Marketing the Arts

A million-dollar arts marketing initiative backed by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Sara Lee Foundation is under new management. Since its inception early this year, the program–which includes a study of why some people don’t attend arts events, technical assistance to performing arts groups, and pilot marketing projects–had been run by Northwestern’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management. Over the past several months, however, executives at the two foundations have shifted responsibility for its administration to the Arts & Business Council of Chicago, the local branch of a national organization known until recently as Business Volunteers for the Arts. The not-for-profit council recruits and trains business professionals to be unpaid management consultants to arts groups, many of which could not afford to hire such staff.

The switch stemmed from a belief that the Arts & Business Council would be more sensitive to the needs of arts groups and therefore better equipped to handle the program than Kellogg. Professor Joanne Scheff, who helped organize the project at Kellogg, says, “Of course we could have done the job, but in hindsight we might have done things a little differently.” Last January Kellogg held a retreat for more than 50 local arts executives on Northwestern’s Evanston campus. Most of the weekend’s seminars concentrated on marketing and management styles that work for banks, insurance companies, and other large corporations. Since the seminars weren’t tailored to arts groups, most in attendance complained that they were achingly dull and useless.

After this unpromising beginning, Arts & Business Council executive director Joan Gunzberg faces the task of rekindling the interest of the arts community: “Our biggest challenge will be building trust within the community and getting them involved again in the project.” Some arts executives expressed skepticism about the project’s goal of identifying new audiences: they’re convinced the arts audience is finite. Others said they were ready to forget the past and get behind the reborn project. “I’m hopeful,” says Live Bait Theater executive director John Ragir, who was distinctly unimpressed by last winter’s Kellogg retreat. Gunzberg says her immediate plans call for setting up a center for arts marketing. She hopes that in addition to administering all aspects of the MacArthur and Sara Lee initiative, the center will eventually become a place for arts administrators to turn with all their marketing questions or concerns.

Meanwhile, after months of delay, the research phase of the initiative, the only part still involving Kellogg, is finally getting under way. Kellogg marketing professor Robert Calder devised a questionnaire that will be administered to more than 1,000 people who don’t attend arts events regularly, but have the same income and education as those who do. The results of the research, which should be available in late winter or early spring, will help arts executives discover ways they can change or broaden programming to draw in new audiences and increase revenue. MacArthur senior program officer Nick Rabkin predicts some arts executives will embrace the research findings, while others are likely to reject them as an intrusion on their artistic freedom. “As in many situations, some will get it,” says Rabkin, “and some won’t.”

Party Hits the Road

Party is bound for New York. Playwright-director David Dillon’s long-running comedy about a gathering of gay men who play a game that results in all of them eventually shedding their clothes is expected to open off Broadway in early spring. Dillon claims he’s had offers to mount Party in 26 cities, but was holding out for a New York production. “We’d like to find a space that seats around 200 and then move it to a larger space if the show takes off,” says Dillon, who plans to close the Chicago production January 1. The Chicago-based company Michael Leavitt and Fox Theatricals will produce. Leavitt and Fox have presented numerous Chicago productions of high-profile Broadway shows, including Laughter on the 23rd Floor, now playing at the Briar Street Theatre. Increasingly, they’ve also been involved with New York productions, including the current off-Broadway hit, Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. “Michael [Leavitt] thinks Party has great crossover potential,” says Dillon. He says the Chicago production has drawn more and more nongay audiences over the course of its run. Dillon will direct the New York Party and will take two actors in the Chicago production, Ted Bales and Vince Gatton, with him. The remainder of the company will be cast in New York.

Dillon dismisses the notion that his work is pornographic. “That idea comes mostly from people who haven’t seen it,” he says. “What I wrote is a positive affirmation of gay life at a time when most plays about gay life are dealing with death or dying.” Still, Party has had a tough time getting noticed in the mainstream local press. Both the Trib and Sun-Times eventually reviewed it, but only after it had been running for several months. Will Party play in New York as well as it played in Chicago? David Zak, executive producer at Bailiwick Repertory, where Party was first mounted, thinks so. “It’s the Sheer Madness of gay theater,” notes Zak. “I think it could be a real crowd pleaser.”

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