cup of tea.” For many young Portlanders, the slight annoyance of driving into town, finding parking and paying for a $20 ticket are enough of a deterrent to ignore traditional art shows as a valuable form of entertainment. For others, classical music is boring, ballet is hard to understand and the sheer amount of images on the Internet make viewing paintings in a gallery seem like an obsolete activity.

“Art shows like that are just for a very particular crowd,” said Eliza Maxfield, a 28-year-old from Portland. “If I’m going to spend the money, I’d prefer to just go to a concert.”

For Chris Burns, a 37-year-old Portland native, musician and audio production major, a lack of traditional arts appreciation can be attributed to these factors: lack of education, and a cultural shift that values “pop media.”

“Pop culture is visceral, immediate and disposable,” said Burns. “It speaks to how the kids today are feeling, and in very simple, bite sized chunks that don't really need to be analyzed or listened to repeatedly to get the full meaning.”

Burns said that while Frederic Chopin’s classical music, for example, might conjure up the same emotions young people seek and with more nuance, subtlety and virtuosity, our collective culture doesn’t value those qualities. Instead younger people tend to value the videos, memes, images and GIFS they see on their social media pages, or shared from their favorite celebrity.

“The paltry arts education we're giving our kids makes them favor that kind of art because of its cultural dominance,” said Burns. “Unless there is a large cultural change, classical traditions will fall into obscurity.”

But curators, organizers, marketing directors, creators and appreciators of traditional arts across Portland are determined to reverse this national trend of disinterest within the youthful demographic by focusing their strategy on the motivations behind attending art shows.

“Everyone is trying to scramble to remove those barriers and increase the motivation to attend our shows,” said Eileen Phelan, the marketing director for Portland Stage, Maine’s largest, fully professional nonprofit theatre and learning space. “People crave communal experiences, and theatre provides just that.”

Phelan said that the audiences that usually come to Portland Stage shows are upper middle class, older, white people and it doesn’t help the actors on stage.

“Looking out at the audience and seeing a diverse crowd cultivates a relationship and a special energy for the actors,” said Phelan. “It’s tough to attract a younger crowd.”

According to the NEA survey, non-musical play attendance has dropped at a 33 percent rate over the past decade, with 8.3 percent (19.5 million adults) attending at least one event in 2012.

Part of the Portland Stage’s strategy to get young people in the door is creating a communal space where people don’t just view performance art, but socialize, learn and interact around it. Before and after each play, the Portland Stage opens its lobby so people can “hang out,” have a drink and talk about the experience with one another. And with the themes and topics that the Portland Stage actors will be experimenting with this season, attendees will have plenty to talk about.

“People in the young generations aren’t interested in just being entertained,” said Phelan. “They want an experience that’s more psychologically interactive, or socially minded. It doesn’t have to be super political, it just has to be a bit edgy.”

With activist and social justice themes in mind, the Portland Stage has crafted a new season of shows. There’s The Mountaintop, a re-imagining of the night before the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods, which tells the story of a young African immigrant working in the produce section and recounting the trauma of the Sudanese civil war. Later in the season, debuting in March, is My Name is Asher Lev, which tells the powerful story of a boy prodigy born into a Hasidic Jewish family in post-World War II Brooklyn.

“Theatre is one of the best ways to talk about social issues,” said Phelan. “You go with others. Everyone is going to have a different perspective. It’s an experience.”

At the Portland of Museum of Art, arguably our town’s center of visual arts with greats such as Winslow Homer, Rose Marasco’s thought-provoking photography, and royal British portraits from the Renaissance (just to name a fraction of their large, ever changing exhibitions), staff are crafting installations with the intention of encouraging younger audiences to think critically about visual culture today.

“There is something to the idea that young adults connect more with contemporary art that addresses issues of our time, but I’m not sure it’s as easy as saying young people like contemporary art, and they don’t like historic art,” said Jennifer DePrizio, the PMA’s Director of Learning and Interpretation. “I find that the key to attracting younger people to the museum is about making art relevant to them today, whether it was made last year or 100 years ago.”

Portland Stage and the Museum of Art are certainly not alone in their efforts toward creating an inviting, youthful atmosphere, around art with modern, more popular themes.

Norman Huynh, the assistant conductor at the Portland Symphony Orchestra, helped start the “Symphony and Spirits” initiative, in response to the continuous cycle of people over the age of 50 filling their seats. The event creates a hangout space in a Portland bar or Alpine Club, where people can spend $20 for a drink and a ticket.

