Arts Institutions Look for Ways to Diversify Audiences


Tomorrow evening in Chicago, Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam is scheduled to perform the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto at a benefit concert. Whatever the musical merits of the program -- a New York Times critic who heard Mr. Farrakhan play the piece last month conceded he acquitted himself tolerably well -- the performance is likely to be distinguished in at least one respect: It will almost certainly draw one of the largest audiences of young people and African-Americans of any classical music concert this year.

Of course, the Chicago event involves a "gimmick" of sorts -- the attraction of seeing a person well-known in one field performing publicly in another, seemingly unrelated one -- and many people undoubtedly will attend Mr. Farrakhan's concert for reasons having nothing to do with a taste for Mendelssohn. A similar impulse probably prompted viewers to tune in "Arsenio" last summer when candidate Bill Clinton appeared on the show wearing sunglasses and wailing on the saxophone.

Still, if such events are basically "gimmicks," they are gimmicks that theater and museum directors and symphony orchestra administrators across the country have learned they can ignore only at their peril.

One has to only attend a few performances at a local playhouse or concert hall to see why this is so. The audiences at such events rarely reflect the diversity of the larger community of which they are a part. Baltimore, for example, is home to large numbers of young people and African-Americans. Yet the typical theater or concert crowd here consists largely of older, white adults with a median age of around 55.

The people who run arts institutions are acutely aware of the long-term dangers of this kind of homogeneity. Performance groups that fail to attract young people and minorities today will lose their audiences when the current generation of theater and concert subscribers fades from the scene. Moreover, as arts groups increasingly rely on public funding, they face growing pressure to reflect the communities that support them. So diversity is becoming a political as well as an aesthetic imperative.

That's one reason why the recent announcement by Baltimore's Center Stage theater that it had received a $1.4 million grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund to attract more young people and minorities is so significant. Theater director Irene Lewis has laid ambitious plans to diversify Center Stage's audiences and quadruple the number of young people attending its performances by 1997.

It's unclear how successful such efforts will be. There are reasons why concert and theater audiences are made up so overwhelmingly of art-loving graybeards and their wives.

One is money. Live performance is expensive to produce, and thus ticket prices must be high, at least in comparison to other forms of entertainment. In Baltimore, for example, an evening out for two that includes dinner, a play or concert and drinks afterward can easily run $200, and that's not counting the baby-sitter's fee.

Even a bare-bones night on the town -- cheap seats at the symphony, say, with coffee and desert later -- is apt to set one back $75 or so. A lot of twenty- and thirtysomethings just don't have that kind of money to spend, at least not on a regular basis. A similar dilemma confronts much of the city's black middle-class, whose economic situation remains precarious.

Ticket prices aren't the only problem, however. There's also the competition -- movies, nightclubs, sports events, even fitness centers are all vying for the younger generation's disposable income. The variety of entertainments available today is much greater than in the past, and all of them cut into the audience for live performance.

Meanwhile, the economics of the entertainment business have been steadily tilting away from live performance. Twenty-five years ago a theater ticket might cost $10 as opposed to the $3 admission price for a movie. Today, an equivalent theater ticket is around $40, compared to $6 for a movie. So even though movie prices have doubled over the years, theater and concert tickets have quadrupled during the same period, making the choice of a play or concert over a movie much harder to justify.

There's one more thing. Most of the audiences at today's live performances -- theater, concerts or dance -- faithfully attend such events largely because they are following traditions learned long ago from their parents. During the first half of this century, it was not at all uncommon for enthusiasts to attend 15 or 20 or even 50 live performances a year.

That tradition is dying -- not only because of cost and the rise of alternate entertainments but also because the Baby Boomers who are now reaching maturity belonged to the first generation raised on television. Having grown up with the medium, many apparently are content to sit home and watch the tube for free rather than go out.

Arts groups that present live performances have resorted to a variety of means to draw more young people to the box office. For example, this season Baltimore's Morris Mechanic Theater put on "Jesus Christ Superstar" and offered half-price tickets for students.

Similarly, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has expanded its marketing effort by offering low-priced, mini-subscription series aimed at younger audiences. At these events, guest artists chat about the music with audiences during the performance, and guests are invited to dance to the music of a live rock band in the lobby after the concert. The BSO also offers several pops series and runs an active community outreach program to encourage more African-Americans to attend its concerts.

If some of these non-traditional efforts sound suspiciously like the sort of "gimmick" that draws people to hear Minister Farrakhan play Mendelssohn or see Bill Clinton blow the sax on "Arsenio" -- well, so be it, say the people responsible for filling theater and concert halls. After all, they point out, only one thing ever remains constant in show business, and that is quite simply that the show must go on.

Glenn McNatt is an editorial writer for The Baltimore Sun.

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