MCA Seeks College Credit

Across the nation, museums are afraid of the future. Studies have shown that young people have little interest in high culture, and now institutions face the challenge of making them care.

The Museum of Contemporary Art is taking the threat seriously. It’s about to implement “Stir It Up: What You Don’t See in School,” a program intended to develop closer ties between the museum and area college students. The program will span five years and cost about $1.25 million; the bill will be paid in full by a grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund. MCA executives have been plotting their strategy for the past year and will begin to put the plan into action this September to coincide with the start of the school year. As a tentative goal, the museum would like to see at least 8,500 student visitors and 850 new student memberships annually.

To run the program, the MCA brought in Michelle Gill, a former account executive at Leo Burnett. No stranger to the value of research, she organized a series of four focus groups that helped zero in on some of the challenges ahead. Each group consisted of eight to ten students. Two of the groups had a strong interest in the visual arts, while the other two had little or no knowledge. The students were drawn from five area universities targeted for the first year of the program: the School of the Art Institute, Columbia College, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Northwestern, and DePaul.

According to Gill, perhaps the most telling revelation that came out of the focus groups was the students’ general lack of awareness about the MCA and what it offers. The museum was clearly not an obvious destination for any of the focus-group students, who repeatedly said they felt more connected to activities on campus. Though some observers might find the MCA’s low profile among students distressing, Gill says it actually bodes well for the museum and its new program. “It would have been far more disturbing to find out these students already knew all about the MCA and had simply decided not to come.” When the students were told in some detail about what goes on at the MCA, their interest was piqued.

But Gill and her cohorts also discovered some real obstacles to attracting college students. Chief among them are time and money. Many of the students said they work long hours to help pay tuition costs, and they have little discretionary income to spend on entertainment. Because they’re so busy with work and school they have little free time to make a leisurely visit to a museum. When they do have free time, it’s often in the evening. Unfortunately the MCA is closed every night but Wednesday. Though some students said they were interested in visiting the museum to see the art itself, those with no art background said they required additional incentives to visit the museum, such as music or other performances.

All the participants agreed they would respond more readily to events with student-related themes, such as exhibits of student work or artistic competitions for students. But the idea that attracted the most interest was some kind of late-night coffeehouse at the MCA. The museum has already started to move forward with plans to introduce a coffeehouse, which will probably stay open at least one evening every three months. If it proves successful, the coffeehouse may be open as frequently as once a month, like the popular First Friday events aimed at young singles. The museum also hopes to bring in working artists to meet and mingle with coffeehouse patrons.

The MCA intends to make museum memberships more attractive as well by dropping the price of a year-long student membership from $30 to $20. They expect to offer student members special discounts at art-supply stores and other retailers in addition to the usual perks. This fall the MCA will give students who sign up for specific art history and literature classes at Columbia College a free MCA membership as part of the course. If this strategy brings students into the museum, the program will be introduced at other schools. Gill says she’s also looking to hire at least one student representative at each of this year’s five participating universities.

Tango and Cash for Jujamcyn

What irony. Jujamcyn Theatres, which co-owns and operates the Royal George Theatre, is currently producing Forever Tango on Broadway. You may recall that Forever Tango was running last fall at the Royal George under the aegis of Jam Productions when Jujamcyn and Royal George co-owner Robert Perkins kicked the show out to make way for Mrs. Klein, starring theater legend Uta Hagen. Jam claimed Forever Tango was doing good business when it got the boot, and they had been planning to run the show at least through early January. Jujamcyn and Perkins thought they could do better, but Mrs. Klein closed quickly. With the Royal George main stage empty for the past seven months, Jujamcyn executives apparently have had plenty of time to reconsider the virtues of Forever Tango.

Organic’s Long Green

With the old Organic Theater on North Clark now slated for the wrecker’s ball, the Organic Touchstone Company is negotiating a new lease for its current space at 2851 N. Halsted. A source says the theater company had been paying around $77,000 a year for the 211-seat theater, but now that it’s flush with cash from the sale of the Organic property, the company plans to move into additional floors above the theater for more rehearsal and office space–that should boost the rent to at least $100,000 a year.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Michelle Gill photo by Nathan Mandell.