Advertising Overhaul at Art Institute

The Art Institute of Chicago has launched a high-profile advertising campaign to try to boost museum attendance and membership, particularly among young adults–could it have something to do with the Museum of Contemporary Art’s new building, due to open in about 18 months? With more than 96,000 members and an annual attendance of 1.25 million, the Art Institute dwarfs the MCA, which has around 4,000 members and annual attendance of approximately 125,000. But once the MCA moves to Steeterville it’s certain to become a more serious rival. Still, Art Institute executives insist the timing of this new ad campaign has nothing to do with the MCA. Art Institute director of public affairs Eileen Harakal says the campaign is part of an extensive long-range plan developed for the museum by the McKinsey & Company consulting firm and Harvard Business School.

Last summer the Art Institute hired LaPlaca Cohen Advertising, a small New York City ad agency whose clients include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the American Museum of Natural History, the Pierpont Morgan Library, and the Boston Ballet. La Placa Cohen’s experience working for museums and other cultural organizations was apparently what drew the Art Institute to the agency. For the three years prior to choosing LaPlaca Cohen, the museum had retained Chicago-based Thomas & James Advertising.

The initial print advertising in LaPlaca Cohen’s campaign centers on Rene Magritte’s Time Transfixed, a 1938 surrealist painting from the museum’s permanent collection that shows a steam engine emerging from a fireplace. Cohen says both the agency and the Art Institute wanted to avoid any “educational” overtones in the new advertising. “This is not about capital-C culture forced on you whether you like it or not.” Instead the ad reads like a Club Med brochure: “Remember a world before work, before commuting, before taxes…when you could spend time thinking about life?”

By describing the museum as a place “where you and your mind can just wander,” the campaign hopes to make adults between 20 and 34 think of the Art Institute as an entertainment option. But Harakal admits it won’t be easy to capture this demographic group: “We are vying with any and everything, even the Sony store on Michigan Avenue.”

According to Cohen the campaign will eventually include works besides the Magritte. Since focus groups have indicated that infrequent museumgoers associate the Art Institute strictly with paintings, future ads may feature other parts of the collection, such as furniture. The campaign’s tag line–“Think. Again”–is being carried over into ads for the upcoming Caillebotte exhibition. In addition deputy director Teri Edelstein will oversee new measures intended to keep visitors entertained while they’re in the museum.

Art Institute vice president for development Christine O’Neill says the campaign will cost “several hundred thousand dollars.” The funding came from an Art Institute trustee. According to O’Neill, museum president James Wood and museum trustees thought it would be risky to siphon funds from the annual operating budget for such an initiative. But if the campaign succeeds in boosting attendance, O’Neill said, money for other marketing campaigns might become a line item in future operating budgets.

The Urge to Merge: Joffrey and Ballet Chicago?

Discussions are under way that could result in a merger between Ballet Chicago and the New York-based Joffrey Ballet, which is in the middle of a week-long engagement at the Auditorium Theatre. The Joffrey, saddled with a debt of approximately $1.6 million, is looking for a new home base where it could operate with lower overhead but still attract a large audience. Chicago has been a tour stop for the Joffrey troupe since 1958, and ru-mors of a possible relocation have surfaced at least twice before. Leaders within the local dance community suggested that if the Joffrey did move to Chicago this time, it would be diplomatic to consider merging with Ballet Chicago. “There was a fear we would move into town and kill off the smaller company,” says a Joffrey source.

The new entity would be known as Chicago Joffrey Ballet. Joffrey artistic director Gerald Arpino would be in charge, and Ballet Chicago artistic director Daniel Duell would hold down the number-two spot in the artistic hierarchy. While the merger would certainly raise Ballet Chicago’s profile, sources within the Joffrey ranks question the wisdom of the plan, especially since Duell and Arpino have such different aesthetic sensibilities. A former New York City Ballet dancer, Duell is a disciple of the cerebral Balanchine school of dance while Arpino’s choreography is more entertainment-oriented.

Joffrey board president David A. Kipper released a statement confirming that the Joffrey was talking to Ballet Chicago about a merger, but the statement made the deal sound tentative, saying, “While these discussions have gone well to date, there can be no assurance that a final agreement will be reached.” Nevertheless a source on the Ballet Chicago board of directors says the two organizations hope to have a signed letter of intent by week’s end.

A merger would give Ballet Chicago’s board of directors, its funders, and Duell a golden opportunity to save face by integrating their floundering organization into one of the nation’s premier dance companies. Ballet Chicago, which has a skeletal staff and a minimal hometown presence, is currently battling with the American Guild of Musical Artists over a proposed new contract that would provide dancers only five weeks of employment. The company plans to present only one week of performances this season.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.