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Social groups help like-minded professionals connect with local arts

Posted 8:07am on Saturday, Sep. 29, 2012

Sometimes it starts with a cocktail party; maybe friendship follows and then perhaps passion. Commitment is the next step, that deep dedication that seizes time and loosens purse strings.

Even in this technology-driven age when a phone call seems too personal, it's certain that face-to-face communication will win the battle for the heart.

But how does a young professional new to town or someone just back from grad school find that first cocktail party, much less a sense of belonging?

With that in mind, a number of Fort Worth arts institutions have targeted those 20- and 30- and even 40-somethings with groups designed especially for them, with low membership dues and several social and educational opportunities each season.

For those new to town -- or those coming back -- these groups can mean the difference in finding a home here or forever standing outside the circle of involvement.

Crystal Marra, 35, grew up in San Antonio and, like many young professionals, this banker and her surgeon husband have moved around: Boston, rural New Hampshire, L.A.

She arrived in Fort Worth braced for another ordeal of settling in -- and then she met Darren Woods, the fun-loving and charismatic director of the Fort Worth Opera.

Although not an opera fan, Marra did have a curiosity about the art and quickly became involved with Leadership FWOpera, the smallest of the young professional groups, with only 35 to 45 members. She says that small size made it easy to connect.

"Fort Worth was a surprise. Everyone was so welcoming," she says.

Now having chaired the Opera Ball, the company's biggest fundraiser, and served a third term as chairwoman of Leadership FWOpera, she is an outspoken advocate for the art and the group.

"We have fun, but it's never just about having a drink and talking. Christmas is the only time we stand around, chat and eat food.... We've had programs about costumes and wigs. Aging characters is a big challenge. How Darren auditions singers. We've played dress-up and put on the costumes. We've learned ... about set design and ..." She is breathless with enthusiasm.

Leadership, founded in 2003, is a rather new group, but Cliburn 180°, organized only three years ago, is the newest in the lineup of Fort Worth's young professional groups. Its membership may also be the youngest.

Fort Worth native Janann Cowden, 30, is chairman of the leadership committee and an enthusiastic fan of the Cliburn. She explains that at the last Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2009, every competitor was matched with a "social host" about the same age who acted as Cowtown guide and cheerleader.

"When the competition was over, we wanted to stay involved, so the Cliburn 180° was formed," she says. "We believe that classical music is relevant, and we hope that when the 180° members turn 40, they'll complete their Cliburn circle and become board members and donors or serve in other ways."

But for the short term, this group aims to raise $18,000 -- that's $1,000 to be given to each of the 18 competitors who pass the preliminary rounds. "We want to encourage them to keep making classical music," Cowden says.

She's also excited about the benefit party the group is planning and the children's program it hosts. But right now, Cliburn 180° is focused on meeting, greeting and growing.

"At each event, we have 50 to 100 people. Every time I see new faces," she says. "The competition year [2013] is going to be very exciting. We've got some great stuff planned. There are a number of ways for young people in their 20s and 30s to get involved."

Of course, young professional groups are not new. Years ago, many such groups bloomed, then died as members kept racking up those pesky birthdays. But one survived and may hold clues to longevity.

The Director's Council of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth was organized in 1985, but members unconcerned with birthday protocol refused to move on when they turned 40.

"That's not what we thought would happen," says Suzi Woo, the Modern's membership director.

"Those people were very young in the beginning. Some of them were children of our board members, but they stuck around and stepped it up a notch. Some became board members and major donors. It became an interest-based group rather than an age-based group. Anyone can join. Age isn't the issue. But we did form a new group for young people: the Modern Contemporaries for people under 40," Woo says. "It might start with a party, but it can end with a committed donor or board member."

Mary Rogers is a freelance writer based in Fort Worth.

mary@maryrussellrogers.com

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