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This is a great time to be a young person in Central Arkansas. Besides the unprecedented economic growth in this part of the state; besides the progress being made at our colleges and universities; and besides the increased cultural and entertainment options now available, there is a growing sense that the state’s leaders recognize the value of retaining young people and are making efforts to reach out to them. This month, the Arkansas Arts Center and the Arkansas Repertory Theatre are holding events geared toward young professionals, usually defined as ages 18-45. Both institutions are promoting a unique membership level and subscription series, respectively, for the younger set. In doing so, they join the Wildwood Center for the Performing Arts, which sponsors a group called the Wild Bunch, and the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, which is recasting its Ovation auxiliary for young professionals. Such groups are commonplace among cultural institutions in major metropolitan areas. They are considered a good way to cultivate the next generation of donors, by solidifying loyalties at an earlier age. Young professional members are invited to special exhibitions, concerts, lectures, and other events that are designed to be less intimidating and more social. Many people who join may not know much about art or drama or music, but they are looking for fun ways to meet people their own age. Only recently have these groups begun to sprout up in Arkansas, but they serve an even more important purpose than their counterparts in bigger cities. Not only do they provide social opportunities, but they help combat the state’s image as a cultural backwater. Hospitals, universities, and companies like Acxiom, Alltel, and Stephens, Inc., all of which recruit young employees, can point to a vibrant and sophisticated atmosphere in Little Rock, where young people can easily mix and meet. The last time the Arts Center and the Rep held their young professionals events, they were sold out, proving that there is clearly a desire among young people for a way to interact that goes beyond bar-hopping or business networking. While the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce continues to host Business After Hours, a social mainstay that makes no apologies for mixing work and pleasure, the cultural organizations offer a greater sense of community. They appeal to a desire to contribute to the common good, rather than merely promote one’s own career. Young people these days, whether married or single, will float from place to place until they feel invested in a community. By including them in institutions that were once considered the preserve of only the richest and most influential, the community earns their loyalty and commitment. Our current generation of leaders deserves the credit for making all of this possible. We are fortunate to have such impressive cultural institutions in a relatively small population center. Many cities are losing their symphonies and museums due to a lack of private support. That’s not the case in Little Rock, where individuals and corporations realize that culture is not merely a diversion or luxury. It testifies to the character of a city, it educates and broadens its citizenry, and it enhances the community’s pride and togetherness. Ultimately, culture is what makes big cities special, and it creates a mystique that attracts talented and engaged young people. That makes for a better business climate, which leads to more jobs and more support for the arts. It is a symbiotic, self-perpetuating trend that, as it grows in Central Arkansas, can eliminate the most common reasons for young people to leave. Already more of them have decided to stay, move back, or come here for the first time. The key to keeping them here is to offer them a stake in the community, and to bring them together in ways that highlight their common interests. Our cultural institutions are playing a crucial role in that process. It’s a renaissance, after all.
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