Courting the Young Collectors

Over the past few decades, arts leaders have worried as they’ve watched participation drop. A recently released National Endowment for the Arts Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (from 2002 to 2012) seems to validate what arts leaders already know. Overall museum and gallery attendance has fallen 21 percent. However, since older adults are attending at the same or even higher rate, the decline stems from those 18-45 years old. Museum board members, tasked with looking ahead, consider a number of serious questions: What will happen when key donor support ends? Who will protect the collections? Who will keep the organization viable and current?

For obvious reasons, they’re focusing on attracting patrons in their late 20s and early 30s. According to Julie Crites, development officer of the Museum Council at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, this is when young adults solidify their identities and make major life decisions.

“You see people trying things on,” Crites says.  ”They are finding where they want to fit in, in terms of the cities they want to live in, communities they want to be a part of, how they make and meet new friends, and what kinds of institutions they want to support.”

Throughout the years, the MFA has championed young audience engagement. The Museum Council itself was formed in 1980, at a time when most institutions just started looking at the future. Under the watchful and progressive eye of Malcolm Rogers, the museum’s longest tenured director who recently retired from his 20-year post, the institution made leaps in cultivating an environment where everyone could feel welcome. Rogers emphasized community outreach and created affordable opportunities to view the collection. He stressed the importance of young donorship and positioned the Museum Council at the center of that mission.

Since Crites assumed her role at the museum, in 2012, she has created new channels for members to connect with the museum in a fresh and relevant way that strikes the perfect balance between social and educational engagement. To join, one must be 21-45 years old and pay an annual membership fee, $300-$3,000, set according to one’s participation level. All council members receive free museum admission (for self and a guest), behind-the-scenes tours and lectures, as well as VIP passes to special exhibitions. Higher levels entitled members to more exclusive perks: time with curators and conservators, private exhibit visits and trips to the conservation lab.

At a recent council event, a handful of members were treated to an intimate MFA gathering on the floor of the Goya: Order and Disorder exhibit, where curators and conservators shared what it takes to mount a special museum exhibition. Attendees learned about the years spent in planning, the required staff, as well as the loan negotiation and couriering process. This insider access provide additional context and appreciation of the institution’s undertakings and it fortifies relationships between patrons and the museum.

“There is a nuance to each person who joins,” says Crites. “We have members who are single, have a lot of free time in the evening and want to meet and be with other people who are interested in arts and culture. And we have married couples, or folks with young kids, where Council events become a perfect date night. There are avid art collectors and many who are just ‘getting started.’ And then there are those who are maybe only now thinking about collecting after receiving an invitation to [SMFA's] art sale, and they’ve never been before. No matter a member’s background or area of interest, we have all these wonderful people at the museum who love what they do and are eager to help them explore their own individual passions”

Much like the MFA, the Portland Museum of Art’s own young patrons group, the Contemporaries, sees a greater purpose in cultivating the next generation of philanthropists beyond the price of admission. Will Cary, director of Leadership Gifts & Planned Giving at the museum, describes the courtship as a “long game” where emphasis is placed on maximizing participation and not hounding members for monetary contributions. He believes their current group of over 500 members represents a, “well-rounded complexion of motivated individuals who believe in the museum, have an innate curiosity about the arts, and possess a desire to get engaged.”

Joining a young patron group is generally the first step on the long road to board membership, but PMA has proactively integrated the Contemporaries into the rest of museum with members serving in leadership roles on the board and subcommittees. Cary attributes this highly successful, unconventional approach to the museum’s forward-thinking director, Mark Bessire.

“Early on, Mark recognized that the Contemporaries, folks who are already actively involved with the PMA and full of imaginative ideas, needed to be integrated ‘now’ in order to create a sustainable future for the museum, ” says Cary. ” When you tell someone they might be considered for the board in 10 years, they aren’t going to jump at that opportunity. If members are already doing great things for the museum, and proven themselves to be an invaluable part of the institution, the question becomes ‘why wait?’”

