Arts » Culture

Arts in Jeopardy

Local arts organizations get creative to court younger crowds

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On a brightly lit stage next to his wife, Kathy, Boise State President Bob Kustra asks Judge Steve Trott for "Amphibians for $500." When Kustra answers incorrectly, local authors Alan Heathcock and Tony Doerr rib him. Heathcock chides that Kustra wouldn't know a mollusk from a muskox. Though this scene has yet to happen, it's a pretty good guess at how things will go down at Celebrities in Jeopardy, the Cabin's new benefit, which is based on Alex Trebek's famous TV game show.

"I don't think there's another nonprofit that's doing something this different," said Cabin Executive Director Dede Ryan.

The Cabin is banking that this event can serve as its replacement for an antique silent auction and buffet gala that netted 100 attendees year after year. And so far, so good: 350 people have already registered for Celebrities in Jeopardy, which takes place Friday, Feb. 24, at the Egyptian Theatre, and more are expected.

"Boise is a last-minute town," said Bev Harad, a member of the Cabin's board. "And when you do an event, it's not for the faint of heart. People don't make reservations until the last possible minute."

To make the new fundraiser possible, the Cabin is relying on some big-name talent. The teams include Bob and Kathy Kustra, Opera Idaho Director Mark Junkert, Idaho Public Television's Peter Morrill, State Rep. Cherie Buckner-Webb, jazz legend Curtis Stigers' mother Margaret Montrose Stigers, Ken Bass and Tim Johnstone of KRVB 94.9 The River, and Trott as the event's magistrate and final arbiter. To serve as hosts for the evening, Harad has pulled in literary greats Heathcock and Doerr.

"I think the Cabin was right to do something a little offbeat, given what the Cabin represents. It's a bit of a gamble, but it's a fun gamble, let me tell you," said Harad.

The Cabin recently brought a new member on to the board, 28-year-old Jeremiah Wierenga, owner of Hyde Park Books. Wierenga's fresh face was intentionally recruited to the Cabin board to bring in a younger perspective.

"As this idea came up, [Wierenga] said, 'Yeah, I'd go to that. I might have plans for something after, but I'd go to that.'"

At the center of the issue is outreach--bringing younger demographics into the fold at local arts institutions. These organizations--and they emphatically stress this--desperately want to be relevant to the lives of 20-somethings.

"Everyone talks about the aging of their patrons and losing their patrons," said Jimsi Kuborn, marketing director with Boise Philharmonic.

The philharmonic has been in a similar place: There's a stigma against "old," "stuffy" institutions.

"I think that with more traditional arts organizations, there may be some assumption that, 'I must fit some sort of profile to listen to that music,'" said newly minted 35-year-old philharmonic board member Jessica Flynn.

Flynn was a recent addition to the phil's board to reduce the average age of its members, the thought being that young blood might shake things up. The philharmonic's most recent push in that direction was a performance featuring Wizard of Oz displayed on a big screen. But instead of playing the movie's original score, the orchestra provided the music. Even the fluttery bits between songs were done live, perfectly timed with the film.

"The Wizard of Oz that we did, we had all ages that were there because everybody knows the movie and they've watched it through their childhood," said Kuborn.

Like many orchestras around the country, Boise Philharmonic is adding more accessible concerts to its repertoire. The orchestra has a forthcoming summer pop series in the works, with music that's a bit less classical and more accessible. The series will be outdoor, provide for picnic-friendly seating and include music familiar to the unwashed masses.

"It makes it a little more lax," said Kuborn. "You're not sitting in a dark room, you don't have to dress up, you can wear shorts and tank tops and flip-flops."

The philharmonic often uses music from movies to draw people in. Concerts featuring scores by John Williams, the acclaimed Hollywood composer known for his Star Wars themes, were packed every night.

The age range the phil struggles most with is a characteristically aloof bunch--young adults who haven't yet had kids of their own. A National Endowment for the Arts study showed that classical music attendance specifically has declined at a 29-percent rate since 1982. The research pinpoints this age group as a possible culprit.

"We try to offer things that maybe people in their 20s and 30s are comfortable with. The cheaper event prices for students, as well as partnerships with organizations like the Boise Young Professionals. I'm on their board," said Kuborn. "We always try to do different things to create a buzz."

Other Boise institutions try to create buzz as well. Opera Idaho is courting a young, urban demographic using, what else, booze. With help from its new 26-year-old Marketing and Development Coordinator, Janessa White, Opera Idaho has spearheaded a martini party program to coincide with operas, the last of which paired the Mimi's Embrace martini with Giacomo Puccini's love story La Boheme.

And while Opera Idaho, Boise Philharmonic and the Cabin are consciously courting younger board and audience members, there's still that dyed-in-the-wool patronage that won't hit up a martini bash on a Friday night or don flip-flops for an outdoor concert series. The Cabin hopes to straddle the line between old and new with Celebrities in Jeopardy.

"We're trying to take it a step at a time. We don't want to tick off our core members who love what we do," Harad said. "I don't want to turn people off with all these Facebooks."

So the gamble seems smart. The show appeals to a wide range of age groups and could shake things up in the more formal nonprofit arts world.

"Fund-raising events are basically a way of life in Boise," said Harad. "But in the last five or six years, I think there's been a prototype. I think people are just ready to launch--experience something different. I think every nonprofit is working to better satisfy their customers."

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