The Millennials Project (or my attempt at not ranting about how I don’t buy this concept)

I read a very interesting —yet mildly frustrating— article earlier this week (a BIG thank you to You’ve Cott Mail’s for featuring it) about a new initiative the Kennedy Center recently launched called The Millennials Project —a program designed to attract 20-somethings to the theater. This was revealed about a month ago when they announced their 2011-12 season but came up in a Huffington Post article last week when Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser claimed that the arts in America face a major problem, namely that young people do not go to the theater, attend dance events, operas, or concerts due to a lack of arts exposure during their lifetime.

Upon first glance at the headline, I thought ‘Oh, well this is an interesting idea.’ But as I continued to read Mr. Kaiser’s article and came to this quote:

“I am constantly amazed at the low culture IQ of very bright and talented young people who have achieved a great deal in other realms. When I was once called a “media Caruso” in the press, a 23-year-old with whom I worked asked what a Caruso was!”

I felt the need to get mildly defensive (and, for the record —the Caruso reference is completely lost on me, I freely admit it. I guess my culture IQ just dropped 10 points, eh? Damn).

Why is it assumed that because, as 20-somethings, we are heavy social media users; text more frequently than we probably should; and spend copious amounts of time online, watching TV, and cruising our Netflix cues, that we are so low-browed? Just because I engage in all of the above on a daily basis (and continually ask myself ‘What Would Liz Lemon Do?’ when I can’t figure something out), does not mean that they occupy all my time or in any way have an effect on my going out to see a play, take in a concert, or watch a dance performance. Quite the contrary.

“The goal of our Millennials project is to do remedial work; to bring a group of Millennials into our theaters often enough that they build a habit of arts participation.”

There has to be something, a certain je ne sais quoi, about an artist or a play that compels me to go see it. Despite working at three very different theaters around the country in the last three years, one would be surprised at how little theater and performing arts most of us in this industry actually see. Frankly, it’s expensive. And I simply can’t justify seeing something ‘just to see it,’ for my wallet’s sake and my own. Also, can one really make a habit out of arts participation? It sounds like they’re going to force feed art to people. Good luck with that.

Washington DC arts marketer Maura Lafferty gave an eloquently, succinct, and clever response to Mr. Kaiser’s article here, Millennials: The Throwdown (again, thanks Cott Mail). She mentions many truths about our generation which are spot on (couldn’t have written it better myself).

“The difference with Millenials is that this level of education, authenticity, and the values we grew up with is that we like to do things ourselves. Maybe the problem is that everyone is just too busy being empowered, pursuing self-actualization, and changing the world. We don’t want to wait for the Kennedy Center subscription brochure or you to tell us what’s meaningful in the world right now…Learn what is relevant and interesting to people aged 21-40. Insulting a target demographic or bemoaning the changes in cultural values won’t help you create a solution to your butts-in-seats problem. And speaking of butts, kiss mine.”

And with that, I completely agree. It might also come from being an only child, but I don’t mind doing things by myself. If there’s a show I want to see and no one can go with me, that’s not going to stop me from seeing it. And no offense to their next theater season, but there’s not really anything of interest to me (hey, you can’t make everyone happy). Half of what’s on next year’s slate I could catch in New York (note to Wicked: you can’t tempt me by staying in NYC and hitting every sizable venue in the country simultaneously! I won’t go!). If I’m going to drop $30-70 on a ticket for a play, you know damn well it’s going to be for a production that 1) I really want to see 2) I can afford and not have to sit in my seat cringing from buyers remorse 3) I’m seeing not in the spirit of ‘arts participation,’ but in support of American theatre.

When I was little (yes, there was actually a point in my life where I wasn’t über tall), I took ballet and jazz classes, I was in the school choir and a few plays, and also played violin (I had a fondness strumming for Disney tunes…shocker). I was also fortunate to have awesome parents who frequently took me to see plays at First Stage Milwaukee and “Kinderkonzerts” at the MSO. Looking back on it all now, I suppose it’s really no surprise that I ended up working in the arts, but I digress. Just because I don’t actively seek out or often attend music or dance performances, does not mean that I don’t appreciate or support them. It’s because of those early experiences that, barring some kind of spontaneous personal financial meltdown, I will continue to talk up and support Milwaukee’s thriving arts and culture community in any way I can. And even though I don’t currently live in Milwaukee, I can still support the organizations that I know and enjoy from The Jerse and beyond.

It will certainly be fascinating to see how this project progresses and to what lengths they’ll go to get me and my fellow 20-something comrades into that theater and keep us there. With my chocolate milk in hand, cheers Kennedy Center! May you attract the millennials you seek and cease insulting us in the process. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go take my low culture IQ’d self over to the couch and watch reruns of Frasier.


Culture Stops —Providence, RI

3 thoughts on “The Millennials Project (or my attempt at not ranting about how I don’t buy this concept)

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  1. Nice post lady.

    Michael Kaiser’s article really upset me, as you noted on twitter. As a former Kennedy Center intern, I have long admired Michael Kaiser. The staff there speaks about him in hushed, respectful tones. By the time my intern “class” met him, it was like meeting the Wizard of Oz. I’ve read his book, which was not very well written, but had some great points. I saw him on his lecture tour. The Kennedy Center, in many ways, has always seemed to defy arts administration law. It provides a free performance every single day of the year. It hosts a unique fellowship program for the future arts leaders and emphasizes the importance of training those leaders. It plans epic and fantastic festivals…

    But with this one article, I had to seriously question my allegiance. Its biggest blunder was underestimating or misunderstanding the very group they want to engage.

    I had an awful art history professor in college. He assumed that no student in his introductory class would know a single thing about art history. It was insulting to everyone involved, regardless of their previous knowledge.

    Kaiser did the same thing. He proclaimed that 20’s know nothing and attend nothing. He dropped a snotty opera reference. Then, to make matters worse, his reason for engaging millenials was selfish, to cultivate future donors and patrons. That may be a part of your reason, but that is not going to convince us.

    I attended at least 86 live performances in multiple cities last year alone. Often I have brought friends with me. Don’t piss me off. Figure off why I’m attending and harness that.

  2. This was a very interesting read! You are an excellent writer, although I am not really surprised by that! 🙂

    It is interesting that the Kennedy Center makes that point about the Millennials having such a low-culture IQ & is responding in such an odd way. Then again I’ve lived here for months and have not had any major desire to attend an event at the Kennedy Center–mainly because I’m just too poor!

    I look forward to reading your musings as you publish them!

  3. ‘It is popular to bemoan the fact that young people spend too much time communicating vapid thoughts on Facebook or Twitter. I think this is unfair to younger people. We in responsible arts positions must give them something to talk about.’

    Ironically, from Michael’s column published feb 14th on the same site.

    Oh, Michael, you enigma!

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