2:24 PM CDT, October 12, 2012
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 Roosevelt University. Or ATRU for short.
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 John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, for example, or The Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. The Harris Theater for Music and Dance conveys that image. So does City Winery. Or even, to a different demographic, The Empty Bottle. But The Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University does not similarly roll off the tongue.
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 Illinois Supreme Court. The university pays the theater's bills. Does it not have the right to add its name?
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 Kraft Foods) owns Back to Nature; PepsiCo owns Naked Juice. PepsiCo's core cola drink would perhaps benefit from an association in its consumers' heads with the healthier Naked Juice, but the smart minds at PepsiCo know that Naked Juice would not benefit. So they let Naked Juice be Naked Juice. One knows that Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises owns many restaurants in and around Chicago, but you don't see the top-drawer establishment Everest calling itself "Everest of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises." As founder Rich Melman well knows, that would be a disaster for the bottom line. So he keeps his corporate ego in check.
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 Field Museum). Many of these are what marketers would call legitimate brand extensions: the Steppenwolf name, for example, adds all kinds of prestige. Slap it on another theater or program and you immediately bring it notice. If the Art Institute puts its name on a bookstore in an airport, the bookstore has more value. The downside of this, of course, is that if the brand extension is not up to snuff, you hurt the entire brand, which explains why Second City, for example, does not put its name on everything it does.
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 opera company? Could the Art Institute run a separate gallery, or take over one it already likes? It would not have to hide its ownership (just as PepsiCo, being a public company, cannot), but nor would it need to shout it from the mountaintops. Could not the Goodman conceive of a separate theater company and let it do its thing without dealing with the expectations of its name?
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.