Commentary: What are the arts doing for audiences over 55?

Lisa Baxter, The Experience Business blog, 3/27/12

I'd like to invite you to think about one element of your existing or potential audiences to see how well you know them ... the over 55s. Forget demographics, postcodes and reductive segmentation systems. Focus on the human factor. What is it like being an over 55? What are their choices, life challenges and opportunities? The first qualitative research project I ever conducted was with people aged 55 and over who had retired, or were about to retire. We learnt an important distinguishing factor between those about to retire was the balance between social and solitary leisure activity in their lives. Socially active people already had a cornucopia of 'action plans' for their retirement and revealedthey would be continually on the lookout for more. Those people who were not socially active felt apprehensive about retirement. Most felt at a loss as to how to fill the social void because they were not, by nature, gregarious people. What they wanted was something 'less-in-your-face', opportunities to pursue focused, relaxing activities, but perhaps in company. Many of the people I spoke with were not culturally active and hadn't considered arts/cultural engagement as a retirement activity ... but once they got talking about their needs the arts seemed perfectly placed to deliver on them. They were ripe for meaningful arts engagement, they just hadn't realised it. This research was conducted nearly 20 years ago. A lot has changed. People now live with the prospect of working until they're older, but they are also living fitter, healthier and longer lives. How will this impact on their needs and priorities when they reach the age of 55, 65, 75? How could the arts occupy a meaningful place in their lives? And how are we planning for that NOW?


In London, a theater chain launches workshops for senior citizens

ATG website, 3/20/12

Ambassador Theatre Group teamed up with the University of the Third Age, a lifelong learning co-operative for those aged 60+, to present a day of workshops at the Piccadilly Theatre in London. On 12 March, 101 senior theatre enthusiasts travelled to the West End to find out how live theatre works. Attendees also enjoyed an evening performance of Ghost the Musical, where the show's production team was on hand to share their expertise. A second identical workshop day [took] place at the Piccadilly Theatre on 27 March. Throughout the day the U3A members completed four workshops... about the history of the Piccadilly and changes in theatre practice over the decades; [about] theatre directing; [a demo of] some of the special effects in the show and the complexities of backstage work; and a workshop on playwriting, focusing on how to draw from your own life experiences to create theatre.


In NYC, "Mind the Gap" workshop connects young and old through theater

11th-grader Max Friedlich, Theater Development Fund's Play By Play website, 3/30/12  Mind the Gap is a free, 10-session playwriting workshop for teenagers and senior citizens, run by New York Theatre Workshop, with the goal of merging communities through theater. Now in its fourth year, "the Gap" pairs a half dozen students aged 60+, with an equal number aged 14-18. Members of each teen/senior citizen pair share his or her life with the other. Each then writes a play inspired by the life of the other. As a Mind the Gap alum, I can say personally that the results have been moving and artistically fruitful to all, transformational for most, and even life-changing for some. Senior citizen Casandra Niambi Steele credits "Mind the Gap" with helping her escape the homeless system after a series of setbacks, as well as inspiring her to begin writing and performing again. When teens and seniors first meet in the program, says senior citizen Eleanor Herman, "there surely is a gap between minds." But as they "begin to talk, guards down, face-to-face, the gap slowly closes, a small miracle happens."


For contemporary classical music orgs, older people are the "holy grail"

Composer Seth Boustead, Asking Audiences blog, 1/10/11

At a panel presentation in Chicago, I listened intently as panelists discussed the future of classical music. It seems that everyone is worried about how to attract younger audience members. As I listened, I couldn't help but think how removed I am from these concerns. As director of an organization dedicated to promoting the music of living composers, I realized that...if anything, we have the opposite problem! We could really use more older people with disposable income and a history of philanthropic giving in our audiences. I spoke with a person who works at a funding organization in town and was dismayed to hear him say that young audience members are the "holy grail" for any arts organization. I was surprised that someone who should be "in the know" doesn't realize that there are different kinds of classical music organizations, with very different challenges. We can't get older people to come to our concerts because many of them are old enough to have had bad experiences with contemporary music. They've seen self-indulgent performers dressed all in black who don't communicate anything, who come on stage and bloop, bleep and squawk and then pretentiously walk off. I'm old enough to have caught the tail end of this performance practice and am truly happy that it is rarely seen in contemporary music circles any more. But the damage has been done, and the "holy grail" for us is now the silver-haired couple willing to listen to a performance of music by a composer still alive or only recently dead.


Commentary: Do arts orgs' new digital focus leave out older audiences?

Nancy Groves, The Guardian [UK] Cultural Professionals Network blog, 3/12/12

I've been to two arts conferences in as many weeks, both discussing how digital is changing the way culture professionals do their jobs. The sector is enthusiastic about these opportunities but concerns were raised at both events about where older audiences fit into this brave new world. The wave of silver surfers grows ever bigger, but many older people still cannot -- or (understandably) choose not to -- email or tweet. Is the arts and heritage world doing its best to reach them? Or are we so excited by our new digital toys that we risk leaving the older generation out of the game?


Reply: Seniors are more expensive to reach through "old media"

"Cheeryble", 3/16/12: A big problem for arts organisations is simply one of budget. Digital marketing enables organisations to communicate cheaply and achieve a high return-on-expenditure ratio. And the less old media (print, advertising) are required the greater the unit costs of using them, so the worse the ROI ratio. That's exacerbated of course if the likely respondents to old media demand senior discounts... they're more expensive to reach and then want cheap tickets! So whatever lip service may be paid to inclusivity, economics is likely to rear its ugly and inevitable head.


Reply: Seniors' use of the Internet is not the issue; there are other barriers

"Turmeric", 3/17/12: I have always looked forward to my retirement as a time to enjoy exhibitions and theatre, and to join classes and other ways to participate. Although I have no problems using the internet, I find there are several barriers:

-- Websites and leaflets often use a confusing mix of colours, fonts and backgrounds which make legibility on screen and in print difficult.

-- Activities such as workshops are often for children and families, excluding older people unless they take grandchildren.

-- Galleries and museums have expensive cafes which deter visitors on low incomes. "Meal deals" and off-peak offers would encourage repeat visits.

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