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The ageless audience

Popular conception says the arts' supporters are graying and shriveling. But there's good news. It turns out there are more where they came from.

October 05, 2008|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

The AUDIENCE for live classical music, theater and dance is, like, dying -- OMG! They're sitting in the dark in the concert hall or theater, aging so fast that their gray hair will be white by intermission. And someday soon, the last of the bunch -- a doddering sourpuss who writes letters to his local newspaper with a fountain pen -- will keel over in his velvet seat, done in by the effort of yelling "Brava!" at a plus-sized soprano.

Although performing arts professionals don't envision the problem in quite such drastic terms, it's generally accepted that the audience for live performing arts is aging at an alarming rate -- and, to paraphrase the prehistoric rock band Led Zeppelin, soon to buy a stairway to heaven.

But like any other panic-inducing assumption, the "graying audience" theory bears examining, much as did the widely quoted -- and since disproved -- "fact" from a 1986 Newsweek article that a single woman over 35 is less likely to get married than to be attacked by terrorists. (Well, at least the poor thing has tickets to the symphony.)

Is it true? Is the audience for live performance really aging, dying and disappearing, never to be replaced? And who is that audience, exactly?

As with the statistic about single women and terrorists, it would be nice to be able to say that the aging of the performing arts audience is a false assumption. The numbers, however, say it's not.

But most performing arts professionals say there's a lot of gray area -- no pun intended -- in this conversation. And most can offer compelling reasons why texting an obituary for live performing arts may be highly premature.

Deborah Borda, president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn., has been hearing the alarms for decades. "When I first started in the business, they said, 'The audience is going to be all old people,' " says Borda, who was formerly executive director of the New York Philharmonic and before that held leadership positions with orchestras in San Francisco, Detroit and St. Paul, Minn. "But if you look at the statistics kept by the American Symphony Orchestra League, you'll see that concert attendance is up throughout the United States. And if you look at the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall, we're averaging 92% attendance."

Borda has more reason to be thinking about youth than most: The Philharmonic recently hired Venezuelan wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel to take over as music director in 2009, replacing 50-year-old Esa-Pekka Salonen. Dudamel is 12. Oops, sorry, he's 27; must be the progressive lenses.

Gray springs eternal

Nice TO hear from Borda that more people are showing up at American orchestra halls. But who's in that growing audience, exactly?

Well, quite a few gray-haired folks, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. Sunil Iyengar, the endowment's director of research, reports that in 1982, the average age of those attending a classical music performance was 40; in 2002, it was 49. He says a similar increase has occurred in the audience for plays and musicals, ballet and jazz concerts.

True, Iyengar adds, the median age of the general population is creeping up as well: It was 40 in 1982 and had reached 45 by 2002. Still, that average is not increasing as fast as the age of the performing arts audience. "You are not seeing a 1-to-1 ratio," Iyengar says. "Even in jazz, that typically has the lowest median audience age of all the art forms -- in 1982, the median age was 29, and in 2002 it was 43."

Even so, representatives of such organizations also offer compelling reasons why seeing gray hair -- or, at least, gray roots -- in the audience is (a) nothing new and (b) not necessarily a cause for panic, because, at least so far, there has always been "new gray" waiting in the wings to replace the old.

"A colleague of mine says the audience isn't graying -- it's always been gray," says Teresa Eyring, executive director of Theatre Communications Group, a national service organization for American nonprofit theaters.

Marc Scorca, president and chief executive of Opera America, a nonprofit service organization, grumbles that journalists who pontificate about the graying audience see more gray hair because they've been comped into the most expensive seats, the ones young adults can't afford. "I always encourage photographers and writers to go upstairs and see who's there," Scorca observes.

That said, Scorca is among many who cite two logical reasons for a noticeable lack of young adults in all seats. Quite simply, ticket prices can be steep -- and even if they have the money, young people often don't have the time. People in their 20s, he says, are late-night clubbing or off on ski weekends. The question for them is seldom, "Dude, where's my 'Carmen'?" And people in their 30s may be consumed with toddlers and careers.

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