Wade on Birmingham

EXCLUSIVE: The artistic pursuit of young professionals


Art on the Rocks

Art on the Rocks, July 2005

When 3,000 young professionals gather tonight in Birmingham, they’ll be ready to party with Ivan Neville’s new band, drink cocktails and mingle with 20- and 30somethings. They’ll dine on gourmet appetizers and taking part in a scavenger hunt to win a painting. Even “American Idol” finalist Taylor Hicks will be dropping by.

This isn’t a trendy Lakeview nightclub holding its grand opening. This is a museum.

Launched in April 2005, Art on the Rocks is an after-hours monthly party at the Birmingham Museum of Art. Its runaway success has inspired city arts organizations to pursue young professionals for their cachet and their cash. The movement is transforming the arts scene and the way companies view this hot demographic group.

The museum had expected 700 attendees to check out Art on the Rocks on that first Friday gathering, at $10 a person. Instead, 1,500 showed up. By closing night in September, 3,500 attendees were jamming the hallways and patios. Total attendance: more than 13,000.

That enthusiasm paid off in more than 1,000 new members, almost one out of every 10 attendees. Individual membership costs $45 a year.

Other organizations are working to copy that success. The Alabama Symphony Orchestra, the Alys Stephens Center, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and even McWane Science Center have all worked toward attracting young professionals.

Spoken-word style

The Civil Rights Institute kicked off its monthly Sixteenth and Sixth parties in May 2005, drawing 60 to 80 people at $15 a ticket. Like Art on the Rocks, the event featured food, entertainment and networking in the institute itself. The Thursday events concluded in September.

“A fourth of the staff (at the institute) is 25 to 35,” said Marie Sutton, public relations coordinator. “That young group of whippersnappers got together and came up with the idea.

“We’re trying to bring in some young professionals, people who don’t typically have the institute on their to-do list.”

The institute landed about a dozen members and found providing spoken-word artists to be a unique draw. Event promotion included television, e-mail and Evites.

But with a limited budget and other events at the institute, Sixteenth and Sixth won’t restart until July. Meanwhile, Sutton said that the institute is pursuing a major sponsor and meeting with young professionals this week to plan this year’s events.

Like the Civil Rights Institute, the Alabama Symphony Orchestra began courting young professionals in 2005. A group of 50 volunteers formed First Chair last fall to recruit a younger audience.

The goals are fund-raising and building awareness about the symphony, said Chandler Abel, head of membership for First Chair and catering manager at B&A Warehouse on First Avenue South.

Using e-mail, flyers and a Web site, the group has promoted several mixers and an “empty house” party in February to kick off the symphony’s annual Decorators’ Showhouse fund-raiser. Also, the group partnered with the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival in March for a movie at WorkPlay in Lakeview.

Abel said that Susan Mason, president of the Symphony Volunteer Council, saw the need for younger members and started First Chair.

Having no budget hasn’t seemed to hamper efforts: The “empty house” party raised $5,000 for the symphony. Revenue for First Chair comes straight from member fees, $45 for individuals and $75 for couples. That membership includes buy-one-get-one-free tickets and Symphony@6 parties.

First Chair is actually the third symphony volunteer group. Symphony 30 also targets young professionals, but Abel said First Chair is a year-round organization, while Symphony 30 concentrates on one fund-raiser a year.

And while First Chair is part of the volunteer council, both operate independently of the symphony. Tonya Formby, co-head of First Chair and an accountant at Compass Bank, said, “The symphony has been very open with us; they’ve been great.”

While fall events have not been determined, the group will recruit at the weekly Sounds for Summer series in Caldwell Park on Southside. The concerts run from May 26 to June 16, when it faces competition for young professionals (and other groups) from the opening night of City Stages, the annual three-day downtown music festival.

Try and try again

Looking past summer, the Alys Stephens Center has its fall, winter and spring plans under way, both for programming and for recruiting younger audiences. The ASC Social Club is the Southside performance center’s latest attempt.

“We had a young patrons group in the past,” said Kimberly Kirklin, education and outreach director for the center. “Its events were a little more upscale, but someone like me couldn’t really afford to attend.

“We wanted to make something people would feel like they’re getting a good deal on things they want to do.”

Membership — $40 for individuals, $75 for couples — allows for $20 tickets at four events from the 2006-07 schedule: comedian Lewis Black, Diavolo Dance Theatre, dancer Savion Glover and Cirque Dreams’ Jungle Fantasy. Other benefits include a free ticket to the Marcia Ball concert, parties and a 10 percent discount to other center shows.

The approach was based in part on feedback from a young professionals focus group in January at the center. The center will promote the club through mailing lists and brochures, with $16,500 set aside for promotions and parties and a target of 80 members.

McWane Science Center is also aiming big and spending big to attract downtown professionals and residents. Instead of special events or clubs, it is adding features aimed at an audience beyond parents and children.

