Bring ‘Em Back Alive

The League of Chicago Theatres wants more bang for its buck. “The league places around $950,000 a year in advertising at the Chicago Tribune,” says executive director Marj Halperin. “Right now we don’t get any more of a discount than someone who places around $21,000 worth of ads a year. And we don’t think that’s right.” For nearly a decade the LCT struggled with debt and administrative chaos, but under Halperin it’s inched into the black, and it now encompasses 150 theatrical organizations. According to newly elected board president Kelly Leonard, the LCT wants to use that leverage to strengthen its co-op advertising program, through which members can order newspaper display ads and theoretically get a cheaper rate.

Leonard says a new task force will attack the issue, but the LCT will have to present a united front, pulling back into the fold a number of organizations that place ads on their own or through other channels. Independent off-Loop productions, such as the long-running The Irish…and How They Got That Way at the Mercury Theater, can often negotiate better deals on their own, because they don’t have to pay the LCT’s service charge. Some small theaters, like Chicago Shakespeare Theater, have grown large enough to have their own staffers handle advertising. And according to Halperin, some large theaters like the Shubert and Marriott haven’t participated in the co-op for some time (though Marriott producer Kary Walker preceded Leonard as board president).

One of the co-op’s biggest headaches has been A.R.T. League Inc., whose competing ad-placement service was launched three years ago by Ivanhoe Theater owner Doug Bragan. “They view Doug as the Antichrist,” quips one theater executive. Bragan canceled his membership in the League of Chicago Theatres because it required members to allot at least 24 tickets a week to its Hot Tix program, and he’s sympathetic to theater companies who don’t use the LCT’s co-op. “The league is nothing but an order taker, and an expensive one at that,” he insists. When Bragan formed A.R.T. League, the LCT’s service fee was as much as 30 percent of the ad’s cost. “The league was trying to generate money from its service fees,” Bragan charges, “and they were taking that money right out of their members’ butts.” According to Halperin, the LCT takes in about $160,000 a year from co-op service charges, which amounts to 16 percent of its annual operating budget (the rest comes from Hot Tix service charges and fund-raising).

Bragan’s program cut those ad-placement service charges in half, and companies large and small responded; newcomers such as the Chicago Association for the Performing Arts, which operates the Chicago Theatre, place ads through the A.R.T. League, as do some small companies like Famous Door Theatre Company. Because Bragan has refused to go away, the LCT has had to lower its service fees over the past couple years, particularly for smaller companies. But Leonard would like to see as many theaters as possible get on board with the co-op. “It would certainly make the league a more powerful entity,” he says. One well-placed source says the LCT has discussed forcing its members to buy advertising through the co-op, though Leonard made no mention of this. Says Bragan, “If they tried that, they would have a lawsuit on their hands the next day.”

The Art of Arts Reporting

Are newspapers doing a good job at covering the arts? According to a new study, that depends on your definition of coverage. Reporting the Arts, released by the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University, analyzes the October 1998 arts coverage of 15 regional newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, and finds that almost 50 percent of that coverage was listings–“mechanically generated” information as opposed to reporting. Yet newspapers are reluctant to hire more staff for the arts, preferring instead to beef up their business and sports sections. The vast majority of arts coverage nationwide is lumped into weekend supplements, consisting primarily of reviews and puffy features rather than genuine arts news. Predictably, most coverage is devoted to popular entertainment, and most newspapers are now folding coverage of high art such as theater and dance in with pop culture. The New York Times was considered separately, so the Tribune easily emerged as one of the top regional papers, with listings comprising only about 30 percent of its coverage; it beat out smaller publications like the Portland Oregonian, the Denver Post, and the Providence Journal.

In addition to statistical data, the study includes essays specific to each market; Reader theater critic Adam Langer penned the Chicago report, which analyzes both the local arts scene and media coverage of it. Langer suggests that the recent infusion of cash into local arts–mostly to build large and fancy new facilities–has dulled the city’s edge, especially in theater: “With that big money has come a noticeable leeriness to take the sort of risks that launched Chicago’s Steppenwolf and Goodman theaters.” He thinks the dailies do a “hit-or-miss” job of covering the arts while embracing a “middlebrow” tone, though he does praise the Tribune’s Sunday arts section and commends the Sun-Times for running overnight reviews. The city’s critical voice, he writes, is “an odd mixture of provincial boosterism and hypercritical nay-saying.” As for this publication, Langer likes its “comprehensiveness” but says its tone “tends to be a trifle surly or overly self-impressed.” Well, fuck him!

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.