How Gen Z Presents a Challenge to Traditional Arts Organizations

Social institutions that nourish the arts need to offer young people aesthetic experiences that reflect their lived experiences.
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"Move Over Millennials, It's Gen Z's Turn to Kill Off Industries," warned a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle's business section this past August. The accompanying article predicts the demise of brick-and-mortar retail, magazine publishing, and major-league football, among other sectors—all, allegedly, at the hands of Gen Z. Should arts institutions be added to the list?

Today's arts organizations are in the midst of a crisis. Walk into a museum or go to a play, and you will observe firsthand what the statistics have been telling us: The current audience and donor pool is primarily Baby Boomers. While Millennials have been reluctant to pay for subscriptions and memberships, or to make donations to civic organizations, Gen Z (defined as Americans aged 18 to 25) looks to be even more resistant to what conventional arts organizations have on offer. And arts organizations are struggling to respond.

Results from the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts every five years since 1982, tell a story of declining attendance at traditional performing and visual arts offerings, with the most significant audience declines among those under 45. "Arts Consumption Through Electronic Media," a category tracked for the first time in the 2012 survey, shows that 71 percent of Americans participate in the arts electronically, as compared with 49 percent who participate in the visual and performing arts in person. The 2017 data is expected to show a continuation of these trends.

Against this backdrop, and having done extensive interviews with Gen Z'ers about their art preferences, I offer an impressionistic view of Gen Z's relation to the arts, and of the implications for organizations working to ensure that the arts can flourish and enrich the lives of all people.

We know that young people have always been slower to get involved in civic organizations. And we know young people are spending significantly more time online than older people. But the divide separating Gen Z from arts organizations cuts deeper.

Based on my interviews with representatives of this generation, for Gen Z'ers, daily life provides constant opportunities to be both artist and subject. Think of the selfie, which is self-promotion but also personal expression: "This is how I want you to see me," and also: "This is how I see the world." Just as the Medicis, the famous patrons of Florentine art during the Italian Renaissance, paid visual artists to depict family members posed with birds, maps of the world, and religious figures, Gen Z'ers use their social media identities as homages to themselves—and as ways to signify and depict the world around them.

Gen Z'ers create their own art: They are active makers of photographs, videos, music, memes, and Web pages. Gen Z'ers also like to be their own curators of art: They make playlists and Instagram feeds, and seek out recommendations of new art experiences from their friends. Further, Gen Z'ers act as distributors of art: They routinely pass on to others what they have created and curated.

In other words, Gen Z has a deeply personal relationship with the processes of creating, curating, and distributing art, so why would they visit a museum or a concert hall or a playhouse to see what someone else—especially someone older—is presenting?

In their conversations with me, members of Gen Z say they need an active rather than a passive experience with the arts. No more interested in a Temple-on the Hill for quiet contemplation, Gen Z wants their lived arts experiences to offer the personalization and interactivity of their virtual ones. They want instant connections to people and their stories, to move seamlessly between high culture and low, between art, design, and fashion. They want to post, comment, and like.

Some entities, though primarily not arts organizations, have capitalized on this trend. The Museum of Ice Cream (MOIC) has staked out a corner just down the street from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the Museum of the African Diaspora. Every day, about 1,700 people, mostly Gen Z, pay $38 to queue for a series of Instragrammable moments, including the chance to eat ice cream while posing on a plastic rainbow unicorn as friends click and share.

Instead of adding my "harrumph" to the chorus of arts pundits who see the demise of culture with every new museum devoted to a food or a superhero, I decided to visit the MOIC and see for myself. I did not learn much about ice cream (or anything else, for that matter). But I did have fun in the sprinkle pool. While not an artistic organization, nor an aspirational model for one, the MOIC leadership knows a thing or two about how to attract and retain new audiences.

