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Arts in arms

Leaders struggle to attract younger audiences to cultural venues

Leaders struggle to attract younger audiences to cultural venues

May 20, 2007|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

According to leaders in the local arts community, cultural venues in Hagerstown all face the same problem: an increasing number of "gray hairs" in their audiences.

"The average age of an arts patron is 60-ish," said Kevin Moriarty, executive director of the Washington County Arts Council. "This is a problem affecting arts venues nationwide. Hagerstown is a text-book case."

Representatives from the arts council, the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, and the Maryland Symphony Orchestra agreed that something must be done in order to attract young people to their venues.

"I'm 34 and I don't see a lot of people my age," said Andrew Kipe, executive director of the Maryland Symphony Orchestra. "We just can't sit back on our laurels and assume these people are going to come out when they get older. We have to reach out to them. It's part of our job."

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It's also an issue that concerns young artists.

"I don't see people my age," said Mike O'Brien, a 22-year-old illustrator and graphic artist from Hagerstown. "Hopefully, that's something I can change. I have an opportunity to reach my own age group."

O'Brien, who recently graduated from Savannah College of Arts and Design in Savannah, Ga., was commissioned by the city to create the illustration used for this year's Western Maryland Blues Fest in June.

His work also will be featured at the arts council on June 1, when he'll display about 15 of his illustrations.

City officials say Blues Fest draws thousands of visitors, many of them 20- and 30-somethings from throughout the region. O'Brien hopes festival-goers will stop by the gallery to see his work.

"This is my first major show," said O'Brien, a 2002 graduate of South Hagerstown High School. "I'm not nervous yet."

What local arts venues are doing

In acknowledging the issue of developing a younger audience base, many arts venues have tweaked their marketing strategies.

Kipe said one reason the MSO's "Carmina Burana" performance in April drew more younger faces than usual was the MSO's advertising strategy.

"We nearly sold out both shows, Saturday and Sunday," Kipe said.

In addition to the MSO's standard practice of running ads in newspapers and on television, the symphony also promoted the show on its podcast at Antpod.com, advertised at area colleges and e-mailed PDF fliers, Kipe said.

"We sort of focused on the resources we have available," Kipe said. "We can't do that every time, but I think we left a good impression and they'll remember that the next time they see our ad."

Despite the current efforts put forth by some venues, some young people say local arts venues need to do more to inform those within their age group about the arts scene.

That was the sentiment reflected at a recent poetry-and-jazz program at a Washington County Museum of Fine Arts event in April, an event that was intended to attract younger people, organizers said.

"I don't think it makes sense that there aren't more students here," said 22-year-old Whitney Smith, just before the program began. A handful of young people were among the crowd of about 35.

Smith attended the event with her friend Liz Wells, 24, a fledgling poet and recent graduate of Shepherd University. Smith, an English major, is in her third year at Shepherd.

"I'm not sure anyone outside of the writing community heard about this unless they're already into the arts," said Wells, who said she heard about the event through an e-mail and through word-of-mouth among local writers.

Lakita Edwards, 26, of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., said she attended the event because a friend had invited her.

"Otherwise, I wouldn't have known about it," Edwards said. "Now that I know about this, I will definitely keep this in mind."

The Board of Trustees at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts is currently brainstorming ways to better target a younger age demographic, said Clayton Moyer, chair of the museum's programming board.

Some ideas being tossed around include a stronger Web presence and hosting a series of outdoor concerts featuring contemporary music in the museum's garden, Moyer said.

"To be perfectly frank, we relied on the newspaper for publicity," Moyer said. "I don't think we can almost exclusively rely on the newspaper."

But Moyer said the board is working on a limited budget - as most museum programs are free of charge - and the museum faces the challenge of trying to pull in a new audience without alienating its core of dedicated patrons.

"We have to cater to everyone's tastes," Moyer said.

Hope for a new generation

One happy medium at the museum has been the arts classes, Moyer said. The museum, as with other local arts venues, offers classes for adults and children. Museum, arts council and MSO officials each said, from what they've seen, children who are exposed to the arts at a young age are more likely to become involved with the arts as adults.

That was the case for O'Brien, who said he took at least two classes a year at the WCMFA when he was in elementary, middle and high school.

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