As in any city, Winston-Salem experiences a gap between different demographics, including in age. Even in a city with a pronounced commitment to the arts and a long-standing arts council, the divide between artists and arts patrons could be seen sharply in age.
The Arts Council of Winston-Salem felt the gulf in its stagnating ability to attract young donors, but a lack of cultural opportunities and buy in was also negatively influencing companies’ abilities to attract and retain young professionals in the Camel City.
A committee formed, learning as it went, attempting to engage residents between the ages of 21 and 40 in the arts.
That’s the short history of Art Nouveau according to its current director, Devon MacKay. The group tried to ascertain what obstacles stand between people and their curiosity about the arts or trying new things, determining that the key is building relationships and making careful recommendations.
Now, she said, Art Nouveau operates with a board of 20 people, between the ages of 22 and 40, who pick an event a month to partner with, promote and attend with a friend.
MacKay, 33, and board co-chair Shaheen Syal, 36, said Art Nouveau realized developing relationships and friendships to bring people in is essential. That makes sense considering why they said they feel connected to Winston-Salem. Syal and MacKay have each only lived here for about two years, and Art Nouveau facilitated a rapid buy in for both of them.
“What makes me want to stay are the relationships I built around the things that I care about,” MacKay said. “I think you really need to live deliberately and engage. [Art Nouveau] is basically a selfish endeavor for all of us.”
Self interest also fuels younger artists to participate in the organization’s efforts through a desire to connect with older, established artists, MacKay said. Facilitating that collaboration and cross-pollination in the arts is precisely why the organization exists.
Getting people to show up: The mission sounds too simple, and to an extent it’s a reduction of what Art Nouveau seeks to accomplish, but Syal said one of their main goals is to emphasize the impact of mere participation. It makes sense; Fill the disconnect with intentional relationships and exposure.
Art Nouveau intentionally draws its board from different sectors of the city, they said, and reaches out in workplaces, art communities and other avenues to reach a broad scope of people. There have been plenty of lessons along the way — young people aren’t interested in turning up to an event that’s over $15, for one, and getting them to the theater is an uphill battle.
In some ways it’s easiest for young people to coalesce around music — unless it’s opera or classical — than other mediums, MacKay said, but then again, “nothing segments young people more than music.”
But Art Nouveau takes a “big tent” approach rather than focusing on, say, fine arts exclusively, and it’s paid off, Syal and MacKay said. In addition to supporting other arts organizations’ events, the group puts on an annual fall art shows. The most recent one, a compilation of eight Winston-Salem artists called “Present Tense,” was a strong measure of Art Nouveau’s success, exposing many arts patrons to work they wouldn’t otherwise see, aiding in sales.
The organization selects an array of types of events to attend and promote — most recently partnering with Authoring Action last weekend. And despite the challenges music can present as a medium, its next big collaboration is Phuzz Phest in April.
MacKay and Syal are brimming with more ideas to create more events and blur the lines between art venues and public space.
As Art Nouveau grows, though, its main objective will be blurring the line between generations and developing young leaders who involve themselves and others in the local arts culture.
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