Attracting Millennials

How KC Cultural Organizations Are Meeting the Challenge

Jacqui Ward said her husband once insisted he didn’t like classical music.

“But he loved the score to one of his favorite Xbox games,” she said. “And I was like, ‘That’s classical music.’ There’s this impression of what people think classical music is, and many of them don’t realize they’ve been listening to it their whole lives. Every movie they watch. Every TV show they see.”

The 30-year-old Ward is one of the co-founders of Maestro KC, the Kansas City Symphony’s young professionals group. With more than 400 members, Maestro KC is finding ways of getting young Kansas Citians to partake in and support the arts.

Increasing Millennial and Generation Z audiences is a huge topic of conversation, not only within the city’s arts groups but nationally, as well. How do you attract younger audiences without alienating the loyal older supporters?

It’s something Jeffrey Bentley, executive director of the Kansas City Ballet, hears every time he goes to a national arts conference.

“This is very high on the agenda: What are we all doing to build audiences?” he said. “Some are focusing on Millennials, some are focusing on diversity, some are focusing on just filling more seats with everybody who wants to come. We don’t have the answers yet. Across the country, we’re going to be doing a lot of trying and failing.”

Locally, there’s no one approach that fits every organization. A common theme does emerge, however: Creating a sense of community.

Carla Nauck, chair of the theatre department at UMKC, said that with so many electronic gizmos vying for students’ attention, some students are starting to feel left out in the real world.

“You see students walking across campus in groups, but they’re all on their phones,” she said. “We’re seeing a turn toward a craving for more opportunities where they can experience things with others.”

Consider the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Nearly any day you can witness the multitudes snapping images in front of the Shuttlecocks for their Instagram. Or watch the Tinder matches playing the 9-hole mini-golf “Art Course” in the Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park. Or see the young parents with kids who accidentally run into the transparent walls of Robert Morris’ “Glass Labyrinth.”

That sense of play and goofiness gets young people on the museum grounds, which means they might just step inside the imposing-looking building.

Arts groups are also learning that they may need to throw out the stereotype that younger audiences only want to see newer, unconventional works. In recent years, the Lyric Opera succeeded in attracting younger audiences with pieces new and old, from “Everest” to “West Side Story.”

“We’re not thinking exclusively that new operas are going to bring in new people,” said Debra Bell, marketing director for the Lyric. “The data show that that’s not necessarily true.”

This season, the Lyric will present “The Shining,” based on Stephen King’s horror novel. Where Stanley Kubrick’s film version took its own route, the opera hews much closer to the book, Bell said, which has fans of many different ages.

“‘The Shining’ is definitely something that Millennials know about,” she said. “It’s something we think will be a good driver for Millennial ticket purchases.”

With four productions in a season, the Lyric’s mission is a little different from the other local arts groups. Sure, they want to bring in Millennials and Gen Z, but they can’t afford to alienate any longtime supporters.

“With four shows, we don’t have the flexibility to program exclusively for Millennials,” Bell said. “We still need to keep our loyal subscribers who have been with us. We always keep one foot in the 20th century and one foot in the 21st century.”

The Lyric bridged that gap in different ways in recent years. They held a fan-fiction contest for “West Side Story,” which had heavy participation among Millennials. And the company reached out to the LGBTQIA community for “As One,” a coming-of-age story about a transgender woman.

“That resulted in two sold-out shows,” she said. “And it was fun to see all the creative energy around our fan-fiction contest for ‘West Side Story.’”

Getting the Word Out

Strategies aren’t just different for each organization. Sometimes the approach changes from show to show.

The Kauffman Center, which features programming on dates when the Lyric, the Ballet and the Symphony do not, targets each of its events differently.

To promote the jazz and funk collective Snarky Puppy, the Kauffman Center staff sent email blasts and hammered social media, a strategy which sold probably 80 to 90 percent of the seats, because the audience was younger.

When rock icon Alice Cooper comes to town, it’s a whole different ball game.

“The demographic is going to be people 55 to 60 years old and older,” said Paul Schofer, president and CEO of the Kauffman Center. “We will do our email blast, but we’ll work to have radio and other media advertising. At the end of the day, you have to use multiple sources.”

Schofer said he can look back at 22 recent performances, and about 15 of them were intended to attract Millennials and Gen Z.

“That was not necessarily the case in our early years, so we’re making movements there,” he said.

The Kauffman also features the Future Stages Festival, with hundreds of local performers shuttled across its indoor and outdoor stages in 30-minute increments. The fest attracts thousands each year.

