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Audiences for the Arts

Filling seats in an age of distraction

Feb. 25, 2009
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Bucks game or the opera? Bar crawl or the symphony? TiVo or a play? With endless options for consumers, arts organizations are in fierce competition for your time. To keep ahead, they are reaching out to audiences like never before, including programs aimed at that elusive younger demographic.

Milwaukeehas undoubtedly undergone a cultural renaissance, but some are concerned that it is going unnoticed by the city's younger generation. Lately, executives of arts groups are taking a cue from their performers by thinking creatively to capture the attention and the pocket change of new audiences.

The Milwaukee area is home to more than 250 arts and cultural organizations, according to the Public Policy Forum and the Cultural Alliance of Greater Milwaukee.

"People tell me that there is nothing to do in Milwaukee," says Kristin Godfrey, marketing director for The Skylight. "That tells me that they just don't know what's going on. It's just a question of promoting correctly and to the correct parties."

Reaching Out

Many blame the decline of arts education in schools for diminishing arts audiences. If the arts and creativity are not valued and developed at an early age, people are much less likely to seek out such activities later in life. Young patrons also tend to have preconceived notions about the accessibility of certain art forms. Milwaukee institutions have recognized this and tailored special programs to appeal to young patrons and ensure that cost should never be a barrier.

Last fall, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater introduced the Entourage, a program for patrons under 40 offering $10 tickets for all performances at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater and Stiemke Theater. So far, they have seen nearly 1,000 patrons purchase Entourage tickets, reports Kristy Studinski, marketing manager. The Rep also continues to offer select pay-what-you-can performances, with a suggested donation of $5 per person.

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (MSO) offers $12 student rush tickets one hour before any subscription performance with valid student identification. The Skylight is also rolling out a $20 under-40 ticket for weeknight performances.

The Milwaukee Ballet is varying its programming to appeal to different age groups. Genesis, a contemporary show scheduled for March 26-29, should appeal to younger audiences. The Ballet is also hosting a mixer with choreographers and Artistic Director Michael Pink at the InterContinental for the opening night performance on March 26.

Many other arts performances are now coupled with social opportunities, happy hours and networking for young professionals. The MSO's Classical Connections offers networking receptions before and after concerts, along with an interactive, educational concert. In conjunction with the Entourage program, the Rep holds events before and after performances. Additionally, the Milwaukee Art Museum's monthly MAM After Dark seriesoffers DJs, cocktails, hors d'oeuvres and after-hours access to featured exhibits.

Marketing and Collaboration

Social media outlets such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter allow groups to develop a following and have surpassed the sporadic communication of monthly newsletters.

"As our budgets get even tighter, one silver lining is that low-cost, grassroots strategies-particularly social networking and other efforts that unfold online-appeal to urban professionals and speak to them in their own language," says Elysia Borowy-Reeder, MAM senior director of communications.

The MSO is experimenting with free digital downloads and podcasts to drive traffic to its Web site. So far, the symphony has seen 15,000 downloads of MSO tracks, says Susan Loris, vice president of marketing andcommunications.

Organizations are also partnering with hotels, restaurants and community groups to enhance the total entertainment experience for patrons. The Rep's Director's Dialogue Series features food from Balzac restaurant and allows patrons a behind-the-scenes look at upcoming performances.

The Florentine Opera and the MSO partner with Alterra to present free concerts in the cafes for Florentine at the Lake in the summer and MSO Mondays throughout the year.

Smaller groups like Present Music rely mostly on word of mouth to generate buzz about their programs. By partnering with other arts and community organizations for unique programming and events, the organization expands its resources, says Managing Director Eric Lind.

Down Economy

As the recession reverberates to every corner of America, arts groups are experimenting with new tactics to continue selling tickets. While the economic downturn has been a challenge for contributed income, many groups are reporting strong ticket sales, with some even seeing increases.

"For MSO patrons, perhaps they see the music as a comfort and as a way to escape their economic worries, even for a short while," Loris says.

Through the use of strategic marketing, collaboration and discounted ticket programs, Milwaukee arts groups are finding new ways to make themselves accessible and attractive, even to cash-strapped, time-starved patrons.


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