Arts & Culture

Young Professionals and the Arts: Houston’s Next Generation of Givers

Loyal donors of non-profits are graying, but some of Houston’s arts groups are being proactive about it by wooing the next generation. What’s being done to attract Millennials and Gen-Xers to go from being patrons to donors?

concert crowd in front of the DJ
The crowd at MFAH Mixed Media in March 2015

It's a summer Saturday evening and the inside of Jones Hall is filling up with the chatter of concert goers. The last rays of afternoon sun slant through the lobby windows as men and women in evening attire make their way up scarlet-carpeted stairs.

Thirty-year-old Lela Brodsky is among them. She's getting ready to hear the Houston Symphony perform Mahler's Symphony No. 3.

"I actually don't have a music background, I have more of a dance background," Brodsky says. "But I went to a couple concerts — not this past season, but the season before — and saw the lineup for the coming season and wanted to get more involved."

Brodsky grew up in Houston, but moved away to go to law school during her twenties. When she came back, she joined the symphony's young professionals group. She says it's a way to meet other people in her age group who have similar interests.

Attracting people like Brodsky is high on the priority list among a lot of arts organizations across Greater Houston and the U.S.

"Every orchestra is talking about, ‘How do we ensure that Gen Xers and Millennials will grow into the audiences that we need [and] that are deeply aligned or invested in our organizations?'" says Houston Symphony's Glenn Taylor.

Their young professionals program only makes up about one percent of their subscription revenue, but Taylor says it's not really about generating money now. It's about getting the returns later, when these young patrons become older donors.



On a Friday night, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston has the vibe of an after-hours dance club. Kaleidoscopic pastel lights dance on the walls. Outside, there's a live DJ on the terrace. It's their Mixed Media event, intended to attract younger people.

The MFAH's official young professionals group is called Art Crowd. They get together a few times a year for social events that are tied to an exhibition. Since 2007, the group has grown from 322 members to 726 last year.



The museum's Jennifer Garza says they're noticing trends among this generation of givers.

"What we are hearing now is that people who are Gen X and Millennials want to invest in something. They don't necessarily want to just donate. They want to be a part of it," Garza says.

It's a similar approach for the Houston Grand Opera. Their young professionals organization, called Opening Night, gets a lot of praise for its success. The opera's Kelly Laning says it takes a little wining and dining.

"They're joining a community. So, they're not just coming to the opera. They're coming to the opera every opening night," Laning says. "They're meeting on what we call the "bridge" of our grand foyer during intermission for complementary wine and hors d'oeuvres. They're really getting a chance to discuss the art together."

Laning says membership of the Opening Night group started with 51 subscribers in 2006. Now, they have almost 500. That's a little over three percent of their total subscription revenue. In dollars, it comes out to about $127,000.



Arts groups are aware they are in a very tough space. There's so much other stuff that organizations have to compete with. The Kennedy Center's Marie Mattson puts it into perspective.

"When I was a kid, there were three television stations, period," Mattson says. "Now, you know, there's just so much more competition for peoples' discretionary time and money that the market's diluted and you have to really distinguish yourself more aggressively."

Mattson adds that groups are looking for ways to get more creative in wooing today's young professionals — and making sure they stay, with hopes that these new audiences will become future donors.

Back at Jones Hall, Lela Brodsky explains why she keeps returning to the symphony.

"I think it's about the beauty of it and expanding my horizons," she says. "It's something new for me. I wasn't trained in music, but I enjoy it."

And that's something people of all ages can identify with.

Subscribe to Today in Houston

Fill out the form below to subscribe our new daily editorial newsletter from the HPM Newsroom.

* required