Art Groups: To Market, to Market

Savvy players on the arts scene already know that effective marketing may be the most important survival strategy for cultural groups in the face of scarce corporate and government funding. So arts executives around the city are eyeing with great interest the opening of the Arts Marketing Center, a project of the Arts & Business Council of Chicago, a nonprofit organization of business volunteers interested in assisting arts groups. “It’s one of the most positive things I have seen happen in the arts community in a long time,” says Jim Hirsch, executive director of the Old Town School of Folk Music and cochair of the center’s steering committee.

The Arts Marketing Center will operate for the next two years with joint funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Sara Lee Foundation. The center’s opening has been postponed for more than a year because MacArthur and Sara Lee executives decided to move it from Northwestern University. The decision came after several Kellogg Graduate School of Management professors were criticized by some theater companies for lacking a firm grasp of the issues facing arts organizations.

Now under the guidance of director Julie Franz, the Arts Marketing Center will finally release its first report on the “state of the arts” next month. The report will focus on developing larger audiences for classical music, theater, the visual arts, and dance. It was written by Kellogg professor Bob Calder, who came on board when the center was still slated to open at Northwestern. Franz already has seen preliminary versions of the sections on classical music and theater and says the theater section is the more “encouraging” of the two. It suggests that smaller companies could attract new customers by targeting people who now attend theater only once or twice a year. The problem, says Franz, is that companies now direct their marketing efforts at their regular audiences instead of looking for ways to reach interested but infrequent theatergoers. The battle to attract new audiences for classical music may be much tougher, says Franz, because most young people aren’t fans of classical music and many classical groups haven’t found ways to appeal to young audiences.

Franz says the Arts Marketing Center will also actively help groups in their marketing campaigns. Its offices will house a library of case studies examining both successful and unsuccessful arts marketing initiatives nationally and internationally. The center also will organize monthly workshops. The first workshop–a roundtable discussion on the role of an arts group’s mission in formulating a marketing policy–is slated for March. Franz also says 25 arts organizations will be brought in to the center for intensive consultation. Six groups deemed to be at critical junctures in their development will be chosen from that pool to participate in marketing studies that center organizers hope will help similar organizations. “We will be working hand in hand with these six groups,” says Franz.

But Franz says there are no quick fixes. “It takes time to get things done right,” she says. Beyond targeting the right audience, a good marketing campaign also considers how an arts group fits into the cultural landscape and who are its primary competitors. Franz is confident the Arts Marketing Center will remain open after its two-year funding period is over, saying, “We’ve already gotten calls from other funding sources interested in getting involved.”

Curse of the Music and Dance Theatre

The planned Chicago Music and Dance Theatre has hit another snag. Originally slated to start last month, construction has now been postponed indefinitely. LaSalle Bank, the primary lender for the proposed 1,500-seat facility, has raised concerns about what would happen to the theater and its Cityfront Center lot if the project were to collapse financially. Sources say Chicago Dock and Canal Trust, which sold the site to the theater’s board of directors at an attractive price, has first dibs on the property if the theater fails, a contingency that would leave LaSalle with no collateral to back up their financial risk. Chicago Dock and Canal also has first rights to the property if the theater isn’t built by 1999, but the company’s CEO Charles Gardner says he remains confident that the theater will be built well within the time specified in the sale agreement. Music and Dance Theatre general manager Joyce Moffatt has been meeting with Gardner and representatives from LaSalle Bank and remains hopeful the matter can be resolved. One problem, Moffatt says, is that the project is new, so the “financial numbers can’t be proved based on a previous track record.” Moffatt says the bank has interviewed four of the groups scheduled to use the facility and reviewed all the records of financial pledges already made to the $33 million project. The theater was to open in late 1997, but it’s now unclear whether that schedule can be met.

Beckett Fest Ousted

In April the Athenaeum Theatre will host a revival of the musical play Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill starring Eartha Kitt in the role of Billie Holiday. But the show, slated to run for at least nine weeks, has left the Splinter Group without a venue for its big spring event: the Beckett Festival, an ambitious mounting of 18 of the 19 plays penned by Samuel Beckett (the only work excluded will be Waiting for Godot, which the company presented last spring). Splinter Group member Matt O’Brien says they should know by the end of the month whether they can get another theater with a seating capacity of around 400. Splinter Group is looking for a large theater because the Beckett marathon will feature some big stars, including Piper Laurie and John Mahoney, in productions staged by such noted directors as Frank Galati and Sheldon Patinkin. If they can’t get a large venue, Splinter Group may try to expand a space inside the Theatre Building.

By Lewis Lazare

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Randy Tunnell.