Put ‘Em Together and What Have You Got?

Jon Ross and Kristin Larsen started down the road to audience swapping when they met two years ago. She was director of programs for the Arts & Business Council of Chicago and he (then a consultant) was a council volunteer. They hit it off right away and started trading ideas about what it takes for arts groups to survive. When Larsen became managing director at Remy Bumppo a year and a half ago, she recruited Ross for the theater’s marketing committee. When he moved from board president to executive director at Melissa Thodos & Dancers this fall, they found themselves in a position to try out some of their theories about networking and alliance building. “Jon said, ‘I wonder how much of your market is our market?'” Larsen recalls. “I thought, ‘Our demographic is 55-plus; theirs is younger and more urban. That’s a market that’s been hard for theater to get.'” Before they knew it, the keys were in the bowl.

Now a ticket stub from a performance by either group gets you a free ticket to a performance by the other. They’re inserting flyers into each other’s program books, sharing mailing

lists, cobranding publicity, and romancing donors at each other’s fund-raisers. And they’re not stopping there: Melissa Thodos is creating a dance for Bumppo’s holiday show, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, and Bumppo actors will be a part of Thodos’s winter concert. No point in jealously guarding your audience when you know they’re going to be stepping out, Ross says. “They’ll only see your show once, so why not give them good advice as to what else they should see?” Ross and Larsen think this kind of sharing will appeal to funders, and are planning to bring other groups to the party. Word is they’re already playing around with Fulcrum Point New Music Ensemble.

No Fun in Games

Things fell apart in a big way at last week’s annual Federation of Gay Games meeting in Chicago. Two years after Montreal was selected as host for the next edition of the games, the city pulled out. Tom Czerniecki, marketing director for the Canadian team, says the deal breaker was the federation’s insistence on controlling the budget, a point his group refused to budge on because the Canadians–rather than the federation–would be responsible for losses. Montreal says it will go ahead with the games on the scheduled dates, July 29 to August 5, 2006, without the federation. “It became an issue of vision, and to what degree the organization is representative of gay and lesbian sports,” Czerniecki says. “There are 1,000 organizations worldwide; the federation represents 24.” The federation says this is “remarkably misleading”: its members are umbrella organizations, each representing many other groups. It’s scrambling to find a new site for the official event. Chicago–a finalist when the selection was made–could be back in the game.

The Gay Games have been held every four years since 1982, but the last four have been money losers, with deficits running to about $1 million at each of the last two. In 2002 Sydney came close to folding both before and during the games, Gay Games’ New York spokesman Jake Stafford says. “People looked at the federation and said, ‘Where were you guys when this was going on?'” After that the federation “felt it should exercise some oversight.” Czerniecki says that over the course of two years and a dozen draft contracts Montreal bowed to federation demands that it cut back on its projected attendance (now set at 16,000) and budget (now $16 million Canadian). But at a certain point it started to question the FGG’s role. “They are the owners of the trademark, but don’t have much else to offer,” he says. “The Montreal team began asking itself, ‘Why are we paying $655,000 American dollars for this?'” Still, he claims, they came to Chicago with the intention of reaching an agreement.

Czerniecki says the Montreal team was not allowed to address the meeting and accuses the federation of operating in secrecy, holding sessions behind closed doors. It didn’t help that the two Montreal delegates to the board of directors were excluded to avoid a conflict of interest, or that the chair at the opening session kept observers from speaking. When she invoked the speak-no-evil monkey to silence them, they responded with a show of bananas at the next session. But, he says, it “felt a little like the McCarthy hearings or the politburo–here’s the official answer; you’re not to say anything else.”

According to Czerniecki, Montreal is well organized, has unprecedented support from government and sponsors, and won’t be subject to the problems–distance, 9/11 aftermath, overprogramming–that plagued previous venues. In fact, he says, the Montreal group’s in a certain comfort zone: a few weeks before the meeting they dropped a note to just under 700 organizations asking if they’d come to games there in 2006 even if they weren’t sanctioned by the federation. Of the 455 groups that responded, 91 percent said they would. In light of that, he says, maybe the official games should think about rescheduling–2007 might be nice. But he warns that any other host city will have the same difficulties working with the FGG, which “doesn’t behave like a sporting federation” and “doesn’t organize the event” but wants to control it. He says the Gay Games are in the hands of an old guard, “a dozen people who control the information,” and that Montreal will host a meeting in January to “explore the possibility of a new international organization that is democratic and representative.” Welcome to the revolution.

The federation addresses these charges on its Web site, arguing among other things that it sought “robust budgetary oversight” rather than financial control of the games and provides “direct support to host cities in the form of cooperative marketing, promotion, and sponsorships.” Stafford says the organization will name a new host city within four months. Chicago, Atlanta, and Los Angeles were finalists in the original competition, but Atlanta took itself out of the running earlier this week. Kevin Boyer, spokesman for the Chicago bidding team, says, “We’d like to make a bid, but we’re cognizant that the community may not be able to do it.” If they do, it would be scaled down, he says–closer to a $10 million budget than the $30 million of two years ago. But Rick Garcia, political director of the gay rights group Equality Illinois, has a different take: “Every city that has had [the games] has lost an enormous amount of money….We’ve been struggling with the city to get a $1 million AIDS budget, and we’re trying to build a multimillion-dollar gay community center. We cannot afford to be flushing money down the toilet.” The game that comes to mind is hot potato.

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