“Typically people who come to the symphony are about 50 years and older,” said Huynh, who gets a sense of the demographic from survey research. “Pairing the shows with alcohol makes it easier to sell tickets to young people.”

Established in 1923, the Portland Symphony Orchestra is made up 82 professional musicians, who play classical music primarily at the Merrill Auditorium, but also take their skills on the road to the places like the Rines Theatre at the Portland Public Library and the Crooker Theatre in Brunswick. Their mission is to enrich the arts community by providing accessible and engaging programs that have been described as “a phenomenal experience.”

Huynh said that because people usually listen to music through their laptop or headphones, they're missing out on the live experience and the excitement and energy it exudes.

“I just want everybody to hear it,” said Huynh. “I know it can have a positive impact on anybody.”

Despite his personal love for live classical music, and extensive background in conducting workshops and symphonies, Huynh understands that the genre isn’t for everyone and that going to a first show can be intimidating.

“When you’re unfamiliar with something, you’re a bit more timid,” said Huynh. “But 100 percent of people who have taken our survey, said that they’d come to another show.”

Others like Phelan at Portland Stage and Nell Shipman, the artistic director at the Portland Ballet, share the same sentiment. Their advice? Go to more than one show a year, develop a taste for the art form by noticing the actors, dancers, themes and ideas presented on stage.

“If you go to one theatre show a year there’s going to be a lot of pressure on that show to be amazing,” said Phelan, who tries to instil an appreciation for theatre in people early on, through her educational outreach programs that serve 14,000 high school students.

“I think it’s really cool, for people who haven't seen ballet, to see their first show,” said Shipman, who just concluded her choreographed show, Three Tales By Poe, a dance performance based off of the dark short stories of Gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe. “What they always say is, I had no idea that i would connect to that so much. Ballet is really not as stuffy as people think. It’s powerful and moving.”

Shipman is hard at work now choreographing the Portland Ballet’s next show, the Victorian Nutcracker, a timeless classic. However she noted that her previous works that had darker themes, like Three Tales By Poe and Jack the Ripper appealed more to a younger audience.

“Ballet is not just for 60-year-olds to get dressed up and go see something fancy,” said Michael Greer, the executive director of Portland Ballet and professional dancer himself. “It can be enjoyed by a younger demographic, especially contemporary works, they just have to know it’s happening.”

Greer cited tough competition from live music venues and a lack of exposure as reasons why the Portland Ballet doesn’t attract the most youthful audience. However, Greer and his team are trying to engage people through social media, a strategy shared by the Portland Museum of Art, another traditional arts organization attempting to put fresh pairs of eyes on their varied exhibitions.

According to Jennifer Cook, the director of civic relations at the Portland Museum of Art, the Internet is one of the biggest tools used to gauge their attendees’ demographic, connect with people and showcase the museum's 18,000-piece collection. Apart from featuring a digital version of every sculpture and painting in the museum, the PMA website (which just got relaunched with a new look) publishes its own original content like videos, informational podcasts and interviews with artists and curators.

“For the last two years reaching out to a younger demographic has become a top priority for the museum,” said Cook. “But people don’t want to just be engaged, they want to be part of the experience.”

On top of the digital efforts, Cook said that their current project Your Museum, Reimagined, will fundamentally change the way the public interacts with the museum. After opening new meeting rooms and participatory spaces, PMA aims to be more relevant to younger crowds in 2017 and will exhibit new collections across the museum, like one called “Modern Menagerie.”

Cook believes that because we’re bombarded by images everyday on the Internet, it’s important to see art face to face and with other people. So unconsciously echoing the strategies of the people at Portland Stage and the Portland Symphony, the museum is trying to transform its space into an artistic hub and cultivate its atmosphere around viewing art, discussing its function and implications with like minded, potentially buzzed people.

“We’re more in touch with a copy of a copy of a copy of art,” said Cook. “We want to create a more authentic experience. Young adults are looking for ways to connect with others socially.”

The Portland Museum does this by offering events with food, live music, artist talks and one-on-one workshops with creators and curators. The discussions have informative and interactive qualities and give attendees a more contextual understanding of the art they just viewed, one that couldn’t be conveyed through a screen. For art appreciators across Portland, forming a physical connection with art and its creators is the first step to developing a personal love for it.

With 71 percent of people in the U.S. viewing art through electronic media, it’s clear that we have to abandon that notion of “instant gratification,” when it comes to experiencing art of any medium. Maybe after disconnecting, unplugging, grabbing a friend, and leaving behind preconceived notions and stereotypes, some of Portland’s youth will start to appreciate the city’s numerous and robust traditional arts offerings.