Campaign for Culture

A baby is tethered to a test tube by a straight black line. A stream of words flows into the test tube: art, adventure, sunlight, curiosity, books, paschke. Paschke? As in Ed?

Well, yes. It’s the latest advertisement for the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is set to open its new facility at 220 E. Chicago on July 2. At the bottom of the ad is the tag line: “When you see what we’re made of, you’ll want to get in and go somewhere.” Other variations of the ad show a rabbit with a black hat and a robin with a cracked egg.

Beginning in early June, these ads will aim to introduce the new museum to the community. The print ads employ minimal copy and bold images not traditionally associated with art museums. In fact, the ads use no images of actual paintings or other works of art.

MCA executives are counting on the campaign, developed by the Chicago office of Hal Riney & Partners, to establish their new $46 million museum as a must-see destination long after the initial wave of curiosity has subsided. Throughout its 29-year history, the MCA has lived like a poor relative in the long shadow of the Art Institute. But executives at both insti-tutions are looking forward to the opening of the MCA’s new digs and the attention it will attract. The ads are meant to play to a larger audience than the one that already cares about art.

Plans for the ad campaign began more than a year ago, when the MCA hired Lori Kleinerman as its new director of marketing and membership. With an extensive background in advertising and marketing, Kleinerman says her job is a simple but monumental one: “devising a way for people to think about the museum.” Kleinerman spent several months mapping out her strategy before searching for an agency that would develop the campaign. Though it’s considered a plum assignment, there was one drawback: the MCA was looking for an agency that would work for free. In return, the agency would get a high-profile, glamorous, and creative account.

Kleinerman initially contacted about a dozen agencies, and after reviewing their materials MCA executives narrowed it down to three finalists, who made formal presentations. Since the agencies were being asked to work pro bono, they didn’t have to come up with a full-fledged campaign right away. Instead each shop talked generally about how it would approach its mission: introducing a new museum to the public. When the presentations were over, Kleinerman says, Hal Riney & Partners was the leading candidate for the job.

The choice was a bold move in light of the fact that Riney & Partners (which also has offices in San Francisco and New York) doesn’t have a long history of working for arts institutions. The agency’s Chicago-area clients include Bally Total Fitness, Serta mattress company, and Ulta3, the chain of discount cosmetics stores. Riney’s previous brushes with the cultural world included some marketing work for the Chicago Historical Society, the Newberry Library, and the Illinois Humanities Festival. But Riney account director Peter Kuntz says the agency was eager to get the MCA project because it presented a unique challenge. “We had to address the inherent paradox of a museum that is perceived by many to be a mausoleum and to try through advertising to turn it into an energized, exciting place.”

Before formulating the ads, the Riney shop, in conjunction with Kleinerman and other MCA staffers, wrote an eight-page position paper summing up everything the new ads would be expected to convey. They pinpointed the audience the ads were trying to reach and the types of media that would carry the MCA’s message. The document states that the ads would have to convince people that the “MCA, in its new home, is the one place in Chicago where curious, adventurous people find provocative and illuminating experiences through exposure to a variety of art and programs that reflect today’s changing, challenging, multi-faceted society. . . . It’s contemporary Chicago’s cultural ‘nerve center.'” MCA executives have said the museum is looking to enlarge its role just as the definition of art in contemporary society has expanded to include everything from performance to temporary conceptual projects. The new building reflects this up-to-date attitude by including classrooms, studios, a library, a sculpture garden, and a 300-seat theater and performance space. Riney & Partners hopes all of this is summarized in the motto “get in and go somewhere,” which will appear in most of the ads and other marketing materials.

That’s why the ads don’t show any art. Riney creative director Paul Janas says they’re meant to suggest that the museum will be more than a collection of art in a building. “We wanted to find a way to show visually how many different things there are at the new museum,” says Janas, who, along with creative director Bill Mericle, oversaw the development of the campaign. The MCA’s Kleinerman agreed: “We didn’t want to boil down anyone’s experience of visiting the new MCA to just one or two specific pieces of art.”

Whether or not people respond, the ads convey an important message, according to Janas. “Everybody has an idea of what the MCA is, and it’s not too far off. But what is different now is there are so many more things involved in what the MCA is.”

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