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Culture Vultures Hunt for Fresh Audiences

By Jonathan Padget
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 14, 2004; Page C01

"Go artsy. Be a foodie. Meet people." This is the battle cry of Culture Vultures, one of the latest efforts in the arts community to appeal to the under-40 set with straining-for-hip marketing, social events and edgier programming -- at least by Washington standards.

Will it make a difference?

A detail from Laszlo Feher's "Black Vase," featured in the Hungarian show. (Embassy Of Hungary)

The Washington Performing Arts Society sure hopes so. That's the venerable institution behind the Culture Vultures series of performances and after-parties packaged to lure younger ticket buyers to WPAS events in greater numbers. Last season, WPAS drew 150,000 people to 66 programs -- its standard mix of touring symphonies, classical recitals, jazz, dance and other acts -- but found that less than 25 percent of ticket buyers were under 45.

That figure doesn't represent a crisis, says Rebecca Menes, WPAS's marketing and communications director, as long as younger audiences stay true to form and migrate to WPAS's cultural offerings later in life.

But is it safe to assume that today's twenty- and thirty-somethings will clamor for the likes of Kathleen Battle or the Chicago Symphony a couple of decades from now at the same rate WPAS's 40-plus audience base currently does?

Um, better cue the Culture Vultures.

WPAS markets the program to ticket buyers between the ages of 21 and 39, promising them drinks, hors d'oeuvres and mingling time aplenty after some of WPAS's less-traditional programs. The organization introduced Culture Vultures last season in conjunction with performances by flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia and the Ballet Boyz. The current Culture Vultures season kicked off last month on the opening night of multimedia performance artist Carl Hancock Rux's "Mycenaean."

The first three Culture Vultures events attracted about 100 people each, a respectable start to an effort that joins the ranks of outreach programs for young professionals by such cultural mainstays as the National Symphony Orchestra, Washington Ballet, Smithsonian Institution and Corcoran Gallery of Art, to name a few.

Upcoming Culture Vultures parties are planned at various restaurants after the Putumayo Latin music divas concert Oct. 22 at Lisner Auditorium, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra's premiere of Wynton Marsalis's "Suite for Human Nature" on Dec. 11 at Lincoln Theatre, and the Kodo Drummers performance March 18 at Constitution Hall.

Despite the obvious need for arts organizations to shore up future generations of ticket buyers and donors, Menes insists that Culture Vultures isn't all about building WPAS's audience. That's a byproduct to a higher calling WPAS has to enhance its programs for ticket buyers.

"We want to provide a social component," says Menes, "but we're also searching for something deeper. It's not just about cocktails. We also want to provide opportunities for compelling conversations about our programs."

And true enough, at the Culture Vultures party last month at the National Geographic Society after "Mycenaean" -- a spoken-word-driven piece with apocalyptic themes -- some attendees availed themselves of the opportunity to meet performer Rux and discuss his work, while others pondered its implications in conversations throughout the night.

Still, many attendees seemed content to enjoy Culture Vultures on a simpler level. As Lauren Nelson, 23, observed: "It's just nice to be around your age group where you're not in a bar."

To learn more about upcoming Culture Vultures events, call 202-785-WPAS or visit www.wpas.org.

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