According to the Birmingham News, the center is spending $130,000 to add wireless Internet access by June 1 and upgrade its IMAX projector to show longer movies. The first feature-length movie will be “Poseidon” on June 30; other scheduled films include “Superman Returns” and “The Ant Bully.” Plus, theater operating hours will be extended on Fridays and Saturdays.

Most wanted

With such efforts, the young professional crowd is a hot commodity among arts groups. It’s not only a marketing effort but also a matter of survival.

“We’re the future Symphony Volunteer Council, the future of the symphony,” said First Chair’s Abel. “We’re going to have to get people involved.”

As more groups compete for members and dollars, their organizers see the need to stand out. Sutton at the Civil Rights Institute said, “Just like high school, everyone wants to be with the coolest,” adding with a laugh, “Of course, we’re the coolest.”

Jack Taylor, the Joseph S. Bruno Professor of Retailing at Birmingham-Southern College, said young professionals are looking for cultural options and have the disposable income to take advantage of them. “They can see events leading into contacts, getting themselves established in the social community.”

With the diversity of offerings, Taylor said that Birmingham has enough room for all of these groups to succeed, a sentiment echoed by their organizers.

Art on the Rocks

Art on the Rocks, July 2005

But the leader, Art on the Rocks, is already taking steps to remain on top this year. For example, the performers alone could draw crowds. Tonight features Ivan Neville’s funk-rock band Dumpstaphunk. And in coming months, two City Stages vets will play: alt-country songstress Tift Merritt and rock-pop singer-songwriter Aqualung.

Also planned is a scavenger hunt sponsored by Compass Bank and tied to tonight’s French theme. The prize is a French landscape painting valued at $1,000 by Georgia artist Kippy Hammond.

The hunt isn’t just a diversion but a crowd control tactic as well, designed to move people out of crowded areas and into the open galleries. Such planning has aided the event, and it’s been going on for years.

Julie Mann, assistant director of public relations for the museum, said that the event was the brainchild of Kimberly King, membership development officer. King wanted something new to attract new members and get them in the doors.

While the launch was in 2005, planning for the events began in 2003. Promotion included working with media sponsors such as Black and White magazine and Fox 6, in addition to posters and mailouts.

Even with a better-than-expected first year, the museum continued to fine-tune the event for this year. Advance ticket sales were moved online and capped at 3,000; if any tickets remain, they’ll be sold at the door. Prices for individual tickets jumped from $10 to $15 (not including service charge), with a $5 option for museum members.

And using the latest tools, the museum added a profile on the social networking site, MySpace, in April. More than 150 people have already added it as an online friend.

The museum spun off its success with Dance with a Twist. From February to April, the Friday gatherings focused on dance lessons and dancing. Mann said the three events, which will return in 2007, brought in a capacity crowd of 1,500 paying attendees total.

Tonight’s kickoff of Art on the Rocks shows the market potential of Birmingham’s under-40 crowd. Arts groups competing for that market have found that partying with young professionals takes creative approaches, resources and plenty of work.

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Art on the Rocks

  • Dates: May 12, June 23, July 21, Aug. 18, Sept. 15, Oct. 20
  • Tickets: $15, $5 for museum members (must buy in advance online or by phone at 205-328-7628)
  • Next event: 5-10 tonight, Birmingham Museum of Art, 2000 Eighth Ave. N.
  • Free food, cash bar, Dumpstaphunk with Ivan Neville, scavenger hunt and more
  • Info: Web site and MySpace profile

ASC Social Club

  • Membership: $40, $75 for couples, $25 for students; includes $20 tickets for select events, free ticket to Sept. 23 Marcia Ball show, parties (with one free drink coupon) and 10 percent discount on other center events
  • Next event: comedian Lewis Black, $25-$45, 8 p.m. Oct. 27, Jemison Concert Hall, Alys Stephens Center, 1200 10th Ave. S., Southside
  • Info: Web site

First Chair

  • Membership: $45, $75 for couples, includes buy-one-get-one-free tickets for Alabama Symphony Orchestra concerts, Symphony@6 parties, T-shirt and Birmingham Weekly card
  • Next event: Sounds for Summer concert, featuring country singer Lee Greenwood, $15, 8 p.m. May 26, Caldwell Park, Southside
  • Info: Web site

Sixteenth and Sixth

  • Second Thursday of the month, July through September
  • Next event: 6:16 p.m. July 13, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, 520 16th St. N.
  • Tickets: $15, $10 for members, includes free food and drink (including beer and wine), entertainment
  • Info: Web site

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1 Yip for “EXCLUSIVE: The artistic pursuit of young professionals”

  1. Big Mama
    Saturday, May 13, 2006, 1:26 pm

    While you young professionals are schmoozing with Taylor-someone needs to lean over and whisper “Shake you Down” By Gregory Abott-now that’s a song!

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