When the Royal Winnipeg Ballet arrives in Chicago on Nov. 2, it will play at a hall that has been one of Chicago's crown jewels since its construction in 1889: Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan's Auditorium Theatre. But if you read the official announcements from the presenter, you'll notice that the name of the venue has been quietly but relentless adjusted over the last couple of seasons: The Canadians officially will be dancing at the Auditorium Theatre of
This is not a moniker (like BAM for the Brooklyn Academy of Music) that's likely to ever catch fire. To most Chicagoans, the Auditorium will always be the glittering, gilded, acoustically perfect Auditorium. And it should be thus. Appending the name of Roosevelt to the Auditorium might accrue additional prestige to the university, but it actually hurts the perception of what, for the entire 20th century, was the city's most prestigious venue by making it sound like a college auditorium, even though it must operate in a glitteringly competitive downtown landscape. As any arts branding expert would tell you, people prefer to spend their glamorous nights out (be it dance or a rock concert) at a venue that sounds as if it will accommodate them in style: The
One can understand why Roosevelt wants to append its name to the theater (although this is a separate matter from selling corporate naming rights). Not only does the university own the theater and the building that contains it, but it fought and won a protracted legal battle several years ago with the Auditorium Theatre Council to establish that full control, a battle that went all the way to the
Sure it does. But the Auditorium is in show business, and having the right does not make it a good idea. Indeed, it's symptomatic of a desire among arts institutions to slap the institutional name on everything, even though corporate America figured out years ago that it is sometimes better to let a brand be an independent offspring and keep the parent out of the press releases.
Take, for example, the Kashi Co., an upscale favorite of a certain set. It's owned by Kellogg, but you would not easily know that from your GoLean Crunch cereal box; Kellogg has figured out that it would hurt the crunchy-granola image of Kashi to be too closely associated with its more mainstream corporate parent; better to give its managers independence and reap the financial rewards. There are, of course, many other examples of this: Mondelez International (formerly part of
So why don't the arts do this? It's not uncommon for big organizations to set up separate spaces aimed at expanding their demographic (like The Garage at Steppenwolf or The Second City e.t.c.) or programs with separate, trendier names (Jazz at Lincoln Center or Dozin' with the Dinos at the
But when did you last hear of a nonprofit arts organization acquiring another brand or creating one itself with a different name? It is, at minimum, an interesting idea. If the Lyric Opera were to find, for example, that its blue-chip institutional identity put off some potential audience members, wouldn't it be well advised to not keep trying to squeeze every ounce of hipness out of the Lyric name, but to create a separate little
One can see the beginning of this idea in two Midwest cities, Cleveland and Columbus, where the back-office needs of several arts organizations are now being shared (Cleveland's Playhouse Square Center and the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts quietly act as an umbrella for several local arts groups that were struggling to make it on their own). But most of these shared arrangements around the country are the result of financial trouble or a consolidation necessary for survival.
A big establishment cultural institution actually creating the artistic equivalent of Naked Juice would be innovative indeed.
One important distinction here, of course, is that for-profit companies are motivated by profit, whereas nonprofit arts groups are supposed to be motivated by their mission. And it's true that when a nonprofit deviates from its core competencies just, say, to snag a grant, disaster is a frequent result. Furthermore, nobody wants to see avaricious institutions gobbling up their smaller counterparts in some predatory fashion. "Watch your backs," says the little gallery owner in this nightmare scenario, "here comes the Art Institute with its checkbook."
But why not create a boutique program or venue with a different name? Why not add bigger expertise to smaller arts groups? Why leave these strategies entirely to corporations, when nonprofits could not only gain some much-needed revenue but also improve the reach of the art? Corporate America is strikingly quick to see the limitations of its own brands; in the nonprofit world, that's a tougher truth to understand.