A Final Tip of the Hat

This week I conclude my 11-year tenure with the Reader to begin a new column on marketing for the Chicago Sun-Times. I know many readers of Culture Club think my primary preoccupation over the years has been spotlighting people and organizations that tripped up and got into trouble, and while I’ve certainly done my share of that, I’ve always believed that examining such problems would ultimately benefit the city’s arts community. This week, however, I’d like to single out some executives who deserve praise for doing a few things right.

After many years managing the now-defunct Civic Stages Chicago, Fred Solari took control of the run-down Athenaeum Theatre in 1994, and since then the seemingly indefatigable general manager has transformed the theater and surrounding space into a thriving arts facility that provides inexpensive offices and performing venues to a host of small and midsize arts organizations. Solari has scrubbed and painted and polished; he’s added bathrooms, installed new theater seats, dug out a larger orchestra pit, and turned a dark, forgettable room off the foyer into an attractive lounge. In 1995 he and his producing partner, John Schmitz, established Dance Chicago, a fall festival that showcases a broad spectrum of companies as well as promising individual dancers and choreographers. Even more remarkable is the fact that he’s done all this without the large monetary gifts from the city, philanthropic foundations, or individual donors that other arts groups enjoy. Behind this genuine success story is a tireless individual with street smarts and an excellent head for business.

Actor and director B.J. Jones waited decades for a chance to run a theater company, and as artistic director of Northlight Theatre he’s turned a crippled organization into a winner. Two and a half years ago Northlight’s subscription sales were plummeting, and some wondered whether the company could pay off the debts it incurred moving into the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. Jones assembled a season of excellent but accessible off-Broadway shows, hired the best actors, directors, and designers he could afford, and waited for this simple formula to produce results. Audiences have responded, and Northlight is showing exciting new signs of life, even as Jones tries to mix some less familiar fare with the surefire hits.

Jean Oelrich, director of marketing and communications for Ravinia Festival, was one of the first executives in Chicago to confront the problem of declining ticket sales and the difficulty of selling classical music to young adults. While others seemed to be in denial, Oelrich talked openly about her intention to change the marketing strategy at Ravinia, and early next year she’ll introduce a revamped, innovative Web site for the festival. Backed by Welz Kauffman, Ravinia’s new executive director, Oelrich has a chance to renew the audience for classical music, attracting the young listeners who will fill the seats in years to come.

Henry Fogel and I have often found ourselves at odds in recent years, but the president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has demonstrated a newfound openness to the changing business of classical performance. Two years after the CSO sank more than $100 million into remodeling and expanding Symphony Center, it’s clear that the lavish new facility alone can’t be expected to dramatically increase the symphony’s audience, and new marketing initiatives may not prove to be a magic bullet either. Fogel and his music director, Daniel Barenboim, may have to reevaluate their concert offerings and the way they’re presented; with the fate of one of the world’s great orchestras at stake, this should be an interesting one to watch.

Some feared the worst when John McCarter was named president of the Field Museum in 1996. One of the first corporate executives to direct a major cultural institution in Chicago, McCarter has championed an audience-friendly approach that’s included exhibitions of motorcycles, glittering Cartier jewels, and memorabilia from the Chicago Bears and the Star Wars movies. Numbers don’t lie: with two months remaining in its current fiscal year, the Field has already drawn two million visitors, about a third more than attended in 1999. No other museum in town is likely to match that sort of growth anytime soon. Though he runs the risk of turning one of the world’s great museums into Disneyland Chicago, McCarter has rejuvenated an institution that was in danger of becoming a relic itself.

Before bidding adieu to Culture Club, I want to acknowledge a few more people. My heartfelt thanks to president Bob Roth and executive editor Michael Lenehan of the Chicago Reader, Inc., for taking a chance on me 11 years ago. They gave me a prominent space in the Reader and the freedom to write about whatever I chose, and for a journalist there is no greater privilege. Editor Alison True and managing editor Patrick Arden managed to keep my reportorial zeal in check whenever it threatened to get out of control and provided helpful feedback and guidance whenever I needed it. Art director Sheila Sachs and her team made the column look good every week, and assistant editor J.R. Jones provided diligent copyediting week in and week out. Last but by no means least, my sincere thanks to the many sources whose information and insight helped make the column what it is. You know who you are, and I’m sure we’ll be in touch. But for now, to one and all, farewell.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Bachtell.