Thought Leader Forum on Arts and Aging

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 22, No 3 (Fall 2011)

Suzanne Callahan and Diane Mataraza

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On April 6, 2011—with support from MetLife—GIA, the National Center for Creative Aging, and Grantmakers in Aging brought together frontrunners in funding health, wellness, and the arts and aging fields with arts and aging practitioners, researchers, and other experts. Twenty-six individuals gathered at the Arena Stage Mead Center for American Theatre in Washington, DC to explore their common ground and the potential benefits of working together. In response to the enormity of the challenge, the group recounted accomplishments, then moved to explore the ways in which their arts-aging collaborations might go broader and deeper. The Forum ended with a shift from thought to action in the form of a set of recommendations that could be pursued.

Arts and cultural organizations are continually challenged to expand the relevance of their programs beyond their immediate circle of audiences. Across the country, many forge partnerships with a host of organizations and networks in order to reach and engage new individuals. In response to well-publicized concerns about dwindling and “greying” audiences, arts and cultural organizations and funders have gravitated toward people ages eighteen to thirty-five. However, the arts and culture field has been slow to realize and prepare for a surging demographic trend, the “age wave.” People are living much longer; by the year 2030, there will be as many people over sixty-five as there are under twenty, and one in every five people in the United States will be sixty-five or older.

Increasingly, these demographics have implications for arts participation in the country. The arts field has long debated the nature of audience engagement across demographic groups, from passive observation to active participation. And now this demographic jolt has the potential to dramatically change the very nature and extent of arts engagement, reaching people in the places they will be living and in a manner in which they can participate.

At the MetLife Foundation, Barbara Dillon, director of the Health Program, and Rohit Burman, director of the Culture and Public Broadcasting Program, have identified this dilemma and initiated a response. Internally, they’ve reached across the foundation’s departments to combine resources and support research in order to equip field leaders to better prepare for what’s ahead. Externally, MetLife has collaborated with Partners for Livable Communities on a report entitled Culture Connects All: Rethinking Audiences in Times of Demographic Change, in which urban planner Maria Rosario Jackson identifies the opportunities and challenges on the horizon:

[Responding to the age wave calls for] active and meaningful engagement of these populations not only as audiences but also as active participants involved in shaping the creation, presentation and advancement of art in our society…More intentional involvement … has important benefits for the participants themselves as well as for the institutions that are wise enough to understand that participation of older adults and immigrants is often imperative if they intend to be relevant and central to contemporary America.

This report aptly points out that “arts and cultural organizations in search of new audiences have primarily focused on the ‘young and wireless’…one strategy for bolstering the number of tickets sold.” These organizations may be ignoring the populations that need them most and missing out on opportunities to increase their reach and resources in the aging community.

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