Fear of Aging Audiences and Aging Artists

Marge Champion and Donald Saddler (both in their 90s and still performing) in the documentary film, “Keep Dancing”

A number of organizations have emerged which foster developing arts and arts programs for aging populations. One that I’ve mentioned here in the past is the Arts and Aging Toolkit. In section 1.6: Big-Picture Challenges to Arts and Aging Programs of the website (which I linked to in the previous post without commentary) are a number of challenges to what may be called our obsession with youthful audiences.

As the Fear of Aging section states:

A fear of growing old pervades our society. Advertising proclaims the wonders of plastic surgery, herbal extracts, anti-aging lotions, and drugs to enhance or suppress bodily functions. Middle-aged actors have difficulty finding meaningful roles. Older adults don’t want to see themselves portrayed as “old”—living in nursing homes or sitting on park benches.

And putting aside the fact that the over 50 demographic has far more buying power (and often more leisure time) to contribute to the arts in ways that younger audiences can’t and don’t, we’re only slowly seeing how the for profit industries are starting to address this issue as the traditional broadcast media declines.

One thing that seems to pop up whenever I get into these discussions (either here at the blog, on facebook, or in real life) is how much of this push by the classical doom and gloom folks is fueled by aging arts administrators, board members, and pundits. As Janis pointed out when I recently reposted the Arts and Aging Toolkit site to my facebook wall, the page addresses this as one of the Ageism problems. The first bullet point under how “Ageism can affect the arts and aging field” is:

Board members of arts and aging organizations may be reluctant to see programs in action because they are afraid of their own aging process.

And I think the misguided obsession with youth in general, much less a youthful audience, is taking away focus on developing meaningful programs and participatory interaction geared towards older audiences. To me, this seems like an inane thing to do for organizations so worried about their financial futures since, as I’ve emphasized here that the buying power of the aging population is beginning to quickly outpace a youthful audience which is increasingly less willing to pay for arts and entertainment because of the rising Free Culture movement.

Here’s just a brief annotated list of some of those newer organizations:

  • Creative Aging Toolkit for Public Libraries <<creativeagingtoolkit.org>>
    • The Creative Aging Toolkit for Public Libraries is a free, online resource for librarians. It offers access to information about aging and libraries, creative aging research, and best practices in the field. The toolkit contains insights, tips, tools and templates to be used when planning, implementing and sustaining successful programs.
  • National Center for Creative Aging (NCCA) <<www.creativeaging.org>>
    • The National Center for Creative Aging (NCCA) was founded in 2001 and is dedicated to fostering an understanding of the vital relationship between creative expression and healthy aging and to developing programs that build on this understanding.
  • Arts for the Aging, Inc. <<www.aftaarts.org>>
    • AFTA engages older adults in health improvement and life enhancement through the arts.
  • Lifetime Arts <<www.lifetimearts.org>>
    • A national online directory of teaching artists and organizations — peer reviewed, and qualified to design and deliver instructional arts programs for older adults.
  • Arts and Aging Toolkit <<artsandaging.org>>
    • This resource is designed for leaders and program staff in public, nonprofit, and for-profit arts and humanities organizations and institutions and in healthcare and aging services organizations, corporations, and institutions.

A documentary I am looking forward to seeing soon, Keep Dancing, is a film about about legendary dancers Marge Champion and Donald Saddler who are both 90 years old and still dancing. A synopsis at Documentary.org says:

After celebrated careers, legendary dancers Marge Champion and Donald Saddler became friends while performing together in the Broadway Show Follies in 2001. When the show closed, they decided to rent a private studio together, and they have been choreographing and rehearsing original dances ever since. At age 90, they continue to pursue their passion for life through their love and mastery of dance. Keep Dancing seamlessly blends nine decades of archival film and photographs with present-day footage to tell a story through dance of the passing of time and the process of aging.

I’ve also been reminiscing about the late Merce Cunningham and his extraordinarily long career in modern and experimental dance and I’ve also recently watched the latest episode of NBC’s Dracula, in which there’s a scene where Mina Murray arranges for a therapeutic “dance night” for the patients at her fathers’ sanitorium, I’m reminded of some of the research done on some the benefits of dance for the aging.

And this gets to the issue of a general phobia we seem to have for aging artists.  Over the past few years as I’ve been blogging about various orchestra labor disputes, I’ve read I don’t know how many comments directed at older musicians in the orchestras and calls to replace them.

It might be time for us as a culture to step back and rethink modeling our arts organizations after what has traditionally been industries (traditional broadcast media, pop music) that emerged as the result of a post WWII youth consumer culture which no longer has the same economic (and some would argue, cultural) clout it once had.  I imagine that many of these organizations I mention above is part of that kickback, and the for-profit industries have already started to follow suit as I’ve been discussing here.  Again, the Classical Music doom-and-gloom folks want us to follow the youthful audience, which just puts Classical Music one step behind the rest as usual.

4 thoughts on “Fear of Aging Audiences and Aging Artists

  1. Fear of their own aging from aging arts org board members, and I think also an overemphasized on youth from college professors who see oodles of chatty, vivacious 19 year olds nonstop, day in, day out.


  2. I’ve also had a hard time verbalizing the major logical problem with the obsession with youngsters since “they’re the future!” We have to get kids into the concert hall because they’re the future!

    Why? Once the future becomes the present, and those kids are in their forties, your inheritors won’t want them anymore and will be booting them out of the hall to make room for the next round of kids … Who will also be shoved out of the hall when the future becomes the present.

    It makes no sense to pursue a youthful demographic as an investment in the future, and then to sink a torpedo beneath their waterline when the future finally arrives.

    But the “future” is always much more fun and romantic before it gets here and becomes the present.


    1. Yeah, that’s been one of the complaints–also applies to the artists themselves especially after Sandow called for replacing the Philly musicians with young music conservatory grads–what happens when the performers get too old? Just replace them too?


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