Beyond MTV: How Twentysomethings Do Culture on the Cheap

For a recent college grad, the definition of culture might be a bit like an amoeba - perpetually changing. Would Lilith Fair or "Titanic" count?

Settling into the "real world," many young adults find that their view of culture not only changes, but expands - far beyond rock concerts and movies. To be sure, a lot depends on budget, locale, and upbringing. (Studies show that children often take on the arts-participation patterns of their parents.) The thought process, say several young professionals, goes something like this:

You're on your own in the big city, and one day you realize it's time to broaden your cultural viewfinder. Perhaps you feel good about supporting the arts. Maybe you're plugging in because your friends are - it's a way to be social and it's supposed to be "good for you." Or, you've always been into the arts.

At school, culture was, by and large, affordable and accessible: theater productions, dance performances, music recitals, art exhibits, lectures.

Now, it's up to you to seek it out.

Just ask Jen Pariseau. After graduating from Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., the star basketball player headed to New York, where she now works as a financial analyst.

In her early 20s, she considers culture an important part of her life: "For me, it's been ingrained from a very young age." At college she was into sports, but her older sister was into drama, so she's carried that "sense of balance" with her.

"In New York, it's tough not to appreciate culture," she says. One week recently, she went to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on Saturday, a Broadway show on Sunday, a tennis tournament on Monday, and an off-off-Broadway show on Tuesday.

"Our generation supports a broader labeling of what we call art. Culture as a definition is expanding," she says. Hip-hop is authentic culture, and yet to older people it may not be, she notes.

For many, cost is a sticking point. "It's got to be economical," says Ms. Pariseau, and worthwhile, since leisure time is limited. A movie ticket costs nearly $10, and the opera might be $80-plus.

When Pariseau went to see the musical "Forever Tango," she went to the TKTS booth for half-price tickets. There, she waited in line for 30 minutes. People have to take what they can get for that day, such as single seats or obstructed views, but she ended up getting a great seat in the orchestra section and paid $50 for a $100 ticket. "It was well worth it," she says.

Beyond museums and musicals, attending other cultural events often becomes a game of pick-and-choose, depending on budget. "There's a lot at Lincoln Center, but I can't drop $70 to listen to Mozart, as much as I'd love to," Pariseau sighs.

Last Saturday, she attended her first opera, thanks to a family friend. "I loved it," she says, adding, "Unfortunately, that is [too] expensive, and I should not get used to it."

Some young professionals skirt admission by working as ushers, docents, or special-events volunteers. Others see value in buying subscriptions, season tickets, taking out memberships, or joining committees and sponsor clubs if they can afford it. (That way they can regularly attend events year-long.)

What the 'rents' can do

Not everyone can be as fortunate as Nina Chernoff. The Bryn Mawr graduate is working as a policy and program analyst in Philadelphia. While she's making enough to pay her bills, like many young professionals, she can't exactly splurge on extras in the arts world. So, her parents offered her a sweet deal: "Send museum, theater, and dance-production ticket stubs home, and we'll reimburse you. (Movies and rock concerts don't count.)"

"My parents think it's important, and they're interested in my social life.... I'm very grateful," says Ms. Chernoff. "In college everything is free, and it's a rude shock to spend so much for tickets now."

She attends shows by herself or with friends. Recently, she went to a photo exhibit and a flamenco dance performance. Whereas even without her "cultural allowance" she would have seen "Show Boat," she might not have risked $20 to see a neighborhood theater production she hadn't heard much about.

Chernoff is still a firm believer in taking advantage not only of bargains but also freebies whenever possible. Almost all city museums, for example, have free admission one day or evening of the week, she notes.

Certainly there are those who enjoy culture and those who don't. "I wouldn't do anything artsy if my girlfriend wasn't into it," says Tom Conly, a young professional in Boston who averages one, maybe two theater productions a year. "I'd rather spend my money on 'doing' things rather than watching - whether it's culture or sports-related."

It's a whole different story for David Dow, who says that culture fulfills his desire for intellectual stimulation. He is a member of the Boston Athenaeum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He also seeks out independent, "non-mainstream" movies.

A self-described science-fiction and history-literature buff, Mr. Dow explains, "Some people develop an interest in culture because they seek it out or they grew up with it. For me, both would apply.... My parents like classical music, so I like it too." His overall musical tastes include alternative rock, medieval, and contemporary classical music.

Going after the younger set

Many people, however, and not just young people, find aspects of the cultural world elitist and inaccessible. Why should I pay to see something I don't understand? they argue.

But over the past decade, the arts world has made a concerted effort to remedy that - from family events to lecture series to other outreach efforts. Almost all cultural institutions recognize the younger set as not only future patrons, but also their tickets to survival.

Nicole Avril has studied nonprofit arts management and finance. A student at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Chicago, she is a committee head for the Culture Connection, which plans arts events for students. Buying tickets in bulk allows the committee to get good deals on price; some 250 people went to see the musical "Rent."

"If you can start people's arts-going behavior now, we're training a generation of arts supporters," Ms. Avril says.

People out of college are prime targets for arts organizations, she says. They graduate and think, "It's time for me to start being a big person." They often realize that appreciating and supporting the arts is part of their new role.

"There is so much competition for our leisure time. If you make it easier for people, art becomes more accessible," Avril says.

Young people who want to feel in touch with what's going on need satisfying experiences, she continues. Jazz at art museums has been a great "in" as well as lecture series and after-work mixers.

"Organizations are beginning to wake up and realize that young people don't 'take' to art like they used to," Avril says. "It's an MTV generation, and [organizations] need to work harder for our dollars.... I'd like to see organizations be a little more flexible, such as offering smaller subscriptions."

Convincing young people to make the arts a priority in their lives is often just a matter of reigniting interest. A comment Avril often hears from newcomers to Culture Connection is: "I feel guilty. I haven't been to anything cultural in a while." Then, after the event, they say, "Wow, I've been missing out."

"Once young adults get started participating in the arts," she concludes, "they want to keep it up."

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