About The Columbus Young Professionals Club

Making museums cool

Venues peddle drinks, music to lure younger patrons
June 2, 2009
By Kevin Joy

The only artworks that Russell Baltes owns, he bought from thrift stores — or, in a few cases, salvaged free.

Still, the graphic designer from German Village didn't shy from "Bare Walls: An Intro to Art Collecting" — a session this month at the Wexner Center for the Arts during which a panel of curators and gallery owners doled out what some people might view as surprising tips:

Price isn't paramount.
Artists are approachable.
Trust your tastes.

The purpose of the GenWex series — programming for young professionals that includes pop-culture trivia nights, no-experience-needed art workshops, outdoor "drive-in" movies (next up: the 1941 cult horror flick The Wolf Man) and networking events with cocktails -- is fun, not exclusivity.

"Being someone who doesn't consider himself a highbrow, refined cultural elitist, it's really comfortable," said Baltes, 29. "They're on my level."

Other places, too, have introduced programming aimed at 20- and 30- somethings — an attempt to draw more bodies into their buildings and create long-term relationships that turn the curious into regular visitors (and, perhaps one day, philanthropic donors).

From the Guggenheim in New York, where disc jockeys perform in the towering lobby on select Friday nights, to the Getty in Los Angeles, where emerging indie-rock and global bands play as part of the "Saturdays off the 405" series, such promotions are increasingly common.

"They're great venues for social events," said Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums.

"Museums are learning to do a better job of reaching out, communicating with younger audiences."

Such responses might be reactive.

A study published in May by the Washington association found that, among 2,300 18- to 30-year-olds, museums ranked 12th among 15 options for preferred leisure activities.

Twenty-two percent of respondents said they enjoy visiting museums in their spare time.

Specialty programming is apparently one way to combat such sentiments.

Last year, the Franklin Park Conservatory started "Cocktails at the Conservatory" as a summer event and drew such an encouraging response that it made the weekly gathering permanent.

A portable bar, catering station and disc jockey set up shop in the Palm House from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Thursdays.

With admission free instead of the usual $7.50, attendees stroll about the exhibits at their leisure.

"It's really just about opening things up and getting it on the map," said marketing director Lori Kingston, who conceived the event based on the success of a similar offering at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

Although older visitors aren't excluded, conservatory crowds skew decidedly younger as the night progresses.

Radio and print advertisements promote a rotating monthly theme — such as "Marigolds & Mai Tais" this month.

Such efforts recently attracted Paula Song and two friends from her Victorian Village neighborhood.

"I've never been in the conservatory before," the 35-year-old said. "It's not like a bar. This is a great idea."

COSI Columbus has begun testing the waters, too.

An adults-only February event called "Mistology: The Science Behind the Cocktail" quickly sold out at $15 a ticket.

Also popular was a Guitar Hero tournament, for age 13 and older, that in March attracted plenty of child-free adult shredders.

COSI has likewise hosted "tweet-ups" — social gatherings for Twitter users — with strong attendance.

"It made us realize there is that demand out there for programming and events for the young-professional groups," said museum spokeswoman Kelli Nowinsky, noting that a committee is planning such future fare.

The Columbus Museum of Art seemingly led the charge in 1996 with First Thursdays, a monthly party that was discontinued three years ago as similar networking hours proliferated elsewhere.

The venue recently launched Art netWork, a social yet more serious-minded group aimed at "developing the next generation of art lovers and supporters," said Sarah Pirtle, a 26-year-old Columbus copywriter and the group's vice president.

Art netWork hosts tours, speakers and happy hours regularly for locals in their 20s and 30s.

In October, it will stage the annual ArtFusion party — a lower-cost companion to the high-end Art Ball, which the younger set might attend later in the evening.

Although membership in Art netWork totals only about 25 people, Pirtle said, the museum is expanding its reach to boost the number.

The Columbus Young Professionals Club, meanwhile, is making a similar push for summer, starting a monthly "culture calendar" with outings to dinner and a fine-arts performance or museum with discounted admission.

Derek Grosso — president of the no-dues, 7,000-member club — is in talks with the Columbus Symphony, Opera Columbus and the Columbus Historical Society, among other groups.

Grosso, 29, realizes that selling the ballet or an art exhibit to most 20-somethings is far more challenging than suggesting a Buckeye football game or a night at the bar.

He is confident, though, that using the same marketing strategies as museums will bear fruit.

"Some people might be intimidated at first," Grosso said. "But anytime you can offer something in addition to what's normally offered, making it a little bit more cool or different, that's going to attract a younger crowd."

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