Some leaders of traditional arts organizations are rising to this Gen Z challenge while hewing to their artistic and educational mission. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is a notable example, with a young adult visitor pool that is the envy of the museum's peer institutions; over 45 percent of attendees at SFMOMA are under 35 years old, per statistics from the museum. Beyond offering reduced admission to visitors aged 19 to 24 and coffee bars adjacent to the exhibition spaces, the museum partners with tech companies to integrate participatory experiences throughout the museum. Recently, visitors could enter virtual worlds inspired by René Magritte paintings. The photography galleries feature an interactive space called Self Composed, where visitors can reimagine and create their own selfies.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, where I am a life trustee and former board chair, I have had a ring-side view of the kind of transformation that is possible. In the past, the museum had only episodic success attracting younger audiences. Now on any typical visit to the MCA, you will see young adults donning audio or virtual-reality headsets to interact with participatory art in the galleries, and attending events in the the Commons, a space reconfigured with hanging plants, lounge chairs, and board-game tables. According to the museum website, the Commons "is meant to encourage formal and informal dialogue as well as interaction among artists, visitors, and communities.'' While the MCA aims to serve all ages, these recent changes have been especially appealing to younger visitors.

Michael Darling, chief curator at the MCA, describes the museum's approach to young people as a "radical welcome." Beyond redesigning spaces to be conducive to gathering and sharing, the museum's most radical changes have been to its programming.

"Gen Z gives us no slack," Darling observes. "They demand art that is relevant to their concerns. Not satisfied with being 'responded to' by arts organizations, they demand a seat at the table. We have to reflect the tide of the times."

Recognizing that the habits and patterns of Gen Z can take them "deeper and deeper into their own world and interests," Darling and his colleagues at the MCA are working to mine "the macro issues that resonate across and beyond the cohort, such as issues of identity, race, human rights, inequality, [and] social justice," Darling says. "Fortunately, there is lots of great art that deals with these topics."

Changes such as those underway at the MCA are not without risk of alienating the patrons who are still most responsible for the economic well-being of arts organizations. An environment that feels lively and inviting to a Gen Z'er might put off a Baby Boomer. While visiting the major international art fairs this past spring, the MCA's director, Madeleine Grynsztejn, remarked on this disconnect: "What the commercial art dealers are showing and selling to their clientele [who also happen to be art museums' major donors] is less and less like what is in our galleries."

Even assuming that leaders of arts organization can succeed at balancing their offerings to meet the needs and expectations of both younger and older audiences, the arts still face a more serious generational threat. Many members of Gen Z and the cohorts that follow haven't been raised to visit museums, concert halls, and playhouses. Cuts in arts education for public schools have made the annual museum field trip a thing of the past for kids in the poorer school districts. Many schools have no art programs whatsoever. Most of the children attending these schools come from families and communities with little or no access to art.

Research shows that the single biggest predictor of arts participation as an adult is exposure to arts as a child. Further positive benefits of early arts exposure include improved academic performance, social behavior, and emotional well-being. A report published by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2012 focusing on at-risk youth found that "socially and economically disadvantaged children and teenagers who have high levels of arts engagement or arts learning show more positive outcomes in a variety of areas than their low-arts-engaged peers." Those outcomes extend to "school grades, test scores, honors society membership, high school graduation, college enrollment and achievement, volunteering, and engagement in school or local politics."

In the face of such persuasive evidence, there is an urgent need for more organizations to work toward ensuring that every child in every school has access to the arts.

Beyond the widening education gap, increasing income inequality threatens the entire arts ecosystem. Thankfully, even in the most abject and inhospitable places, there will always be those who persevere in making art and those who seek out ways to experience it. But artists and the network of organizations that link them to audiences need patrons in order to survive. What will happen to our great institutions if the rising generations can no longer afford to attend or support them? How will we make up for the artists who find it impossible to make both art and a living?

The stakes are serious if you believe, as I do, that the arts are essential to a life well lived in a civil society. And while arts organizations alone cannot reverse the tide of inequality and its potentially devastating implications for the arts, they are among the civic institutions that can play a leadership role. Engaging Gen Z'ers in active discourse with a rich variety of art and artists is a worthy place to begin. To that end, arts organizations must rethink their programs and financial infrastructure to ensure their continued vitality and relevance. Gen Z will be a responsive audience once the social institutions that nourish the arts begin to offer aesthetic experiences that better reflect their lived experiences. That entails risk, but business as usual is no longer an option for these institutions.

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Understanding Gen Z, a collaboration between Pacific Standard and Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, investigates the historical context and social science research that helps explain the next generation. Join our newsletter to see new stories, and let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Understanding Gen Z was made possible by Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) and its director, Margaret Levi, who hosted the iGen Project. Further support came from the Knight Foundation.

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