Generation Z Offers Challenges to Arts and Cultural Organizations

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I recently ran across articles in the online editions of Pacific Standard Magazine and the New York Times about “Generation Z” or “Gen Z,” the post-Millennial generation of youth born after 1995. Both articles offer an urgent message for the leaders of conventional arts organizations and cultural institutions: “business as usual is no longer an option.”

The New York Times article describes these 68 million Americans as the most diverse generation in United States history. They are the second largest generation after Baby Boomers, and according to the U.S. census data quoted in the article, one in four is Hispanic; six percent are Asian, and 14 percent are African-American. Most notable about this generation is their interaction with technology and social media access. They also hold nontraditional views about identity, which not only includes gender roles, but also political affiliation. In a follow-up article, the newspaper features excerpts from interviews with 900 members of Generation Z, who share their views on self-identity, their values and their dreams. I found the interviews to be particularly insightful and a window of opportunity for arts managers to learn directly from their future audience.

Why is this important? The Pacific Standard article, written by Mary Ittleson, a Stanford Graduate School of Business lecturer in arts leadership, explains what makes Generation Z’s relationship to the arts different from the preceding generations: lack of arts education/access to arts during their formative years due to cutbacks in schools; access to technology and the tools to create their own arts experience, and their concerns with “macro issues,” such as identity, race, human rights, inequality and social justice, that aren’t usually portrayed or addressed by traditional arts organizations and cultural institutions.

Ms. Ittleson’s also writes about programs in San Francisco and Chicago that have successfully attracted Generation Z patrons through interactive exhibitions, the addition of cafés, and spaces for dialogue. She writes: “Gen Z will be a responsive audience once the social institutions that nourish the arts begin to offer aesthetic experiences that better reflect their lived experiences. That entails risk, but business as usual is no longer an option for these institutions.”

We all know the importance of the arts—they are the cornerstone of innovation and civil society. I urge you and/or your leadership teams to make the time to read and discuss these articles. If we are to sustain the arts and engage Generation Z, along with future generations, it’s time for us to deepen our commitment and expand our efforts to reach them. If you already have a success story to share, I look forward to hearing from you so that I can share it with others. Let’s learn from the organizations and institutions that are successfully pioneering efforts to extend the invitation to the arts to these youth.