Student Arts Presenters Plot New Strategies

Jun 11, 2013

College towns have always been magnets for the performing arts. But campus presenters find it tough sometimes to get students through the auditorium doors.  

The Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth recently hosted a symposium where music-loving students from all over the country shared new ways to get their friends to take in a concert or two.

So here’s the multiple choice question for college arts presenters these days. What do students most want to see and hear at a performance?

a. Hip hop

b. Classical Music, or

c. Their friends—both on stage and in the audience

The answer, says arts consultant Alan Brown, is all of the above.

Over lunch, he talked about what makes millennials, as today’s students are called, different from their parents. They are more accustomed, he says, to active and interactive experiences of all kinds.

“My favorite example is, you go to the mall and the child goes into the build-a-bear store and they design their own teddy bear. Well, young people are accustomed to designing their own experiences,” Brown said.

Those teddy bear designers are now in college and now they want a more interactive experience when they go to a concert.  For a study commissioned by the Hopkins Center, Brown taught eight campus arts presenters to conduct their own focus groups, gather data, try some experiments, and report back at the symposium.

Hillary Berry from the University of Kansas, learned a lot.

“In some of our research that we did students had indicated that if there were something extra with the events, like an incentive to go, something they could take from it, like philanthropy or networking or class credit or something like that.”

In other words, students might attend concerts —and bring friends—if there were value-added  “meet the artist” and social networking events.  But as Berry learned, those perks alone don’t spell success. It’s important to publicize often and early, offer free tickets, AND serve ample free food—not just punch and cookies.

Other schools—with much bigger budgets—took performers to the audience, rather than the other way around. They offered dorm concerts.

They diversified rosters, putting students on stage, not just in seats. They added  incentives—including class credit.  

Rheme Sloan  is from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where student tickets are half price.

He says attendance was especially good at a student choral and dance  performance of  Darius Milhaud’s “Oresteia of Aeschylus” All the performers were given marketing tool kits and expected to promote their own event.

“We also did a student experience blog where we invited students to write and submit photos and videos about the documenting of the process and putting the piece together. This was then shared across social media,” Sloan said.

Since the baby boomer audiences are disappearing, it’s crucial to get their kids and grandkids through the door. Some college campuses  are even sprouting flashmobs—impromptu performances in unexpected places,  spontaneously convened via Twitter.