By Pat Sherman
As art organizations across the country are saddled with cutbacks and rising costs, they also must consider the graying of the audience they depend on most to attend and fund exhibitions, performances and other cultural events.
According to the National Endowment for the Arts’ Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, the average age of museum attendees increased from 36 in 1982 to 43 in 2008.
The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD), The Lux Art Institute, and the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library are working to counter that trend, cultivating a new generation of patrons through groups that offer exclusive events geared to young professionals.
Each group offers art lovers in the under- 45 age bracket fun, enriching programs with a chance to socialize and develop a lifelong appreciation for the arts. Museum administrators trust this appreciation will awaken philanthropic leanings.
Hoping to engage young art aficionados, Annina Torri founded the A List group at the Athenaeum in 2005.
“I’ve been going to the Athenaeum for a long time,” said Torri, 39. “I always loved the openings … but I never saw a lot of young people there. I wanted to start something with a fun environment where they could explore art and culture that would be social.”
Membership in the A List, which is open to people ages 21 and older, is $75 per year and includes five to six A List music and art mixers per year, plus all the benefits of a standard Athenaeum membership. New members can get a feel for being on the A List by attending single events for $10 in advance or $12 at the door.
A-List mixers are held at the La Jolla Athenaeum space on Wall Street and include live music, a small bar, hors d’oeuvres, a communal art project and door prizes.
December’s event, dubbed “Rendez-vous in the Stacks,” coincided with Kathleen Marshall’s exhibition, “Still in Paris.” It included on-site portraiture sketching, Left- Bank-style refreshments, a create-your-own crepe station and a performance by acoustic trio Les Shelleys.
The next A List event, March 15 at 7:30 p.m., coincides with an exhibit by illustrator and sketch artist Alexander Jackson.
“As with many other arts institutions, a majority of our members are getting up there in age,” said A List co-chair and Athenaeum marketing and promotions manager, Katie Walders. “We’re trying to bring in more and younger members and show them everything that’s out there for art and music.”
Walders said the A List currently has about 90 members who also have a chance to vote in an A List Members Choice Award during the Athenaeum’s annual juried art show.
In December, Lux Art Institute in Encinitas launched a similar group for people ages 21 to 39, which is free with a regular museum membership of $50. Titled “Influx,” the group is a way to encourage younger contemporary art lovers to join the museum and to encourage existing young members to engage at a deeper level.
The first event included a question and answer session with resident painter Emilio Perez, and an after-party at Flavor Del Mar.
“The 21- to 39-year-old group tends to be the lowest attendee group for museums, so it’s an opportunity to kind of rev that up and give them another opportunity for socializing, instead of going to the movies or clubs,” said Lux founding director Ressey Shaw of La Jolla.
The museum plans to hold six such weeknight events per year, dubbed Lux After Dark.
MCASD La Jolla’s group for young contemporary art enthusiasts, titled “Avant Garde,” launched a little more than a year ago from the ashes of a similar, more expansive group called StART Up. That group included art-related travel opportunities, though the dues were $2,500 per year.
Jeanna Yoo, MCASD La Jolla’s chief advancement officer, saw a need to continue targeting the museum’s younger demographic, albeit at a more affordable level. Avant Garde dues are $425 per year, or $500 with a basic museum membership. The group has about 40 members.
Last year Avant Garde offered events every two months, though Yoo said events will likely occur on a monthly basis in 2012, offering members more opportunities to connect with exhibiting artists and museum curators.
Avant Garde members may bring one spouse, partner or friend with them at no additional cost. “It’s a couples membership,” Yoo said of the group, which targets young people ages 25 to 40-something.
Events are staged at both the La Jolla and San Diego museum spaces, or out in the community, where members get a firsthand feel for the local art scene through private collection tours and visits to contemporary artists’ workspaces.
“There’s a lot of young, up-and-coming contemporary artists in the San Diego area,” Yoo said. “We wanted to showcase them … in their work environment. It’s been a very popular program.”
On Jan. 22, Avant Garde members will tour the collection of Matthew and Iris Strauss at their Rancho Santa Fe estate. Their library, named by Art News magazine as one of the top 200 art collections in the world, contains sculptures, paintings and other works by Frank Stella, Willem de Kooning and Andy Warhol.
Yoo said she hopes the museum’s outreach will pay off in terms of future giving.
“Our hope is that it’s a gradual process,” she said. “We engage them now through Avant Garde and down the road they’ll be more committed to the arts, moving up the ladder in terms of their philanthropic involvement.”
Architect Jeff Hollander and his partner, Viveca Bissonnette of Hollander Design Group, were MCASD members for years before joining Avant Garde. The couple, in their 40s, said they didn’t feel comfortable hanging out with “multi-millionaire art collectors.”
They found Avant Garde members shared their appreciation for art, design and culture at “a similar economic level.”
As holiday thank you gifts, the couple gave 70 basic museum memberships to their clients and vendors “with the hope that they start to participate further in the museum.”
“We feel like what we’ve gotten out of the museum this past year as Avant Garde members has benefited us personally and professionally, from a cultural perspective. We wanted to pass that along,” Bissonnette said.