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How High-Art Institutions Are Making a Grab at Millennials

As theaters, museums, and the opera struggle to attract young audiences, some Chicago venues are getting thrifty with their programming.

Carrie Brownstein at an MCA Talk on Oct 30, 2015   Photo: Nathan Keay, courtesy of MCA Chicago

Last night, the Harris Theater mounted its second iteration of Mix at Six, a series of abridged performances from the theater’s 2015–16 season. The conceit is simple: Performances cost $10 (that includes a free beer), last one hour, and happen on a weekday at 6 p.m. (usually Wednesdays and Thursdays).

The series began last month with Bay Area troupe Axis Dance, a cutting-edge ensemble known for mixing dancers with and without disabilities. In the show last night, choreographer Jessica Lang performed snippets of her upcoming collaboration with the starchitect Steven Holl. Pitchfork–lauded pianist Vijay Iyer, nu-chamber quartet Brooklyn Rider, and circus company Circa are all slated to perform later this season.

In other words, Harris Theater now offers access to progressive high-art at basically happy hour cost (and time). If you’re younger than 40 and think this all sounds suspiciously catered to you… well, you’re right.

As theaters, operas, museums, and jazz clubs bleed young audiences, many local institutions have made some unabashed moves to get them back. Take the Joffrey. The dance company’s transparent grab for young eyes was a critically beloved performance called Millennials, all choreographed by rising 20-somethings. 

The Museum of Contemporary Art, meanwhile, has made programmatic waves this year by partnering with Pitchfork to rebrand its after-hours series as Prime Time. At last month’s sold-out event, mixologist Paul McGee whipped up tiki drinks while electronic artist Dan Deacon and indie rocker Ryler Walker performed to more than 1,500 people. The MCA has also collaborated with Pitchfork to mount MCA Talks, a series in which Pitchfork senior editor Jessica Hopper interviews indie artists such as Carrie Brownstein and St. Vincent.

Hubbard Street Dance has jumped aboard too. Last fall, the company mounted a collaboration with the Second City, following in the footsteps of the Lyric Opera. The performance was so popular Hubbard Street is doing it again in June. Executive director Jason Palmquist attributes much of the success to a cover story on RedEye, the notably younger sibling of the Chicago Tribune.

Harris Theater president Michael Tiknis defends all these strident efforts to make high art as millennial-friendly as possible. "We ought not to change the art, but change the presentation,” he says of Mix at Six’s abridged shows and prices. “Beethoven is not the problem, but it may be that we make you go to two and a half hours of Beethoven and pay a hundred dollars to do it.”

So far, his efforts are paying off: Last month’s inaugural Mix at Six drew more than 500 people to Harris Theater. “The big question,” Tiknis says, “is what good does it do to educate a kid to opera, and put opera into the classroom, and [to have him or her] go to the box office and find out he or she can’t afford a ticket?”

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