No Growth

Ravinia Festival used to promise there was “nothing like it under the stars,” but the stars might be against the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: attendance at the CSO’s summer concerts seems to be stagnating. “Over the past several years there’s been a small but steady erosion in the audience,” says Jean Oelrich, director of marketing and public relations for the festival. “Even though the shrinkage hasn’t been huge, we’ve been working harder and harder just to try and maintain the attendance numbers we have. If we don’t take action now to try and substantially increase attendance, we could be in big trouble several years from now.”

Because sales of lawn tickets can vary dramatically with the weather, pavilion tickets are considered a more accurate measure of growth, and during the summer of ’92 pavilion sales for CSO concerts averaged 2,309–about 70 percent of the 3,300 available seats. That percentage shrank to 64 percent in 1993, inched back to 72 percent by 1995, plunged again to 63 percent in 1996, and then moved up again to 68 percent last year. So far this season the CSO is averaging about 71 percent of pavilion capacity. Some might look at that curve and conclude that the CSO is bouncing back, but the fact is undeniable: for the last six summers one of the finest symphonies in the world has found more than a quarter and sometimes more than a third of its seats empty.

In response the festival has beefed up its sales efforts and explored TV broadcasts as a way of raising Ravinia’s profile. Last year the sales staff sent out a mailing to 15,000 area businesses; about a third responded, and a great many purchased batches of tickets for 1998 performances. “We’re already 54 percent ahead of last year’s final total for group sales,” says Oelrich. The festival has also introduced the CSO Circle, a “loyalty program” that offers goodies to patrons who buy multiple tickets–photos of the orchestra, invitations to rehearsals, postconcert receptions with the artists. For the first time, Channel 11 will broadcast three Ravinia concerts, and a festival performance by Disney’s Young Musicians Symphony Orchestra will air August 1 on the Disney Channel. “The media, especially television, shapes tastes today,” says Oelrich, “and we have to reach more young people this way.

“Our customer base has been graying,” she admits, “and it’s a challenge we’re facing head-on.” Two years ago Zarin Mehta, executive director of Ravinia, began implementing changes that he hopes will bring in younger audiences. The festival now offers free lawn admission to college students with valid ID, and the lure seems to be working when the orchestra offers more popular classics: for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony earlier this month, 1,500 students took advantage of the deal. The festival also hired Leo Burnett to create a high-tech, 30-second TV spot that hypes Ravinia as “extreme entertainment”: two young trendies sit on lawn chairs watching a volcano erupt as a thundering herd of cattle flee the scene, all to the strains of the 1812 Overture. The ad is running on ten cable networks, including MTV, Nickelodeon, ESPN, CNN, and the Discovery Channel.

Yet Ravinia also runs the risk of alienating its loyal subscribers. Serious classical music buffs must have cringed last year when the festival introduced “Classical Soundbytes”–concerts for people with limited attention spans and scant knowledge of classical music. The con-certs are held to 90 minutes, with no intermission; orches-tra members wear T-shirts, and conductor David Alan Miller delivers folksy, nonthreatening introductions. The first Soundbyte this year featured excerpts from longer works, and the second drew its excerpts from opera. Oelrich says focus groups of audience members indicated a high ap-proval level, and she doesn’t care what the purists say. “You’ve got to create a port of entry for people to come to classical music.”

Maybe They Should Take Out the Revolving Door

Robert Fitzpatrick, in-coming director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, has decided it’s time to renovate the two-year-old building at 220 E. Chicago, and the trustees have handed him at least $600,000 to do it. Though Fitzpatrick criticized the somber Josef Paul Kleihues-designed building when he came to town in June to accept the directorship, he denies that his planned adjustments, which will begin when he takes over in September, are a condemnation of the original design: “They’re really midcourse corrections that are to be expected in any new structure.”

Fitzpatrick plans to replace the metal-and-glass doors at the various entrances with plate-glass doors, which he thinks will be more inviting. He’ll install new sculpture on the front plaza, and more signage and movable kiosks inside. “We want to add some color near the entrance to the museum shop,” explains Fitzpatrick, “so people will know it’s there as they leave the building.” But the biggest project will be tearing out the gray carpeting on many of the exhibition room floors and replacing it with a combination of wood and stone flooring, which could shut down the galleries for up to 40 days. Fitzpatrick says the flooring project will begin after he’s hired a chief curator, since exhibitions will have to be rehung. But even as Fitzpatrick prepares to sink half a million dollars into redecorating, the exodus of longtime museum staff continues. This week public relations assistant Michael Thomas will depart for a law firm; he was transferred to the marketing department in May, when PR was folded into marketing following a $1.8 million cut in the museum’s operating budget. While he’s at it, maybe Fitzpatrick can install a few more exit signs.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jean Oelrich photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.