Ever since arts-participation research became a thing in the 1970s, the news about audience participation by young adults has been bleak. Each generation, it seems, is less interested in the arts than the last. And each new National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) study brings a new wave of panic.

An arts organization’s first stab at luring younger audiences usually involves lowering ticket prices. The Theatre Development Fund set up its famous half-price TKTS ticket booth in Times Square in 1973. In 1996, “Rent” producers kicked the rush-ticket craze into full force by insisting on $20 seats for their two front rows (sold to whomever was willing to line up two hours before showtime). The Minneapolis Institute of Art straight up got rid of admission fees in 1989.

At this point, it’s almost impossible to find a theater or museum that doesn’t offer some kind of age-related discount. So where are all the young people?

Probably in their living rooms with Netflix and HBO Go cued up. Or at one of the Twin Cities’ many must-try restaurants, breweries and cocktail rooms. Today more than ever, the under-40 set is saturated with ways to spend their free time and extra cash. It’s no easy task getting on their radars and into their iPhone calendars — with or without cheap tickets.

It’s not impossible, though. Holly Slattery, a 35-year-old nursing student at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, said she loves taking breaks from her busy schedule to go to the theater, even when discounts aren’t available.

“I go to a lot of shows — Broadway tours, the Guthrie, Jungle Theater,” she said. “I usually seek out ticket specials or sign up for mailing lists, but I’m willing to pay full price for a show I really want to see.”

For others, the payoff isn’t necessarily worth the effort of hunting down cheap tickets. “I did rush at the Orpheum, which was nice because the tickets were $20 apiece,” said Erik Lundin, a 31-year-old media marketing specialist who lives in Minneapolis. “The problem was that there was a pole blocking my view. Sure, I got to see the show, and it was fun, but it wasn’t like I really got to see the show.”

Extremely cheap tickets

If you present it, the audience will come — for a long time, that’s pretty much how it worked. Arts organizations put together their seasons. Subscribers learned about those seasons via direct mailers. A few newspaper ads were placed. Seats were filled, tickets sold.

Sometime during the 1990s, things started to shift. A 1996 NEA study lamented the decline of arts participation among baby boomers compared with the previous generation. The report stated that “cultural diversity, shrinking leisure time, increased competition for disposable income, and other factors like technology were influencing arts participation patterns in new and unknown ways.”

The big question back in 1996: “How will the ‘information superhighway’ impact arts participation?”

The answer to that question is still being explored. Look at the website of any arts organization and you usually find some kind of special offer: pay-what-you-can shows, monthly free-attendance days, ZIP code specials, supercheap preview nights.

At Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, it’s even easier than that. Since 2011, the theater has made it possible for anyone to attend any show for free. There’s no catch, not even a sign-up-for-our-e-mail-list pitch. Just show up and pick a seat.

The program is called Radical Hospitality, and it drastically changed Mixed Blood’s demographics, said artistic director Jack Reuler. “A little over half our audience uses Radical Hospitality. Of those attendees, 50 to 60 percent are under age 30.”

Other Twin Cities organizations have taken similar measures within the past five years. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and Southern Theater began offering unlimited-attendance options for $5 and $18 a month, respectively. In 2016, the Guthrie Theater set the price for performances in its Dowling Studio at $9.

There’s just one problem. While ticket deals are good at attracting young people, they aren’t especially good at converting one-time attendees into regular patrons. They assume that people (and young arts patrons in particular) are willing to repeatedly sift through calendars and ticketing pages. But if time and money are the biggest barriers to arts participation, which most research suggests, then isn’t it counterproductive to expect an instant-everything generation to go out of its way to hunt down specific opportunities — especially ones it doesn’t know exist?

More creative solutions

There’s a broken link. Arts groups aren’t registering with young adults. But at least they’re aware of the problem — and aggressively exploring solutions. The Minneapolis Institute of Art turned to mobile geo-fencing — targeting mobile devices in certain locations — to advertise its $20-a-ticket Guillermo del Toro exhibit this spring. The organization wound up increasing web traffic for 25- to 34-year-olds by 95 percent while hitting its 50,000 attendance goal in just nine weeks. Facebook ads promoting the Walker’s open house in December reeled in more than 4,000 visitors. And the Schubert Club expands upon the concept of a young professionals club by curating a full season of music, dance and theater performances around town.

Programming makes a big difference, too. The Minnesota Orchestra successfully wooed 10,000 people to its “Harry Potter” concert-movie mashup in December, 6,500 of whom were first-time orchestra attendees. When the Minnesota Opera premiered “The Shining” in 2016, a third of its attendees were 18- to 29-year-olds, more than double the norm for that demographic.

At Theatre Latté Da, artistic director Peter Rothstein has been thinking about the lobby. Starting this fall, the bar at the Ritz Theater in northeast Minneapolis will start serving drinks 90 minutes before every show and remain open long after the curtain comes down. Rothstein hopes the destination bar will create a more social theatergoing experience — which is the primary motivator for 76 percent of ticket buyers, according to a 2012 NEA survey.

“We do a lot of lip service about communal experience and building diverse audiences, but if we’re honest, most people want to arrive 10 minutes before a show, get a glass of wine, and be the first ones out of the parking lot,” Rothstein said. “How do we shift that? How do we make room for interaction and dialogue, which is something we know younger audiences want?”

Maybe giving theatergoers a chance to chat with artists over wine will foster loyalty and boost season subscribers. Maybe a 22-year-old will give the Minnesota Opera a try after seeing a video promoting its latest New Works premiere. Maybe a group of 30-somethings will hit the Walker Art Center this summer for mini-golf, only to stumble upon art that makes them want to return for more.

There are hundreds more ideas for reaching that elusive young-adult crowd — ideas developed from years of research and focus-group studies. Ideas do not automatically generate results, of course. But if recent explorations by arts groups into creative outreach are any indicator, then a positive outcome might be just around the corner. 

Ellen Burkhardt is a freelance writer, editor and researcher based in Minneapolis. Find her on Twitter (@burkcity) and Instagram (@burkcity22).