Throughout the year the group hosts monthly events including curator-led tours, gallery talks, and social gatherings that not only tie-in with the museum’s own exhibitions and initiatives, but also strive to strengthen connections within the local community and among partner organizations. Bree LaCasse, who serves on the Contemporaries’ steering committee, joined the group shortly after it was founded 10 years ago, and viewed membership as a way to connect with the local arts scene.

“My involvement with the Contemporaries has allowed me to learn more about art history and contemporary art alongside a diverse and vibrant group of young art enthusiasts and museum supporters,” says La Casse. “Being a part of the group has certainly deepened my commitment to philanthropy, I became a Trustee of the PMA almost 2 years ago and now I am able to contribute to the institution in other ways.”

LaCasse views her leadership role as an opportunity to demystify the arts and encourage members to support the local arts scene through developing their own collections. “Personally, my husband and I both had small art collections before we met, and have certainly made an effort to grow that collection during our 13 years together,” she says. “Our modest collection is filled with local art, and we love that we know so many of the artists whose works hang on our walls. Part of the steering committee’s mission is to encourage members to think about developing their own collections. We host yearly ‘On Collecting’ events where we tour someone’s private collection, or throw a private preview party of an upcoming art sale or auction. We have a chance to show members how building a personal collection is a great way to get beautiful work for your home while also supporting the local arts community.”

Last fall, the Contemporaries played a key role in the purchase and installation of a major acquisition for the museum, Seven, an eight-foot sculpture by Maine artist Robert Indiana, which sits directly outside the PMA (at 7 Congress Street). With a goal of $25,000 towards the $450,000 cost of the sculpture, the Contemporaries raised $18,000 from the steering committee and the remaining $7,000 from the rest of the members. This philanthropic gesture not only demonstrates the young donors’ commitment to the museum, but also reiterates a desire to support and enhance the Greater Portland arts community.

In Connecticut, the Arts Council of Greater New Haven champions its own thriving art scene. Thanks in part to the gravitational pull of Yale’s museums and galleries, the region has experienced an arts renaissance in recent years. The Council, which was formed in 1964 and boasts over 900 members, has experimented with different ways to engage younger audiences who are new to the area and hungry to devour and experience art.

In spite of a limited budget and a handful of staff, the Council has become a cultural beacon to the 15 townships it supports. The group oversees a number of programs including the Arts Paper Magazine, a local arts resource that is distributed 10 times a year to over 200 locations throughout Greater New Haven; Make.Art.Work career development services; and ANDI, the Arts Nightlife Dining Information app that allows users to access a database of events and venue listings for the region. While the Council caters to art lovers of all ages, Executive Director Cindy Clair has a keen interest in attracting and nurturing young collectors, a goal she admits comes with challenges.

“Serious art collectors are inclined to go to New York and buy from galleries, but I want to show them that what we have in New Haven is so remarkable. This is a city of 125,000 people, yet we have two unbelievable art galleries that are free open to the public, cutting-edge arts spaces, open studios with hundreds of participating artists, two Tony Award winning theatres, and the list goes on,” says Clair.

Throughout the year, the Council organizes several cultural events that engage the community, but perhaps the most widely celebrated initiative is its annual Somewhat Off the Wall fundraiser. The event, which has been going strong for over twenty years, is part raffle, part exhibition, and part party. To participate, Connecticut artists are asked to donate three small works in their medium of choice in exchange for a ticket that guarantees them art by one of their peers. Regular tickets cost $100, but in 2014 the Council introduced a “30 under 30″ young collectors ticket which at $30, proved to be a well-received price point.

“It is certainly a unique model for a fundraiser, but it has worked really well,” says Clair. “Artists have the opportunity to exhibit, get introduced to new collectors, and take homework by their contemporaries. And young collectors, for a very attractive price point, also get to take home a one-of-a-kind piece of art by a local artisan.”

Opportunities for early access and engagement are vital to the future direction and sustainability of the arts ecosystem. This means museums need to go beyond just engaging with the institution’s permanent collections, and offer a more personal experience that will inspire rising philanthropists to stay on with the museum for years, if not a lifetime.

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