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Phila. fine-arts scene goes where youth are

YouTube, Facebook, Twitter are hot spots for tapping the online social-network crowd.

On Valentine's Day, Pennsylvania Ballet staff members stood in the Merriam Theater's lobby handing out coasters that bore what might have seemed a strange suggestion coming from an arts organization: Go to our YouTube channel.

What the mostly graying matinee audience made of the invitation to an online video-sharing site is unclear. What is clear is that the Pennsylvania Ballet is not alone in lusting after online social-network users.

The Kimmel Center has a Flickr photostream. The Curtis Institute of Music is on LinkedIn. The Arden Theatre and the Franklin Institute use Twitter. The Philadelphia Orchestra has a MySpace page.

The Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, the Opera Company of Philadelphia, and just about every other arts organization in the city has a Facebook page. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has an RSS feed of its exhibitions on its Web site, and the Academy of Natural Sciences shares exhibit-construction videos.

The Philadelphia fine-arts scene has gone viral, and no one is hiding the reason.

"It starts with young people. . . . We want to create more of a dialogue with this age group, and guess what - they're on YouTube and MySpace and Facebook," said Shawn Stone, the Pennsylvania Ballet's market director. "It's an active part of their lives, so it needs to be an active part of ours."

The ballet plans to post new videos, produced by Rittenhouse Square's Parlay Films, on its YouTube channel at least once a month. Future episodes will vary in content - from choreographer interviews to day-in-the-life dancer features to chronicling stage construction and more - but the intent won't waver.

"We're hoping this is a way to introduce younger people to the ballet," Stone said. "Most of our dancers are in this age group. That's different than other fine-arts institutions."

Perhaps - but the ballet is just like its Avenue of the Arts neighbors in recognizing that winning younger audience members is necessary for survival and that social networking is a promising means of reaching them.

Among other initiatives to entice young listeners, the Philadelphia Orchestra promotes its EZSeatU, which offers open season tickets to college students for a one-time $25 fee.

"Social media is the backbone," said J. Edward Cambron, the orchestra's vice president for marketing. The orchestra hosts Facebook nights - $10 rush tickets to those who visit its Facebook page - that draw 50, 60 or more youthful takers. It is tinkering with its podcast - the Podchestra - and has invested in Facebook ads focusing on young Philadelphia college students, Cambron said.

"There's the formal stuff like Facebook and MySpace, but it's really about getting these young people to use their own social networks online," Cambron said. "It's viral in that community."

After promoting reduced prices for younger audiences through its Facebook page, the Arden Theatre acquired a hundred or more new fans, said Janine Zappone, a public relations associate at the Old City theater. Now, the Arden regularly promotes half-price Tuesday-night offers and other deals aimed at young people on all its social-networking tools - Twitter, Facebook and MySpace - in addition to its blog, the Arden Insider, said Zappone, who is charged with overseeing all of them.

"The job description has definitely expanded," she said, noting that social media - upkeep, development and dialogue - now occupy almost a third of her workweek. The payoff is a more loyal audience, one that better understands the Arden's mission and responds more readily to calls for comment and criticism. The lessons, Zappone says, may not have been learned quickly, but they have been learned.

"There were early hurdles to the fine arts' using social media," the orchestra's Cambron said. "Arts organizations are about quality and always presenting nothing but the very best. With social networking, you let go of some control. But what we've learned is that if you're proud of your brand, well, that shouldn't be a big worry. In fact, people will usually say fabulous stuff."

In June, the League of American Orchestras will host its annual conference. While using social media isn't on the agenda for the Chicago meeting yet, Cambron said his discussions with leaders of other big orchestras in places like New York, Chicago and Cleveland suggest that the trend could become a major theme.

The San Francisco Symphony posts interviews with its artists in high definition on its Facebook page. The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust has a YouTube channel on which it touts the city's growing fine-arts community. The High Museum of Art in Atlanta recently took the plunge and now actively uses Flickr, MySpace, YouTube, and Facebook accounts.

"Big cultural institutions might have been behind the curve," Cambron said. "But they're largely ahead of their older audiences . . . and have come on strong of late."

The push is generally directed at those in their 30s or younger, if only to develop habits, he said: "When young people are exploring what they will do socially on their own, encouraging them to visit the orchestra is an incredibly valuable seed for the future."

Social networking, with its profiles, personal details, and constant updates, offers more information about an audience than ever before - which means it's easier than ever to target the vital youth demographic.

"Using social media and e-mail marketing is a much-less-expensive way of marketing," said the Pennsylvania Ballet's Stone. "It's more targeted and can save your organization money."

It's also creating a direct line of communication with potential audiences of the future, Stone said.

"The world is changing and technology is changing and everyone, including arts organizations, needs to keep up with that technology," he said. "If we want to survive, we need to reach people in the ways that they are going about their days. The fine arts depend on it."