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Gray is the New Gold: Discovering the Value of Aging Audiences

by Christy Farnbauch 

 

Over the past few years, I've heard many arts leaders lament the "graying" of their audiences as a looming challenge to overcome. Many are wringing their hands and charging marketing directors to go forth and find younger audiences.

It's interesting to note that after Millenials, Pre-Wars (those age 70 and above) are the most active cultural consumers (according to LaPlaca Cohen's 2014 annual Culture Track report). That begs the question, what if the graying audience phenomenon is actually an asset to be embraced, rather than a problem to be solved? 

A few weeks ago, I attended the National Center for Creative Aging (NCCA) Conference in Washington, D.C. The Ohio Arts Council (OAC) was invited to participate in the NCCA's ENGAGE Community of Practice for state arts agencies (SAAs). Two years ago the OAC joined 12 other states in this first-of-its kind initiative that supports agencies developing infrastructure and programming in arts, health, and aging in their state.

Today, this initiative has grown to include 30 states. But the question remains: Why should state arts agencies, or any organization for that matter, be interested in supporting arts opportunities for older adults? 

The population data is compelling --10,000 people turn 65 every day in the U.S. It is estimated that less than 5% of all seniors live in care facilities, which means there are many active, engaged seniors looking for meaningful arts experiences in every community. Older adults likely make up the majority of arts donors and audiences.

The field of creative aging is the next frontier for arts and cultural organizations to explore. It's the arts education of our time.
elderly hands painting_image from thetime.co.uk

While we know a great deal about demographic trends, we are only just beginning to discover how the arts improve the well-being of older adults. In a 2006 landmark study on the effects of arts participation on an aging population, Gene Cohen and his team found positive results among the study's control group who participated in arts programming, versus the control group that did not participate in arts programming, in the following areas: 1) improved overall health, 2) decreased doctor visits, 3) decreased use of over-the-counter medication, and 4) improved mental health. While the results of this study are promising, more research needs to be done. 

Through the OAC's Artful Aging Ohio program, we are experimenting with ways to facilitate and support creative experiences for older adults across the state in a variety disciplines. From our research, and that of others across the country, some promising practices are emerging:

  1. Offer options. Arts experiences for older adults, just like other audiences, should provide as much choice as possible. Audience participation research shows that people want to customize their experience.
  2. Cultivate donors through engagement. Engaging older adults in arts experiences that are purposeful and meaningful will likely result in the participant becoming a donor, well in advance of any planned or estate gift. Engage them as you would any other donor, starting today.
  3. Leverage existing infrastructure for sustainability of any new programming. Is your facility relatively empty during the day while students are at school? Why not explore the development of programming for active older adults?
  4. Identify where older adults currently gather, and explore a creative partnership with that organization.
  5. Provide professional development and training. This is critical, especially when working with non-arts organizations.
  6. Survey constituents to learn about their hopes, dreams, and interests.
  7. Examine your marketing materials. Are the messages and images you use inviting for older adults? Can they see themselves in your programming?
  8. Document and evaluate the work at all levels and in all forms—print, audio, video, and storytelling, the field needs more data about the power of the arts with this population.
As we begin to do some asset mapping around the state, we'd like to hear about the work you are currently doing, or thinking about doing in the future, with older adults. Your input will help us create a bank of potential partners and resources for Ohio. 

Email me at: christy.farnbauch@oac.state.oh.us with your stories. I look forward to hearing from you!



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