By Erica Demarest
It’s been described as the best party in town.
Not exactly the image “opera outreach program” conjures for most people, but with live music, animated conversation and authentic paella, the Austin Lyric Opera’s La Noche de Opera feels more like a family gathering than an organized event, which chair Amalia Rodriguez-Mendoza says is part of its charm.
“It’s very warm and welcoming, very alegre,” she says.
La Noche has been educating Austin Latinos about opera for the past 15 years, drawing in hundreds of new attendees annually. Nationally, Latinos make up just 7 percent of opera audiences, a number managing director Kevin Patterson says could be a problem in the 40-percent Latino city of Austin.
“Within the next decade, the Hispanic population will be the predominant population of Texas,” Patterson says. “We can either embrace the Hispanic community or become very insular. It’s there, and it’s a vibrant, culturally robust, diverse and engaging community. If you don’t speak to Hispanics, eventually you kind of render yourself irrelevant.”
While the Austin Lyric Opera’s approach is unique, its situation is not. Arts attendance has declined steadily over the past decade, dropping 12 percent since 2002, according to a study by the National Endowment for the Arts. As traditionally older, white audiences are aging faster than the general population, many operas, symphonies, theaters and museums have begun to court younger, more diverse audiences.
In areas with large Latino populations, such as Austin, Chicago and Los Angeles, the focus has naturally been on Latinos. Business and marketing models are shifting as many institutions attempt to capture the attention of the largest and fastest growing minority in America.
If recent demographic projections from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Pew Research Center are any indication, these new audiences will be key to many institutions’ survival. By 2050 nearly one-third of all Americans will be Latino, white citizens will be a minority, and more than half of the country will be younger than 35, the Census Bureau projects.
“We’re going to run out of visitors,” says Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums. “If we’re not starting to reposition ourselves now and reach out, then as 2050 rolls around, there’s going to be a lot less museums.”
SUBHED: Breaking down cultural barriers
While most arts organizations recognize that reaching more diverse audiences could be the key to remaining relevant in their communities, establishing beneficial corporate partnerships and staving off potential closures, most don’t quite know where to start.
American Latinos are far from monolithic, representing a diverse range of languages, cultures and traditions that cannot be reached in one fell swoop by marketing. While about 65 percent of Latinos count Mexico as their country of origin, 35 percent come from a variety of South and Central American countries, according to a 2010 report by the New Policy Institute. And while about 80 percent speak Spanish at home, many speak indigenous languages or prefer English.
Accessibility is the first step, says Patterson.
“Let’s face it. In any culture, opera is seen as this elitist, white, Western art form,” Patterson says. “If you don’t self-identify with opera, you’ll say, ‘That’s not my thing, it’s not for me, I’m not going to do it.’ But La Noche says, ‘It is for you. Come join us.’ Art is already such a huge part of Hispanic culture. It’s just letting them know it’s there and available to them.”
Letting Latinos know it’s there often starts with the kids. The Austin Lyric Opera runs a music school that serves 12,000 families per year. Those who partake in the arts as children are significantly more likely to do so later in life, according to a National Endowment for the Arts study. Children who don’t, often report feeling alienated by arts institutions as adults.
“If you grow up going to museums and knowing what they are, you already know what to expect,” says Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums. “If you go to a banquet and have a place setting with five knives and five forks and five spoons, you’ll think, ‘What the heck am I supposed to pick up?’ If you go to a museum, there’s a lot of underlying knowledge of how it works, and who’s staffing it, and what you’re supposed to do, and what you’re not supposed to do. There are all these unwritten rules.”
SUBHED: Attracting younger audiences
Arts organizations around the country have begun education campaigns targeting low-income and minority children. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra offers free outdoor concerts in the Hispanic Pilsen neighborhood through its Institute for Learning, Access and Training. The Goodman Theatre in Chicago runs a free student subscription series and targets younger audiences through social media, such as Twitter, Foursquare and Facebook.
“The goal is to make theater a part of their lives, so when they get older and have disposable income, they’ll consider theater a viable form of entertainment, and then eventually bring their own kids,” says Denise Schneider, publicity director at the Goodman.
Targeting older audiences doesn’t make sense, says Henry Godinez, founding director of the Goodman’s Latino Theatre Festival.
“Audiences of my parents’ generation or even not much older than me, they’re either theater-goers or they’re not,” Godinez says. “Many of those first-generation Latinos in the country came here primarily to work or for political reasons, but their children and their children’s children – younger generations of Latinos – are more acculturated. They are proud of their Latino heritage, but very much American. They have expendable incomes, which their parents might not have. They like to go out, and they’re part of the cultural life of the city.”
The Goodman regularly integrates Latino culture into its subscription season and hosts a biennial Latino Theatre Festival. Featuring free and paid programming by local, national and international artists, the month-long summer festival has been successful since its 2003 inception, with attendance growing 40 percent from 2004 to 2008.
