Persuading a 22-year-old to spend $50 for a theater ticket is one barrier arts organizations face in competing for younger audiences. These audiences, the children of baby boomers, grew up with MTV and a myriad of other entertainment choices. So it is not surprising that, according to a National Endowment for the Arts report, this group spends more time watching TV and videos at home than going to the theater.
Two members of the Young Iowans Cultural Council dance to a steel drum band at an Imagine Iowa event. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Arts Council)
To entice a younger generation to become arts patrons and consumers, cultural organizations have turned to marketing efforts such as offering "beer and ballet" nights and reduced ticket prices. The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA), which includes the Iowa Arts Council and the State Historical Society of Iowa, has taken a different tack. More than cultivating consumers, Iowa's approach is to involve its young people as decision makers, as artists who can earn a living wage and as entrepreneurs.
Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack initiated a statewide dialogue among residents about the kind of state they wanted to live in, and what they imagined their future to be. Through informal meetings at the state fair, forums and other events, these ideas were collected and formalized into a strategic plan, Iowa 2010. The arts council and the historical society contributed to this effort with Imagine Iowa 2010, a cultural planning process that set the ambitious goal of distinguishing Iowa as "a national leader in culture in ten years." Throughout 2001, the DCA convened meetings and conducted a statewide dialogue on how to create "an environment [of support] that allows the arts, history, humanities and sciences to thrive." Although seemingly obvious, participants recognized that young people were the key to the future success of this project not just as consumers of culture, but more importantly as stakeholders.
Networking Builds Participation
Among the several goals to emerge from Imagine Iowa 2010 was a focus on young people that took shape around the Young Iowans Cultural Council (YICC). Its purpose is to see that "young people are involved, engaged and committed to Iowa culture." Selected from a pool of applicants, YICC members serve for one year and conduct forums around the state to gather input, as well as serve on or advise cultural agency boards on issues of concern to young Iowans. Among the questions they are addressing are, What is a culturally rich Iowa? How can Iowa retain and nurture young artists? What are the factors that are important in attracting more young people to live and work in the state?
Paco Rosic and Maleika Ammar are YICC members who serve on the Waterloo Center for the Arts Commission. Angie Dethleffs, a member of the Waterloo arts commission, directs a teen board that reviews and awards grants for community youth projects. Together the three are advising the commission on the planning for a youth pavilion and contributing ideas on how to attract young audiences to the new facility. Rosic says, "I feel that we are making an impact and that we are being listened to. We are encouraged to voice any idea that pops into our heads, and I feel we do a great job of communicating those ideas to the other members of the board."
For arts organizations, one of the leading motivators for participation is word of mouth. As the YICC grows, it is nurturing personal interaction and a bond among its target audience of 17- to 26-year-olds. This in turn creates an informal network that promotes new opportunities for graduates in the arts, history, humanities and sciences to find gainful employment. The YICC also provides a conduit for arts organizations to draw on the perspectives of this broad and diverse group through members like Ted Stephens. He is a board member of the Countryside Community Theater in Bettendorf, and an ex-officio member of the Iowa Arts Council. Says Stephens, "I have been doing quite a bit of marketing for the group and offer a perspective of getting new people involved in the organization and cultivating a new breed of audience and patrons."
Building a stronger presence in the community, attracting people to the arts and growing new audiences happens over time through listening, valuing and responding. Imagine Iowa 2010 recognizes that breaking down the many myths that plague the arts -- they are elitist, too hard to understand, etc. -- takes a long-range vision and a tool like the Young Iowans Cultural Council to build commitment and community spirit through listening and responding to new ideas. The YICC continues this process with its bimonthly meetings around the state, and its focus on creating a Web presence and developing an e-zine.
"Iowa is really focusing on keeping and attracting young people," says IAC Executive Director Anita Walker. "Culture is a very important part of making life experiences well-rounded and dispelling the myth that there is nothing to do here. The concept is so simple -- asking young Iowans to help us enhance cultural opportunities and at the same time build the necessary support so that graduates in the arts, humanities, sciences or history can find meaningful work in Iowa."