Young at Art

William Cullum, Jeffrey Rhodes, Kyle Nichols, Erin Perkins, Justin Harris, Tasha Tucker and Liza Cleveland (left to right) relaxed with friends at Spoleto SCENE's annual brunch on Sunday at Spoleto headquarters at 14 George St.

When it comes to arts patrons, the trend leans toward bigger is better: million-dollar endowments, gifts of personal collections or entire estates. Since expendable income, by and large, takes time to build, contributions are oftentimes restricted to an exclusive demographic: 50-plus.

Many thirtysomethings decide whether to attend a performance solely on ticket price. And several twentysomethings have to be willing to brown bag it for a week just to give that suggested donation of $10 at the museum door.

It's no wonder young adults frequently feel little hope of making themselves into modern Medicis.

"I would pay to be an arts patron," said Rachel Reid, a 23-year-old recent graduate of the College of Charleston. "If I could afford it."

For now, Reid shows her artistic backing with attendance, mostly free shows, until she finds a job and can do more.

Newlywed natives Roby and Beth Seed, 27 and 26, struggle with the same financial roadblocks.

"We definitely support the arts however we can," Beth said. "But being patrons just is not in our budget right now."

Instead, the couple seeks work-arounds, through volunteering, making small purchases, such as a $25 copy of this year's Maya Lin poster, and free sponsored events.

What the 20 to 40 demographic may not realize is that the opportunity to be a patron does exist. Here. Now. And it's affordable.

In recent years, a crushing wave of financial woe hit the art scene hard. In Charleston's case, however, this has not been all bad, as several young-patron programs have popped up in its wake. Hard times have made for a new breed of younger, more budget-constrained philanthropists.

The most prominent group in town courting the under-40 set is SCENE (Support, Connect, Experience, Network, Enjoy).

Founded in 2006, the group's mission is to identify, engage and cultivate the next generation of Spoleto patrons in order to develop and foster long-term relationships between members and the festival. Right now, it offers a low-cost membership, rates start at $100, specifically for 20-to-39-year-olds (yes, proof of age is required.) It also supplies a great fringe benefits package: discounted tickets, artist meet and greets, exclusive parties and plenty of schmooze time.

Elizabeth Lipscomb, a 26-year-old steering committee member for SCENE, said, "Without SCENE, Spoleto is for younger audiences, unfortunately, just another missed opportunity each year."

Luckily, the group's retention rates are high. According to Glen Gardner, the 31-year-old co-chairman, membership jumped from 160 in 2009 to 222 this year, and donations to the 2010 festival were $26,000.

First-year SCENE member Deirdre Zahl, 29, said joining has seriously enhanced her Spoleto experience this year.

"Not only does SCENE throw great parties," she said. "It puts more events on my radar and gives me the chance to really be a part of Spoleto."

But even after Spoleto folds its tent, there are other opportunities for Gen X and Y art lovers to show support in Charleston. Several local organizations have established memberships touting discounted rates and exclusive benefits for young professionals.

Charleston Stage, for example, has a membership called just that: Young Professionals. The group was founded five years ago as the young adult (20 to 40) arm of the theatre's Director's Circle memberships. Benefits include two tickets to each of the six Main Stage performances, pre-show cocktail hours, post-show receptions held at The Dock Street Theatre, and the opportunity to mingle with cast and crew.

Taking youth involvement in the arts a step further, the Stage is also heavily focused on kids. In fact, a percentage of all Young Professional dues go toward sponsoring elementary-high school workshops and performances.

"It's important to cultivate arts appreciation early on," said Beth Curley, director of marketing. "We hope that by providing this experience for the youth, their love for theatre and the arts will continue to grow into their adulthood."

Similarly, the Gibbes Board of Directors and staff noticed a need to cultivate the next generation of art patrons, and met in December for a preliminary discussion on forming such a cohort.

Society 1858, the year Gibbes started its own permanent collection, was the result. An unofficial launch party for it in March piqued the interest of more than 200 guests, who donated nearly $5,000. The reception featured a private gallery tour of the Modern Masters from the Ferguson Collection led by the Esther and Jim Ferguson themselves.

Society 1858 will officially become the museum's third auxiliary group this September.

"When you become involved early with the arts, it becomes second nature to continue," said Helen Pratt-Thomas, Society 1858's 36-year-old co-chairwoman, "Our hope is that the individuals who join develop a passion for the arts, and that it will be automatic for these same individuals to become the next generation of leaders in the Charleston arts community."

Sarah Zimmerman is a Goldring Arts Journalism Program writer. Reach her at sazimmer@syr.edu.