According to audience surveys, 34 percent of festival attendees in 2008 identified themselves as Latino. That same year, approximately 2 percent of regular season subscribers self-identified as Latino. While official 2010 numbers are not yet available, Godinez, who was born in Cuba, estimates this year’s audiences are about half Latino.
The Goodman’s dual approach – hosting a Latino festival and diversifying the standard season – helps draw and maintain audiences. Experts caution that becoming too reliant on separate Latino-specific programming can be a grave mistake.
“A lot of [organizations] with good intentions segment their efforts to reach minority groups instead of integrating it; it’s episodic,” Merritt says. “While this might be one good way to get an introduction, we need to remember that these audiences, once they get to know us, might like other things we do. Why should we assume they’ll only like Latino art or Latino festivals?”
SUBHED: Fusing style and business
Many institutions have begun shifting programming to include Latino works and new cross-cultural content. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, for example, has added more Latin American music to its repertoire since popular Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel became music director in 2009.
“The orchestras [in Venezuela] regularly play the music of North America and South America,” says Chad Smith, vice president of artistic planning at the LA Philharmonic. “There’s this amazingly rich repertoire from Latin America that we now have a real opportunity to program in a very substantive and meaningful way. That those interests potentially overlap with a huge audience in Los Angeles is something that we really want to explore.”
Others include the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago, which regularly integrates traditional classical music with Latin American instruments and beats, and the Miami Symphony Orchestra, which invited a popular DJ to perform with it at the orchestra’s 2010 annual gala. As America’s Latino population grows, similar fusion performances will be a likely consequence.
“You have to attract new audiences, and in LA many of those potential people are Latino,” says Shana Mather, vice president of marketing at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “It’s an issue of sustainability. I don’t think we will survive unless we can continue to tap into new audiences, and white folks aren’t going to fill that gap because the nature of the city is much more diverse than that. I definitely think it’s a survival thing.”
When asked what would happen to the Austin Lyric Opera if it didn’t have La Noche de Opera and similar outreach programs, Patterson said without pause: “We wouldn’t be here.”Erica Demarest wrote this story while a Carnegie-Knight News21 fellow from Northwestern
Take away: Programming, diversity, color-blind casting
Spanish street performers with giant insects. All-Latina fairy tales mixed with political satire. An acclaimed Cuban company in its U.S. debut.
Just a handful of the offerings at the Goodman Theatre’s 2010 Latino Theatre Festival, these performances are emblematic of the theater’s commitment to diversity – which is one of the main ways it draws Latino audiences.
“People like to see themselves on stage,” says Denise Schneider, publicity director. “They like to hear stories about themselves, things that are personally relatable. That’s the richest experience you can have in the theater – when you see yourself in concert with what’s going on on the stage.”
At the Goodman, that’s not hard. Color-blind casting, works from young and minority playwrights, and a diverse staff keep programming fresh, says resident artistic associate Henry Godinez, who credits his presence with the Goodman’s push toward Latino programming.
“When other theaters don’t have that person on staff,” says Godinez, who was born in Cuba, “it’s easier for things to fall through the cracks, or for that voice to not be included.”
Take away: Smart marketing, family-friendly activities
With its crisp white architecture, breezy open spaces, lush gardens and sweeping panoramic views of Los Angeles, the Getty Museum, seated on a hilltop in the Santa Monica Mountains, often seems more like an oasis than a museum – which could explain its marketing approach.
Rather than promoting specific events or exhibits exclusively, the Getty markets itself as a family-friendly destination location, one of the key ways it attracts Hispanic visitors, who make up about half of Los Angeles’ population.
“Latino audiences and family audiences in general are looking for activities to do on weekends,” says Mara Naiditch, director of marketing. “Parents are looking for things to do with their children that enrich their lives, and, without stereotyping, Latinos tend to do more as a family unit. They’re going to be bringing other generations.”
Dozens of free family activities, ranging from art classes and museum tours to outdoor concerts, can be found at the Getty. The museum advertises with community groups and parenting magazines, focusing on attracting young mothers, who, according to the Getty’s research, are often the decision-maker in Latino families.
LOS ANGELES PHILHARMONIC
Take away: Make the most of a superstar
These two words, written in bold capital letters on billboards and buses throughout the city, were all the Los Angeles Philharmonic needed to set off a sensation.
When the philharmonic appointed Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel as its music director in 2009, it instantly cemented the then 28-year-old as a classical music superstar and marked the beginning of its concerted Latino outreach efforts.
“People think, oh, you know, market to Latinos, everything needs to be bilingual, and people are going to come,” says Shana Mather, vice president of marketing. “It’s not that simple. It’s hard enough to get the general market through the door to come listen to classical music. I think you really have to understand in any community the barriers to attendance and how to make it more palatable.”
That starts with making classical music accessible. Dudamel’s superstar presence and genial personality have drawn big audiences, and the music education programs he’s helped create throughout Los Angeles, which is about half Latino, are helping break down barriers.Erica Demarest wrote this story while a Carnegie-Knight News21 fellow from Northwestern