June 4, 2018
FOCUS: Arts & Culture

As traditional audience ages, Greater Hartford arts venues vie for Millennial business

Photos | Contributed
Photos | Contributed
(Left) Dancers at Connecticut Ballet rehearse for their upcoming performance, “Pulse,” scheduled for July 21 at Elizabeth Park in West Hartford. (Right) Actress Sierra Boggess starred as Countess Ellen Olenska in the world premiere of “The Age of Innocence” at Hartford Stage.
The Hartford Symphony Orchestra’s flex card program aims to lure younger theatergoers to add to its annual audience of about 90,000 customers and 2,000 subscribers.
Steve Collins, Executive Director, Hartford Symphony Orchestra (HSO)
Michael Stotts, Managing Director, Hartford Stage
Brett Raphael, CEO, Connecticut Ballet

Performing-arts institutions are in a race against time trying to pursue the affection of a Millennial generation that has never fully engaged live performances infusing drama, music or dance.

Audience demographics across the country have become increasingly disproportionate, industry experts say, with older patrons carrying the bottom line for many arts organizations.

Greater Hartford arts executives say this local and national trend manifested for many reasons: Affordability; negative perceptions of the arts; government funding cuts; a competitive leisure market; and lack of exposure to the area's many offerings, among other barriers.

Foreshadowing a difficult decade ahead, the heralded Connecticut Opera closed in 2009 after 67 seasons citing a limp economy and mounting expenses.

To avoid further closures, Steve Collins, executive director of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra (HSO), says industry professionals are rushing to study how to engage today's younger population and are rethinking their marketing, pricing and performance selection.

But luring people to the arts begins in primary school, where students are less exposed to instruments, dance and musical performances than ever before.

That's why Collins, and other performing-arts leaders in Connecticut, say they are working to introduce their art forms into the classroom through new programming.

HSO's Instrument Petting Zoo, for example, is a musical laboratory that gives children an opportunity to see, touch and play with musical instruments, sometimes for the first time. The two-hour program is geared for kindergarten to third-grade students.

The organization's Symphony in Schools program also brings HSO chamber ensembles into the classroom through collaborative and interactive live performances for students of all ages.

Students are also welcomed to the symphony during school-day performances at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, known as Discovery Concerts.

These programs follow research that suggest people who have played or studied an instrument are far more likely to attend a performing-arts concert.

"We invest a lot of energy in those programs," Collins said. "These are long-term investments in building audiences for the future."


Affordability will always drive how patrons divide their disposable income, and lowering the admission price helps draw new audiences, Collins said.

That's why HSO has introduced its flex card program, which allows visitors to purchase bulk tickets at a discount. A four-ticket package goes for $146, while a 10-ticket package sells for $309.

HSO is also selling $10 student tickets and other seats for $25 for anyone under 40 years old.

That's a considerable discount compared to the standard ticket prices — $43 to $67 — at HSO's next event June 8, called "Carmina Burana: Festival of Fate," at the Bushnell.

Through its core concert series, including its educational programs, HSO draws about 90,000 customers per year with 2,000 annual subscribers.

Younger buyers, Collins said, are "extremely selective" in the shows they attend and often purchase tickets at the last second either online or at the box office.

The 484-seat Hartford Stage on Church Street also provides flexible subscription packages through its Season StagePass for guests between 21 to 35 years old. The $99 pass allows members entry into any main-stage show, and also reduces ticket prices for friends and drinks during its StagePass parties.

Hartford Stage Managing Director Michael Stotts said the StagePass was needed to lure young professionals who have not proved a fondness for performing arts the way older audiences had in decades past.

The venue normally offers tickets ranging from $20 to $95 for its 8,000 subscribers and annual audience of about 100,000 people.

"After traditional audiences leave, we are going to have a substantial audience problem," Stotts said. "If we introduce the idea of theater at an early age, and provide ways for those audiences to engage on their own terms, then we will be starting to engage the audiences of the future."

For organizations such as Connecticut Ballet, the growing costs to advertise, hire choreographers and rent venues makes it difficult to lower ticket prices.

The professional ballet company held a Mother's Day matinee at the Palace Theatre in Stamford for just $35 per ticket. Although the performance drew a large audience, Connecticut Ballet CEO Brett Raphael said they can't continue offering those rates unless a corporation or foundation sponsors the performance.

"It's hard for us to discount," Raphael said. "When we make it accessible and affordable, these arts forms are just adored. There's a lot of people who don't get to experience that."

Connecticut Ballet, HSO and Hartford Stage are directing a majority of their promotional dollars to increase their social media and digital advertising efforts to lure an audience that lives online.

That means more advertising on Facebook and Twitter, and fewer advertisements in print publications, radio and television.

"I think it's really about exposure," Raphael said. "We have to present visuals in a different way, not in a traditional way."


Certain Connecticut Ballet performances are designed for younger audiences that have adopted a much different taste for dance than their older counterparts. Raphael says the company is working to draw on those new interests by showcasing the athleticism, sensuality and music featured in each performance.

He has said shows like "Wicked," "Frozen", and "Lion King," have relied on more exciting and vibrant visuals, far in contrast to traditional ballet performances.

But these adjustments alone won't curb negative perceptions surrounding the performing arts, such as elitism and white privilege, as Raphael says "there seems to be something about the word ballet, symphony or opera that is daunting for some people."

For now, he says figuring out the "entry point" for new audiences is key to fostering the next generation of symphony, opera and ballet fans.

"We are working really hard to figure out what those entry points are so we don't miss another generation of people who could enjoy the experience and build it into their social lives," Raphael said. "It's really a long-term issue."

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