Wallace Foundation salutes Gardner Museum and BLO

Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and Boston Lyric Opera are two of four organizations in the United States singled out as exemplars of how to attract new audiences for the arts. The Wallace Foundation, a national foundation concerned with building arts audiences, studied the strategies of the museum and the opera company, along with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company and the San Francisco Girls Chorus, in an effort to analyze what approaches work.

The Gardner Museum was praised for its “Art After Hours’’ initiative, which set aside Thursday nights for a bar, live musicians, DJs - and access to the galleries. The initiative has proved popular with the 18-35-year-old age group.


At a time when, as the Wallace Foundation reports, “the nation’s core arts audience . . . has grown older on average than the general population,’’ attracting younger audiences is seen as crucial.

To that end, Boston Lyric Opera has also adjusted its approach, launching an “Opera for Young Audiences’’ program. The approach, now entering its fifth year, involves staging abridged versions of popular works for family and youths, offered at lower prices, and often presented in suburban locations such as schools and libraries.

Fifty-six percent of those who attended these performances had never seen an opera before. Among children who attended, post-performance surveys showed that, over the four years of the program, the percentage who had never seen an opera before dropped from about 75 percent to 52 percent, suggesting success in building a repeat audience.

The four arts organizations were cited in an announcement to be released today by the Wallace Foundation. They are the first case studies of a $24 million, multi-year initiative to identify, develop, and share ways for the arts to reach more people.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at