WBHM 90.3 FM
Your NPR News Station


90.3 WBHM Birmingham -- There are more than 1500 professional theater companies operating in the U-S, 1,200 symphony orchestras, 600 youth orchestras, and 120 opera companies. 5,000 writers’ conferences take place annually and the number of museums? Well – it seems like a new one is opening every day somewhere in the country. And all of these non-profit organizations are competing for public attendance. A 2002 study of arts attendance finds that it’s up – but so is the average age of attendees … from 42 to 45. And that has arts organizations scrambling to figure out how to get more young people in the house.

Junior Patrons at the Birmingham Museum of Art

“We’re learning that what we have to do is take something on pop culture… bring them in, and then teach them something.”

That’s Kimberly King. She heads up membership at the Birmingham Museum of Art. Hoping to lure more young adults into the museum, BMA created the Junior Patrons program – catering to people age 20 to 40. They sponsor events like Gallery crawls in Homewood and the Lakeview district. Junior patrons walk from one art gallery to another, enjoying food, drink, and live music.

“The first big party that we had that we knew we could get over 500 people, we had an exhibition called Desire and Emotion, which was a pretty racy exhibition from Nepal and Tibet.”

They called the event “Sex, Sushi and Sculpture”. Nothing like a couple of free California rolls to build good will! Seems sushi is a big seller draw with the Gen-X crowd.

Kamisaka Sekka

On this night at the BMA, the event is “Sushi, Saki and Sekka”, featuring the work of Japanese artist Kamisaka Sekka. Dozens of adults – both young and young at heart – mingle around the sushi bar, drinking beer, wine and soda. Among them, Don Wood, the museum’s curator of Asian art.

“You know, a lot of people they think of a museum as being perhaps a bit stuffy, a bit staid, not for them and something like tonight shows them, you know, there’s something here for everyone.”

Because, afterall, it’s not all about the munchies and music. Upstairs, junior patrons admire Sekka’s artwork while working on a scavenger hunt. 26-year-old Jennifer is nervous about talking on the radio because, she says, she doesn’t know anything about art. That’s why she joined the junior patrons.

“I mainly came because they do after hours things where they walk you around and tell you about the art work and it’s geared toward young people so guess that makes you feel more inclined to come – mainly because sometimes people think art is for older people or extremely artsy people.”

“People are scared of things they don’t know!”

Langston Hereford is past president of the Junior Patrons. She also works at a Birmingham art gallery.

The gallery where Langston Hereford works

“ I think people are afraid to come into an art gallery because they might not be able to afford it and it might be over their head and it might be too contemporary.”

She says the Junior Patron program demystifies the whole “art thing” for many 20-somethings. But is the push to get Gen-Xers in the door going too far? One of the most popular Junior Patron events at the Birmingham Museum of Art was a lecture series on the bestseller The DaVinci Code. The book was a blockbuster, but it drew fire for its conspiratorial mix of fact and fiction. The BMA’s Kimberly King admits that even the curator who conducted the lecture series had some reservations… but…

“They came in because they were excited about the book, which was fiction… and in turn our curator of European art ended up teaching all of our participants something about art. We’ve learned that it may take pop culture to draw them in, but we’re gonna teach them something too.”

Peter B. Lewis

(Lewis) “Museums have increasingly recognized that they’re competing with Disney Land and the NY Knicks and they’re modifying their behavior accordingly.”

Peter Lewis is the head of Progressive Insurance Corporation and a prolific philanthropist. He’s donated millions to museums and arts groups across the country and says he has no problem with museums and other groups pushing the envelope to get more young people in the door. Still – how much is too much? Again, Kimberly King.

“I was reading in the NYTimes article about the Natural History Museum in New York. They are doing walk through the galleries with personal trainers. And you know, just you read things and they are just grasping, even in New York, you know grasping for just anything to get people in the doors. Come, we’re gonna take a personal trainer to get you to go through the exhibitions and I guess they just want them to get a glance because they’re walking through pretty quickly.”

Of course, it’s not all fun and games, because, afterall, one of the main goals of getting young adults into museums and theaters and concert halls is to warm them up to the idea of eventually donating to the organization. Again, Langston Hereford.

“You want ‘em to get in the mindset – you know, one of these days when I’m a partner in the law firm and I’m doing real well I’m gonna go and donate to the museum and spend my money!”

Art on the Rocks

So far, Generation X has proved a pretty elusive demographic for most charities. A study by Indiana University’s Center on Philanthropy showed that in 2000 only 53% Gen-Xers donated $25 or more charity, compared to 75% for baby boomers and 80% for the oldest generation. The Birmingham Museum of Art hopes to turn that tide with events like Art on the Rocks, which organizers say will feature some of the nation’s most “buzzworthy” musical acts, tempting hors d’oeuvres and hands-on creative opportunities. Art on the Rocks debuts tomorrow night at the Birmingham Museum of Art.

-- Tanya Ott, April 7, 2005