Let's Get Casual: Highbrow Arts Organizations Vie for "Nouveau Riche" Dollars

In a recent post, we looked at the uncertain future of the arts in San Francisco, a city inundated by Silicon Valley money, skyrocketing rents, and rampant gentrification. When faced with this confluence of events, the initial inclination is to consider the "little guy." How will a small nonprofit arts organizations survive in the city?

It's a natural concern. Such organizations—and their target consumers—are prime candidates for being pushed out, which is why the previous post, looking at the Kenneth Rainin Foundation's work to keep such organizations in the city, is comforting.

But what about the class of "highbrow" arts organizations? We're talking about opera, ballet, museums, and the like. One would think that they'd have a better shot at surviving, given their sizes, assets, and fundraising capabilities, right? If only it was that simple. As this piece in the Bold Italic notes, there are a variety of trends conspiring against the interests of these types of organizations.

Consider the demographics at play, here. Despite efforts by folks like the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in the opera field, much of these highbrow art forms are generally enjoyed by an older demographic. In this respect, San Francisco is no different than other cities. According to the San Francisco Ballet, only one in five audience members is under 45. 

Where the city is different, of course, is the influx of young Silicon Valley types, many of whom are still shy of 40 years old. Will throngs of 26-year-old programmers moving into the Mission District head out to the opera on their Friday nights (assuming, of course, they're not burning the midnight oil in their Mountain View workstations)? That's the $64,000 question.

Therefore, if these institutions want to stick around, they need to follow the money. This means, as unseemly as it may sound, kneeling at the altar of the Silicon Valley moneyed class, cup in hand. Yet it needn't be unseemly. In fact, it can be a win-win situation. Organizations need the money, and the "nouveau riche of San Francisco's tech scene," according to Jolie O'Dell, the author of the Bold Italic piece, crave highbrow culture. The trick is—surprise!—good old fashioned marketing.

For all of San Francisco's riches, it still remains a pretty casual and laid-back city. And while techies may crave the fine arts, they're turned off by the image of opera and ballet as a calcified palace for stuffy East Coast oligarchs. Part of the reason the tech sector doesn’t generally go to the symphony or ballet or opera, O'Dell notes, is "precisely because they are acutely aware just how out of their element they are." She suggests that organizations make the fine arts more approachable, accessible, and casual. 

Many arts organizations in the city are taking the advice to heart, rolling out programs for younger audiences, embracing technology, and hosting VIP Happy Hours where the booze tends to flow more freely than at your typical Barber of Seville production. Which brings us to a crucial point. Many of these strategies for reaching the tech crowd have less to do with the production itself—e.g., no craven attempts to appeal to millennials by running an ballet interpretation of Steve Jobs (thankfully)—and more with the presentation and networking elements surrounding the production.

The millennial demographic is particularly amenable to this kind of personalized, technology-infused wooing. They have money to spare and they consider themselves an open-minded bunch. And so other highbrow arts organizations in rapidly gentrifying cities should pay close attention to what their San Franciscan bretheren—the SF Ballet, War Memorial Opera House, SF Opera—are up to from a programming and outreach standpoint. There's a lot to learn.

SF Ballet Marketing Director Mary Beth Smith sums up the challenge most succinctly, noting, "Our competition isn't the opera or the dance company down the street—it's anything audiences can do with their leisure time." In other words, highbrow arts organizations need to untuck their tuxes, let their hair down, and meet the techies on their own turf to have a shot at accessing the nouveau riche's philanthropic dollars. (Hoodies optional.)