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Sunday, 08 December 2013 20:37

Broadening the base: Symphonies experiment to reach new audiences, donors

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Grand Rapids Symphony performing at DeVos Hall. Grand Rapids Symphony performing at DeVos Hall. COURTESY PHOTO: TERRY JOHNSTON

The aging of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s core audience members and supporters has led to a new program designed to attract and retain the next generation of symphony-goers.

Last month, the symphony held a gathering and began selling memberships to people between the ages 21 and 35 as part of its MySymphony360 program that was developed based on input from 24 young professionals who are part of a Community Engagement Committee formed in 2010. About 50 memberships have already been sold.

The cost of the annual membership — $25 for an individual and $40 for an individual plus one — gives patrons the opportunity to purchase concert tickets for $15 each, as well as access to all events, receptions and gatherings.

Evette Pittman, director of development events and community engagement for the Grand Rapids Symphony, said discussions about MySymphony360 began about one year ago.

“Many people on our board were taking a look at our audience at classical or pop concerts and looking at our donor base as well,” Pittman said. “They noticed that the audience and donors were maturing in age.”

Pittman said there was a recognition that the Grand Rapids Symphony would have to start actively cultivating the next generation of concert-goers.

“You have to look at the next generation and what happens when patrons can’t come to a concert,” she said. “This is a vital part of our society and we don’t want to see it die.”

During the last decade, symphonies throughout the United States have been struggling with low attendance figures and an aging core audience. Many of them are finding creative ways to attract and retain a younger audience.

Earlier this year, the West Michigan Symphony in Muskegon opened a new music venue in the city’s downtown that created another revenue stream for the organization and offered a more intimate setting for musical performances. The venue known as The Block has seating for about 110 people.

“The way we talk about The Block is that this is where music happens with you, not to you,” Carla Hill, president and CEO of the West Michigan Symphony, said at the time. “It becomes a different feel when you have one, two or three artists performing. It’s important to us to have that intimacy.”

The performers at these shows will talk, tell stories and connect with the audience in a way that isn’t typical for many classical music performances. It’s a big step for the organization, which is trying hard to do something many other symphonies don’t pursue — make classical music more accessible.

“We may attract audience members we haven’t seen before,” Hill said. “Part of our challenge is to attract a new audience who may bring their friends.”

Pittman said this is similar to what the Grand Rapids Symphony is trying to do. In addition to reduced ticket prices, MySymphony360 members will be able to meet and greet musicians and network during backstage receptions.

Members of the Community Engagement Committee said tickets need to be affordable for young families and young professionals who want to see more people who look like them in the audience.

Nikki Statler, sales and marketing director for the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, said her organization is closely following the efforts of other symphonies to see how successful they are.

“We know that we need to expand our audiences as a natural progression to get people to enter the symphonic realm,” Statler said. “A lot of symphonies are facing the reality that they need to start encouraging audience members early on to get set in the tendency and ritual of attending concerts.”

Statler said the KSO has had success with special promotions on ticket prices and concerts that incorporate movie themes.

Pittman said initiatives such as “Music and Microbrews” have provided an avenue to expose people to the symphony in a different setting. She said musicians are taken out of DeVos Hall where they normally perform and show up for gigs or drop-in performances at a bar or a lounge.

“People who never got to DeVos but go to a lounge or bar get to experience the symphony,” she said, adding that it’s not that people don’t enjoy the music, but rather that they don’t understand it. “They don’t realize when they’re watching a movie that it includes symphonic music. We wanted to expose them to fact that they should (watch) ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ or ‘Lord of the Rings’ with no music. Everybody has a preconceived notion about music and it’s so broad and varied.”

Among these preconceived notions is that the music symphonies play is dry and stuffy, Statler said.

“That’s not the case. We want to keep the integrity of the symphony and the orchestra and the traditional quality of the music it represents, but we also want to introduce new people to it,” she said.

The reality is that a reliance on the status quo could lead to the obsolescence of symphonies, Pittman said.

“We need to be a part of what makes Grand Rapids vibrant,” she said. “When institutions like Spectrum Health are looking at bringing in doctors and researchers, they will ask about our arts offerings. We have an obligation to be part of that conversation.”

Read 2461 times Last modified on Thursday, 05 December 2013 15:50
Jane C. Simons

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jsimons@mibiz.com

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