A couple of weeks ago I went to a discussion with Michael Kaiser. It was a pretty interesting hour or so. There was a lot to take away from it. With the amount of challenges down the road, we need to challenge a lot of our assumptions.
While I agreed with a lot of what I heard for the immediate future, much of what I'm hearing and reading about what is needed for the road ahead sounds like an old doctor giving a kid a vaccine. I can't help but think that sometimes the vaccines are built around faulty assumptions.
At one point at the Kaiser panel, someone asked what specific challenges the next generation of leadership will need to be aware of. The answer gave me pause. Essentially a "lost generation" may be the biggest obstacle in the future of arts organizations.
I've read and heard talk about a supposed "lost generation" for the arts--a whole generation that did not get arts education in schools. The common thought is that if kids do not have exposure to the arts at a young age, they will never support the arts. Two things strike me about this. (Lest it be mistaken, I am not arguing against arts in the schools; however, there are several problematic points in this line of reasoning.)
The generation that I've heard mentioned that is lost to the arts are currently around 40-ish down to around 15-ish. Those were also the ages Kaiser threw out. When I looked around the room that didn't make sense. I'd estimate half the room for a talk on managing arts organizations during a time of crisis was from this lost generation. The majority of our audiences at Halcyon and many smaller companies I know are also from generation. Those most active in the theatrosphere are in this age range.
College arts enrollment (hell, even the number of available programs) have exploded during the last generation. Enrollment it is now considered so vast to be a great problem. The sheer number of students seeking degrees (let alone terminal ones) far outstrips the available number of jobs. The generation that was lost on the arts is actually migrating towards the arts in huge numbers.
Sometimes I can't quite reconcile the above with the dearth of younger audiences reported by most institutions. How can you get a student to spend four years and sometimes over a hundred grand (of their parents money or from future crippling loans) on an arts education, and not get them to shell out for a ticket to so many institutions? The longer I go, the less I believe a lack of arts education is the primary culprit.
I've also read staggering amounts of material about "where is the next generation of leaders." Boomers who currently run most institutions are fretting about who will take up their mantels and continue their direction.
Lost in the search for the next generation of leaders is an entire generation of leaders. That day will come; however, I've spoken to some who are (sometimes more than) a little insulted when they hear there is no one to take up the mantle. "I'm here. I'm ready. I'm smart. I'm visionary. I'm a leader. I'm broke. I can do this better. I've got a family . . ."
The key difference is that many younger leaders have started their own companies instead of waiting. They've left the field instead of waiting. They see the world very differently than the generation that preceded them. (Not a big shock, every generation does.) They want a chance. They want to run institutions differently. They want them to be "better." Better being a relative term of course.
When the boomers step aside they are going to want the next generation to continue on the same trail they blazed. Most folks in the arts under 40 that I know don't want to go down that same path. When arts institutions begin to reflect younger generations, I think you'll start to see more young audiences. The trick will be to not lose those already attending.
Personally, I don't think finding new audiences will be as much of a challenge as common wisdom dictates. I think managing the generational gap in handing over the reigns will make for a far bumpier ride.
image courtesy of Library of Congress via.