Reaching the young: Spoleto Festival and other arts groups depend on new generation of patrons, donors
Last year, symphony orchestras from Honolulu to Philadelphia to Syracuse filed for bankruptcy or shut down entirely. Many others — including those in Dallas, Detroit, Louisville, Charlotte and Charleston — have struggled to survive in recent years due to financial hardships.
In an effort to increase revenue and ensure future sustainability, many arts organizations are seeking ways to cultivate a new generation of patrons.
In Germany, for example, renowned American conductor David Zinman holds orchestral concerts at 10 p.m., followed by all-night dance parties. Locally, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, which was forced to suspend operations two years ago but has since stormed back, seeks to hook people from a young age.
“We provide educational outreach programs that reach nearly 15,000 high school and middle school students each year,” said Daniel Beckley, director of the CSO. The orchestra posts regularly on Facebook and has over 1,200 “likes.”
Securing young involvement, it seems, is critical if arts organizations are going to survive and thrive. Spoleto Festival USA is no exception.
While orchestras and other companies continue to struggle, the Spoleto Festival has enjoyed a record-breaking day of ticket sales this year. Part of its success is likely due to its range of offerings that appeal to younger festivalgoers, and its aggressive social media campaign.
But even with strong sales, Spoleto is not immune to the disinterest of young adults. A glance into any chamber music concert or opera reveals only a smattering of youth among a more seasoned crowd.
Dan Heredita, a 22-year-old graduate of the College of Charleston, cites ticket prices as one reason young people don’t frequent some festival events.
“College students don’t have much of a budget,” Heredita said. “Most of these events are expensive and we don’t have access to that kind of money.”
Ticket prices for some opera and theatre productions start at $25; Joy Kills Sorrow tickets cost $30 and $45.
Heredita was an arts management student who has worked this year on the radio program “Spoleto Today,” which gave him an inside look at the festival. In his four years at the College of Charleston, he never attended a Spoleto event, he said.
The festival has taken steps to market to Heredita’s generation, most notably with social media. Spoleto Festival USA has nearly 4,000 followers on Twitter and more than 7,500 “likes” on Facebook. In February, the festival raised $31,785 in an auction held online.
Regardless of the age of attendees, tickets to the festival are selling well this year. On the eve of the festival, $75,000 was racked up in ticket sales. So far, more than 60,000 have been sold, compared with 56,217 this time last year.
Several hundred tickets have been purchased by members of the Spoleto Festival’s under-40 donor group, Spoleto SCENE.
“We are the future of Spoleto donors and patrons,” said co-chairperson Liza Cleveland.
Spoleto SCENE is a program designed to reach people in their 20s and 30s. A minimum donation of $120 earns SCENE members access to three exclusive parties with artists, a number of small social events and discounted tickets to most major performances.
“The festival program is overwhelming,” said Cleveland. “We weed through it and choose what might be appealing to our members and offer discounted tickets to those shows.”
Spoleto SCENE has 180 members and has received more than $25,000 in contributions so far this year. (Spoleto Festival’s 49-person board of directors has pitched in more than $600,000, according to recent budget numbers.)
The group tries to foster interest in the arts in other ways. “We give free dress-rehearsal tickets to our members — usually to the opera,” Cleveland said. “If it’s free, people are more likely to go. It’s a good way to expose people to new things.”
And if there’s one thing young people love, it’s free stuff.
“I went to the dress rehearsal of Kepler because I had free access” through the arts management program,” Heredita said. “I’d never been to an opera before, but I will definitely come again.”
Chris Baker is a Newhouse School graduate student.