Shifting Alliances | On Culture | Chicago Reader

Shifting Alliances 

Does Chicago dance need a new partner? Matthew Brockmeier says no.

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There was a painful moment for Chicago Dance and Music Alliance head Matthew Brockmeier at last week's unveiling of a year's worth of dance-audience research. Results from the $100,000 study, funded by the Chicago Community Trust as part of its multiyear Excellence in Dance Initiative, were used in developing a plan to boost visibility and ticket sales for local dance companies. Now came word that the trust will also fund part of that $360,000 marketing effort. It was music to the ears of the 150 people who'd gathered at the Chicago Cultural Center, including Brockmeier. But the centerpiece of the plan, a new dance-performance Web site set to debut next September, caught him off guard. The Dance and Music Alliance spent the last two years developing a similar site, with listings and background on performances by 56 member dance companies. Also funded by the Chicago Community Trust, it was just launched at the beginning of this year. "From what I've heard," Brockmeier says, "the new site would be redundant."

The Chicago Dance and Music Alliance was formed in 2001, when the Chicago Dance Coalition merged with another professional association, the Chicago Music Alliance. Both groups had been around since the early 1980s, and they had similar functions. When the dance coalition "hit a wall" in funding in '99, says Brockmeier, who'd been with the music alliance for a decade by then, "we were able to step in." He ran the two groups as separate organizations from a single office until the coalition's board "decided to make common cause." Now the combined alliance's membership includes 165 nonprofit organizations and 150 individuals. On a yearly budget of just over $300,000, it provides training, advocacy, promotion, and the advantage of group rates for advertising. Its Web site, www.chicagoperformances.org, offers detailed information on where to get music or dance lessons as well as performance listings. But Brockmeier admits the site had a low profile until last winter, when--with money from the Chicago Community Trust and Boeing--it was completed and the alliance began a modest public promotion with radio spots and flyers. Since then, he says, traffic has been rising, most recently averaging 500 visits a day, the majority of them to the listings.

According to the new study, however, most of Chicago's dance audience doesn't know the site exists. We're not talking about the general public here--the study only surveyed established "culture consumers," working off member and ticket-buyer lists from dance companies and groups like the Lyric Opera and the Art Institute. It was the first of its kind to focus exclusively on the dance audience, but the results are mostly a yawn: "No big surprises," said researcher Peter Linett of Slover Linett Strategies when he took the podium. "Dance can grow its audiences as a category," but companies "will have to stop thinking of each other as competitors."

The typical dancegoer is white, married, 40ish, well educated, well-off, and female--women make up 71 percent of the average dance audience. Forget about marketing to men: they told researchers they want intellectual stimulation rather than the emotional satisfaction most respondents say dance provides. (Another study will have to explain how this relates to, say, what they get at Soldier Field.) Like everything else in life, if you're exposed to dance as a child you're more likely to be interested in it as an adult, but even among regular dancegoers there's a glaring lack of awareness of the local scene. It's not just the Dance and Music Alliance site that's under the radar. Most of the people who attended dance regularly were stumped when asked to name local companies beyond the Joffrey and Hubbard Street.

Brockmeier says his site is a victim of bad timing: the survey began in 2003, before the alliance started its promotion efforts. But the report itself suggests dissatisfaction that goes deeper. While the alliance site lists events, it is "geared toward its membership and is of a more academic" rather than commercial nature, the report says. (The proposed new site, in contrast, would be "dynamic," "visually stimulating," and "geared toward dance consumers.") And in a list of liabilities dance companies face (including limited budgets and short runs), the report lobs a more devastating blow: "The dance community has needs much broader than the current service organization/trade association is providing."

The new two-year campaign, to be carried out by Carol Fox and Associates, who devised it based on the study, includes a free dance-marketing boot camp next summer, an identity for the overall initiative, and the heavily promoted new site, seechicagodance.org, which will provide links for ticket purchases and discounts. A major goal is to increase ticket sales, but measuring that will be a little dicey. Researcher Cheryl Slover-Linett estimates that a million people in the six-county area attend at least one dance event annually (a previous study ballparked gross attendance at 2.2 million), but no one has solid data on how many people are attending dance now, how many tickets are sold, or how much total ticket revenues are. And if this study is right, it may take more than a Web site to bring down the main barrier to attendance: the folks who aren't buying dance tickets told researchers they'd rather be doing something else. As the report blithely put it, "they simply do not enjoy dance as much as other art forms."

It's unclear at this point how the marketing effort (which still needs more than $235,000 in funding) will be administered. If it leads to the creation of another organization, Brockmeier says, "resources are an issue. That's why the dance coalition merged with the music alliance to begin with." He worries about a less-inclusive program, "where the emphasis is on drawing audiences from other art forms, fighting over market share" instead of bringing in new people.

Brockmeier says the data on the alliance's site could easily be repackaged for use with a different home page and URL. The goal for the proposed site calls for listings for 20 companies and 10,000 monthly visitors. "But we already have 50-odd organizations, detailed information, and 15,000 visitors," he says. "And that's a number that's tracking up. It took several years and more than $60,000 to get here. The idea of spending a bunch of money to end up where we are now makes me scratch my head."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.

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