Please Make the Arts Family Friendly

Dear Arts Presenters,

Allow me to introduce myself. I am your ideal audience member. I am in the throes of early parenthood, when I am more open to purchasing new experiences and products than during any other life event. When I come to a show, I don’t just buy one ticket, I buy three or four. Then I stop for a snack in your lobby and a toy in your gift shop.

True, arts participation has declined for my age range. But now I’m looking for meaningful experiences that are adult enough for me to enjoy yet laid-back enough for my kids. Something that doesn’t involve screens. Something that wears the cloak of tradition, that shows my kids what kinds of great things people can accomplish.

That’s where you come in. You can make me – and my kids – lifelong concertgoers and donors if you get us in the habit of looking to you for programming.

You’re doing a pretty good job already! I can catch Orly Shaham and her wonderful Baby Got Bach – but she’s in town only twice a year. The NYPhil, Chamber Music Society, and American Ballet Theatre and more offer a few children’s concerts throughout the year. But because I can never just walk in to these one-off events, I will rarely choose them over the zoo or a museum.

Where is the musical equivalent of the MOMA Art Lab, where I can drop in and color with my kid after a visit to the galleries? Where is the dance version of the Natural History Museum’s Discovery Room, where she can assemble a dinosaur skeleton? Where is theater’s answer to the “meet the animal” camps and classes at the zoos?

Here’s what I’m looking for.

The chance to experience high-quality music, dance and theater that is:

1) Enjoyable for me AND the kids
2) Educational, but fun
3) Easy to do
4) Ongoing

1) Enjoyable
There’s no shortage of straight-up, children’s programming in the city. These offerings are great, but they are things we do for the kids, not cultural offerings we would otherwise choose for ourselves. I want my child to feel that I am bringing her into an adult world, not that I am dragging her to things that I don’t truly like myself.

At the same time, it is immensely challenging to bring children to places not originally intended for them. I will patiently keep my child from touching the masterworks in a museum because I want to enjoy the art myself, show her artists’ visions of the world, and teach her about rules and boundaries. But after doing that, it sure is nice to let her play freely in MOMA’s Art Lab. The performing arts lag in creating these types of spaces for families.

2) Educational
Especially in NYC, parents have a gnawing worry about helping their kids get ahead. In a town where enrollment in public Kindergarten is by competitive application, we feel urged to nurture any interest or talent our child might have, with the hope of providing some advantage to their future. At the same time, we also just want them to have fun. A trip to the zoo balances these two impulses, as does the natural history museum. There is great potential for the performing arts to fill this role as well.

The zoo camps, offered year-round and even for young children and their caregivers, are a great model for the performing arts. Instead of meeting a new animal over a six week program, how about meeting a new instrument or learning a new dance?

3) Easy
My family’s recent trip to American Ballet Theatre exemplifies the current challenges of bringing kids to the performing arts.

The fine print of the ABT flyer reads that children ages 6-17 may be asked for an ID at the door:

The actual ABT flier.

The actual ABT flier.

A quick – and very friendly! – phone call to the box office confirmed that they would actually not be carded (with what? Long form birth certificate?), and also that younger children are welcome too. I’m so desperate for good children’s events that I called to find out – but how many other parents gave up?

Kids go for free to two performances, but adult prices are standard. Bringing along the grandparents and sitting close enough to see something pushed my ticket cost above my annual membership fee at the zoo. On top of that, there was no telling if the little darling will make it through all three acts, or decide to pitch a fit, get sick, or take a nap (which in fact, she did, mercifully during most of Act II).

This is the opposite of easy. I understand that this kind of performance could not offer ticket exchanges, but it illustrates a need for programming that accommodates finicky listens.

4) Ongoing
Routines are important for babies, and even more important for adults. It takes too much brain bandwidth, and perceived rigmarole, for me to break my routine for the occasional children’s concert.

A program like Music Together leverages the power of routines by offering semester-long music classes that are both fun for grown-ups, easy enough to do, and ongoing. (Admittedly, I’m biased.) You pay up front, and it becomes the thing you do on Tuesday mornings. How about the mommy-and-me model but with performers? 10 weeks, 10 instruments, say, with a different solo work each time, a craft project and a chance to play along on some drums or toy violins?

* * * * *

In my wallet right now are memberships to three New York City institutions I’ve occasionally visited in the past, but are now indispensable family cultural activities: the zoo, MOMA, and AMNH. We visit frequently, creating lasting memories of our experiences there. With each visit, I gain a deeper appreciation and respect for the institution. I’m building loyalty, and in some cases, starting to donate.

I want to do this with New York’s performing arts institutions.

Things might be changing. I see more family programming coming from Carnegie Hall, and Lincoln Center just launched LC Kids, a marketing and membership initiative to promote family events at all campus constituents (which doesn’t include ABT, or other rentals).

Still, I do hope for programming – and maybe even a space – that hits all the notes above. Is this out there somewhere?

About thousandfoldecho

Everyone likes classical music. Not everyone knows it yet.
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