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March 6, 2007

Chewing the future: Arts organizations want to invite college students to the party

Louisville arts organizations have been wearing mismatched socks to the campus keg party. Like the friendly-but-odd foreign exchange student who lounges against the wall, longing for disco and warm zelnacka soup, some regional arts programmers appear similarly aching to fit in with the more than 21,000 students at the University of Louisville.The Speed Art Museum is one such creature. It practically lounges on the university’s front porch, and yet on most afternoons, the museum’s halls are bereft of college students.That’s what you call missed opportunity. In late January, the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education released a study showing that 95 percent of students who graduate from the state’s public colleges and universities stay in Kentucky. That’s a 12-percent increase from a similar study in 2000, and to organizations like the Speed, it represents massive potential for increased foot traffic. Which explains why the museum was leading a brigade of change over free pizza and open ears last Wednesday and Thursday evenings.“We’re looking for a continuing dialogue with students, and we’re willing to listen,” museum director Peter Morrin said of the roundtable discussions he led with Speed staff.The informal discussions are meant to address the gap in student-focused programming and to provide insight about how long-term capital campaigns might better incorporate the university population.Once seated in the wood-paneled halls of the Speed’s English Room, more than 60 students welcomed the opportunity to rant, suggest, politely complain, ask questions and talk art.“While a lot of the artwork is truly interesting, that said, once you get to the museum there (are) not a lot of reasons to return,” said Clay Marshall, the senior honors student who helped organize the discussions. Marshall first visited the museum on a class-mandated trip and spoke at length with Morrin about how the museum might work further with students. Together they decided the roundtable brainstorming sessions would be a strong first step.“Most of the temporary installations appeal to demographics that don’t attend U of L, and the solemn atmosphere makes the Speed somewhat intimidating to meet socially at,” Marshall said.Museum staff members agree.“In the past, we haven’t specifically worked with the students and their organizations on campus to think through how the museum can be more relevant to them,” said Penny Peavler, the Speed’s manager of special operations. “With the Kroger opening up and the new dorms, there’s a feel nowadays that this university is a residence, a destination in itself. We’re looking to fill a role socially to students, to appeal to people in their out-of-class time as well as being an in-class opportunity for the school.”During the discussions, Morrin noted that the current quandary for many museums is not simply getting people in the door, but bringing them back.The students offered suggestions on that score, including featuring more controversial installations rotated monthly and adding a venue for online student interaction. Most agreed the museum would benefit from a renovation at the rear to add a student lounge and other youth-friendly amenities, such as a coffee shop, cheap eats and free WiFi. They suggested the museum establish a presence on MySpace.com.One passionate interjector argued that the navy blazers worn by museum security staff come off as authoritative and corporate. He suggested teal blazers as a fitting non-establishmentarianism replacement.Not all of the suggestions were geared toward making the museum “fun.” One teaching assistant asked for more mentoring and career guidance for her students, noting that many of them have asked for career workshops, open houses and shadowing programs.Crawling into the ear of a college student with a message that sticks is an age-old advertising conundrum. As the Speed tries to get through to U of L students, the students said overkill can be a good thing — namely when the message is right and art is free.“There’s a bombardment of information for us day-to-day, and we have ads coming at us from e-mail, signs, word of mouth, digitally,” student Anna Collins said. “So if you’re wanting to reach us, you’ve got to work harder and do something special to get your message across.”Students cited programs like downtown’s Legal Graffiti wall and Art Sanctuary, and venues such as North End Café and the Monkey Wrench, as successful attractions. Some lauded programming changes and special rates offered by Actors Theatre of Louisville, Louisville Ballet and Louisville Orchestra.The Speed isn’t the only arts organization that sees the merit in reaching out to the student audience. Actors Theatre has launched Actors Ambassadors, an initiative where college students from around the state promote ATL productions on their campuses. ATL arms the ambassadors with promotional materials and provides them with ideas on marketing to their fellow students through efforts like campus posters, coupon distribution, blogs and e-mail and text message campaigns. ATL communications director James Seacat said students have helped create a college-focused marketing methodology by documenting efforts that work and rewarding their peers for successful promotional efforts.Morrin was optimistic about cross-referencing college-student programming between arts groups in Louisville. He said regional arts programmers should intensify collaboration, rather than competition, to engage young people and cultivate meaningful student interaction with art.“At the base of why we’re doing these student discussions is our philosophy of being a good listening institution for the community and state,” he said.As staffers piled empty pizza boxes into trashcans and talked over suggestions from the brainstorming session, the students slowly filed outside, chewing on the future of their role at the Speed. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com