Friday, January 7, 2011

To market, to market

By Barry Johnson

Maybe the toughest job at an arts organization is marketing director, though actually the marketing director is often the public and media relations person, too, and goodness knows what else.

It seems so impossible. The average, massive multi-national corporation has hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on multi-channel campaigns to direct our attention toward their products, gizmos, services and Ponzi schemes. They hire the best creative brains in the universe to fashion those campaigns, having previously hired battalions of savvy researchers to help figure out which of our various buttons are perfect to push at just this exact moment in the flux of the culture. They spend more on market research than the entire budgets of our largest arts groups. Way more.

How can a regional symphony, theater, dance company or museum compete with that, let alone the smaller arts groups with even tinier budgets and fewer human-hours to devote to marketing? Frankly, it's impossible, except for one thing: The arts groups are actually offering us something we need -- the exploration of what it means to be human. And a creative marketing director with a steady hand, a gift for multi-tasking and an eye for the big chances can turn that little advantage into something that changes the community in which we live for the better. Fortunately for Portland, we have several of those.

With that in mind, we turn to a few recent art world developments with a marketing component. 

Trisha Mead moves to Oregon Ballet Theatre

One of the unsung, behind-the-scenes heroes of Oregon Ballet Theatre's 2009 financial crisis was the company's marketing director, Erik Jones. From the time the company announced that it faced immediate extinction if it didn't raise $750,000 by the end of June right until it staged the fundraising gala that pushed it past that magical number, I talked to Jones just about every day (using "talked" loosely), pressing him for financial numbers, interview times, responses to community criticisms, further explanations, line-ups for the gala, the identities of "anonymous" donors and all the other inquiries that make a reporter working a story a complete and utter nuisance. And Jones was unflappable, helpful, positive, reasonable and engaged.  Even when I was the opposite.

And I was just a small part of his job (as much as it pains me to say it) -- he also had to sell some tickets for that gala, a short independent clause that masks hundreds of little tasks, each of which needed to be handled deftly. Which isn't to say that Jones "saved" the ballet by himself. Of course not. But if I'd had any doubts about the value of a good marketing/PR/media relations person (which I didn't), he would have erased them.

Erik left Portland this fall to take up a similar position at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia, so this is a sort of belated thanks to him. But it's also the introduction to Oregon Ballet Theatre's announcement in December that the bright, personable Trisha Mead would be replacing him. Mead has spent the past few years working at Portland Center Stage with Cynthia Fuhrman (who is one of the key reasons I already understood the value of the marketing/PR position); she helped launch the Fertile Ground new works festival; and was the board president of the Portland Area Theatre Alliance.  So as Fuhrman told me, reluctantly, she's ready to run a marketing department such as OBT's. And we wish her the best.

Music for one, "Music for All"

One of the thorniest problems that arts groups face? The high cost of tickets means that significant numbers of people are priced out of attendance at shows and concerts. If you believe in the importance of your Bach Cantata (and you should), you want everyone to hear it, regardless of income level. And you want to signify to the community at large that the arts are for everyone, not just the wealthy. In important ways, this is a marketing problem, just not in the direct "buy this now" way.

The new "Music for All" program begins to address the problem. Eleven local classical musical groups and Oregon Ballet Theatre have joined forces with joined forces with All-Classical 89.9 FM, the Regional Arts and Culture Council, the City of Portland and the Multnomah County branch of the Oregon Department of Human Services to offer $5 tickets to their events to the 66,000 Multnomah County households enrolled in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) and Oregon Trail Card (the old Food Stamp Program). It's pretty simple: Show your card and buy a ticket. You have to use your own money, because SNAP benefits can't be used on non-food items.

The Department of Human Services is in charge of informing enrollees about this opportunity, but to me, it's also an opportunity for the arts organizations to do some creative marketing (and even programming) inside communities they don't usually reach. Given the vast marketing brain-power available, both within the arts groups and the city itself, I'd love to see a savvy plan brilliantly executed that sells thousands of those $5 tickets. We could use it, and not for the small amount of money involved.

A hearty "bravo" to the groups (listed below) who've joined in the effort.

Jeffrey Thomas named executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Craft

Speaking of "savvy," the savviest arts marketer I ever met, at least on one level, was the late gallery owner William Jamison (Jamison Square in the Pearl District is named for him).  His purity of vision was an important part of that -- he really believed in the artists whose work he showed, believed profoundly. And he thought they could help you, too.

Jamison understood the value of a great story. Whenever I walked into the gallery and we started to talk, I found myself involved in a narrative about how the artist had wandered into the desert for three days and found these particular bones and sticks to build this particular representation of his out-of-body experiences. Or something like that. And suddenly, things started to click into place with the art itself, and I began to understand it -- its aims, its origins, the aesthetic that shaped it, the desire that fueled it. William sold a lot of art that way, but maybe more important, he helped create a community around the art.

I bring him up because the co-owner of the Jamison/Thomas Gallery, Jeffrey Thomas was just named acting executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Craft. I don't know how it worked out exactly between the two of them, Jamison and Thomas, but my sense was that Thomas supplied some of the entrepreneurial spirit to the gallery, maybe because he pioneered a New York City branch in the late '80s.  DK Row did a long interview with Thomas last summer, which talks about their years together and his subsequent activities in advertising and media, most recently with Polara Studio, a commercial photography company.

At any rate, Thomas's appointment is more evidence of the importance that arts groups place on marketing these days. And I'm expecting him to try to make the museum a fun and exciting place to be, because that's the kind of person he is -- and the kind of place Jamison/Thomas gallery was. Oh, and he can tell a great story, too.


List of participating arts organizations in Music for All: Oregon Symphony, Portland Opera, Oregon Ballet Theater, Chamber Music Northwest, Portland Youth Philharmonic, Portland Baroque Orchestra, Friends of Chamber Music, Portland Chamber Orchestra, Portland Piano International, Portland Symphonic Choir, Cappella Romana and Portland Vocal Consort.