How is the old guard of specifically the performing arts industry getting to know and educating the next generation of arts enthusiasts?

I recently stumbled upon Adam Gopnik‘s compelling take on the popular use of the word “awkward” in his Moth Hour story, and was inspired to attempt some words about the intersection of art education, the performing arts economy and young people.

Gopnik and his son stumbled upon two men having sex at their NYC gym. To him it was totally “inappropriate” but he struggled with what he termed “liberal guilt” over this assessment. Still, he couldn’t think of another word for it. His son on the other hand simply shrugged and said, “Yeah, that was awkward.” Gopnik remarks:

“I knew at that moment what a great blessing this word [awkward] was… because my generation is obsessed with appropriate, inappropriate… and his generation is concerned only about grace… something is either a graceful action or it’s an awkward action. They’re without bigotry, self-consciousness, without even differentiation of any kind. The whole world is a wonderful aquarium of events… in which you watch everything go by and some of it is graceful and some of it is awkward and that’s the only appropriate judgement you can pass on it.”

This insight on Gopnik’s part is compelling because it breaths fresh air into what otherwise might be dismissed as a dismal reality of youth culture today. Often berated for murdering the English language, I find this assessment of “awkward” incredibly, well, graceful. If we wish to create lifelong patrons of the Arts, people who will spend money on the Arts, these kinds of keen cross-generational insights are important. We can’t assume that young people are only interested in being Beliebers or twerking, nor can we assume the relics of standard theater performance will hold up either.

At one time not too long ago, the only way to see live art was to buy a ticket to a theater and go watch a performance. 

And it was thrilling. It still can be- big time! But it’s not necessary in order to see art anymore. Today you find so much visual stimulation and immediate access to music from any number of devices and platforms that soft seat theaters and other venues alike are left wondering how in the world they will draw in future audiences and stay afloat.

Burning Man attracts over 70,000 visitors from around the world each year for a week of mind-bogglingly dense art, culture, music, and self-expression in the middle of the desert.

Burning Man attracts over 70,000 visitors from around the world each year for a week of mind-bogglingly dense art, culture, music, and self-expression in the middle of the desert.

In truth, they are up against Burning ManCoachella, seriously bumping clubs… to name a few. If you can even capture attention these days, can you then also translate that to ticket sales?

The answer is to find the confluence where old-school marvel meets new school edgy. Despite the wholesale defunding of arts education, the fact is that young people today are more savvy and, in some ways, have more access to a wide range of art than ever before. They are, generally speaking, a more open-minded, globally-aware, bohemian-type generation.

Whereas my generation wanted to claim our identities (I’m Goth, I’m Punk, I’m a Deadhead), this generation seems to resent and defy all the boxes and labels. Sure, we grew out of that. But the new generation doesn’t seem to have gotten stuck there in the first place. Their interests are more varied, which makes capturing their gaze both trickier and more exciting. More diversity of interests mean more potential audiences for any given act, and more competition for that audience.

Take young superstar Lorde, the 17 year old musical genius who sprung out of seemingly thin, New Zealand air onto the global music scene last Spring with her hypnotic, anti-glam hit Royals. If you don’t know who Lorde is, you best read up, and prepare to be bamboozled by her intelligence, poise, and breadth of artistic knowledge.

I point her out because she represents for me a mammoth shift from one-dimensionality to four dimensionality in how we choose to view arts education, as well as what young artists are really thinking about. She isn’t alone in this, just a current and poignant example of   how having been given an arts education from a young age benefits not only Ms. Lorde, but the arts industry as well.

If you look around, you will see art and arts organizations thriving and/or surviving everywhere. This is the good news. But we also see the devastating disappearance of arts educating in schools. Therefore, if the grand, old theaters want to entice the audiences of the future, their role in arts ed is more crucial than ever. Many theaters have strong educational outreach programs, some don’t. Some are really mixing it up on their stages and thinking out of the box. This is key.

Because many young people do have access to a lot of art in a digitalized world doesn’t necessarily mean they have the kind of access that an arts education can give. Theaters and performing artists alike are charged more than ever with the task of fostering art appreciation and patronage genuinely and progressively.

Many young people today have an exceptionally sharp eye for authenticity. Amidst a world overloaded with falsity and pretense, there is a real sense of revolution by the current youth culture against bullshit, exclusivity, and bigotry. And so the fine arts world, the performing arts world, the soft seat theater must get down with this new vibration of a new generation that demands more cross-sectionality, more risk, and a fresh thematic pulse if it wishes to capture the arts audiences of the future.

Watch these short, 3 minute videos featuring 10 Nonprofits Teaching Arts Education To Kids Across The Country. Find one near you and get involved! 

Thanks, HuffPost, for highlighting these great organizations!
Do you run an arts education nonprofit? I’d love to hear about it! Do you need assistance in creating content, getting the word out, or grant writing? Contact meabout sliding scale fees for arts education nonprofits.

“The arts can help students become tenacious, team-oriented problem-solvers who are confident and able to think creatively. These qualities can be especially important in improving learning among students from economically disadvantaged circumstances.”
— Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education