“What’s a little unique about that is we’re finding Millennial parents are bringing their Gen Z kids,” Schofer said. “Once you start to get the family engaged, that is a very powerful thing.”

Schofer said YouTube sensation “Miranda Sings” succeeded in bringing in teens and 20-somethings, as did poet Rupi Kaur, who nearly sold out the joint.

“I looked back at the stats for Rupi Kaur, and 81 percent were females between the ages of 18 and 34,” he said. “That event did exactly what we wanted: Bringing in new and younger audiences. I think for nearly half of the audience, that was the first time in the venue.”

The Kauffman Center itself is a draw. People come early for the people-watching. Bleeding edge rock fans come to see old country music stars just to hear the acoustics of Helzberg Hall. And, because podcasts such as “My Favorite Murder” and their live recordings have boomed in recent years, Schofer said his team is looking into those as a possible young-audience driver in the future.

“It’s an evolving process with us,” he said. “We’re having fun with it, and maybe it’s fun because we’re having some success with it. Call back in 20 years, and I’ll let you know if those kids on Future Stages Festival are patrons or donors, or if the 20-year-olds of today are coming back.”

Breaking Down Barriers

While the Kauffman examples are certainly encouraging, it’s the data that appears confusing to some. A few studies show results that run counter to advice that arts groups have followed for decades.

“I don’t think the research about building audiences is particularly convincing, but it’s early on,” the Ballet’s Bentley said. “I’m not seeing a lot of ‘a-ha moments.’ There are more ‘a-ha moments’ that say we thought one thing, and then we found out we were totally wrong. It’s not, ‘Oh, we found this thing and it’s working great.’”

Bentley suspects audiences under 40 aren’t all that different from those over 40. They want to have an idea about what they’re going to see before they go in, and they tend to be a little more traditional in their tastes than presumed.

And, as the Lyric’s Bell said, sometimes it just comes down to a good story.

The big challenge to getting young audiences may just go back to that old saw of “It’s the economy, stupid.”

“If you’re between the ages of 23 and 38, you’re paying off your college debt, you’re probably getting married, you’re probably having children, you’re probably buying a house, and you’ve got a lot of obligations — not only in money but in terms of time,” Bentley said. “The older audiences may have more financial resources and time to partake and become more committed to organizations of their choice.”

The Ballet has Barre KC, a young professionals group which raises funds for the company with themed events related to its season. Barre KC sold out its “Barre Soiree” this year, raising $9,000 in the process.

In programming each season, the Ballet is intensely focused on attracting audiences and supporters of all ages.

“Do we want a more diverse audience? Do we want a younger audience?” Bentley said. “We have a lot of choices to make, and all of them are good, and all of them are challenging.”

Maestro KC, the Symphony’s young professionals group, strives to break down some of those challenges and barriers that might prevent noobs from taking in a Symphony performance.

People who have never been to see an orchestra performance just don’t know what it’s going to be like. Is it fancy? Are the drinks expensive? Should I wear a gown or are these ripped jeans and Wu-Tang Clan T-shirt OK?

“There’s this stigma that everything in the arts is a black tie, formal affair, that everything is very unapproachable. And that’s not true,” said Maestro KC co-founder Jacqui Ward. “It’s one of the barriers that we try to remove in our group. I don’t know that any arts organization has found a way to fix that. We just try to take that intimidation away.”

Ward said her group hosts happy hours where Symphony musicians perform in Brandmeyer Hall and talk about the pieces they selected. Those events attract white-collar and blue-collar folks alike, as well as executives, college students, nonprofit staffers — the whole demographic gamut.

Membership in Maestro KC is also helped by the Symphony’s musicians, who are themselves Millennials and younger. Ward says the musicians are incredibly open and socialize at many of the Maestro KC events.

“It’s really fun to build that connection,” Ward said. “Not only do our members go to concerts, but the musicians on stage become ‘My friend Susie on the cello.’ They may be classical musicians, but they’re just like us. They go to the bar, they have a good time, they love to laugh. They’re not always practicing Beethoven.”

There it is again. Socializing. Group experience. Community. Bringing people together simply may be the key to sustaining arts audiences for generations to come.

“The great thing about music and the arts in general is it doesn’t fit just one certain mold, right?” Ward said. “You can get all of these people who might be completely different in the outside world to come together and enjoy the same thing.”

About The Author: David Frese

David Frese

David Frese is a writer, photographer, artist and community advocate from rural Kansas who spent 21 years covering Kansas City’s arts and culture for “The Kansas City Star.” He is a graduate of Kansas State University.

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