With entertainment budgets shrinking and everyone from AMC theaters to Fox Theatre competing for the same dollars, you might think the relationships among our city’s cultural institutions would be cool, but when we checked in with groups such as Dance St. Louis, Center of Creative Arts and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, we found the opposite was true: They agree that creative collaborations are more effective than competition.
Steve Kelley, director of marketing for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL), says that St. Louis is ahead of the curve when it comes to promoting its arts community. “My philosophy is that there are two types of people: those who go out, and those who stay home. We’re after the second kind,” says Kelley. “Arts organizations in St. Louis are starting to realize this group of people patronizes all of us, and they are just as likely to go to The Rep and the opera and the art museum. The crossover is much greater than we would have thought. Instead of competing for that person’s time, the theory is that we’re each getting a share.”
This realization has spurred more than 19 local arts organization to join a city-wide database created by the Regional Arts Commission (RAC). “We’re all pooling our data, which, over time, will make it easy to pinpoint which people are mostly likely to do which things. You can’t imagine how helpful this sort of information is in targeting specific audiences.” Kelley says the cooperation among arts groups has been outstanding. “It’s the sign of a healthy arts scene and a very good indication of the way things will go for the arts in this community.”
Kelley says the way in which OTSL presents itself to potential guests is very important, and that in addition to appealing to its loyal subscriber base, the organization also makes an effort to reach younger audience members and those new to opera. “We found that people are most likely to try opera if someone they know and trust invites them,” says Kelley. With that in mind, OTSL marketing efforts provide plenty of opportunity for current buyers and regular attendees to bring friends. “We team with our public relations department and work with fund-raising, too. Just as there is collaboration outside of the organization, there is also internal collaboration.”
The Center of Creative Arts (COCA) also looks for innovative partnerships to enhance its marketing efforts. It’s something marketing director Tom Wickersham says helps them target specific audiences. “For example, this season we’re working with Left Bank Books to promote our COCA Family Theater Series. The act closing out the season, The Mermaid Theater from Nova Scotia, puts on a theatrical interpretation of Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny, two classic children’s books,” says Wickersham. “We promote buying the two books from their store, and they promote the event in the store and on their Web site. We help each other.”
Wickersham also speaks to the importance of working with other arts organizations. “Through the RAC, I’m able to meet with marketing directors from other venues. We talk about the best strategies and how to get across what is important to us. We call it ‘mission-infused marketing.’”
Keeping a very public profile also helps COCA further its mission. “Any time we can partner with businesses like Left Bank or have our student dance companies perform in events such as Dancing in the Streets, we’re able to help the public witness our effort to provide a meaningful art experience to St. Louis families.”
Dance St. Louis recently took the idea of partnership one step further. This season it launched a major marketing campaign that paired dancers with high-profile members of all three professional sports teams. The first campaign of its kind, it framed dance as ‘the most beautiful sport in the world.’ Executive director Michael Uthoff loved the idea from the beginning. “People tend to be mystified by dance, and the truth of the matter is that out of all the performance arts, it is one of the most accessible, because it deals with the human body, our one common denominator,” says Uthoff.
The campaign, which featured Cardinals outfielder Rick Ankiel, St. Louis Rams linebacker Chris Draft and St. Louis Blues defenseman Erik Johnson, hopes to connect with St. Louisans of all interests. “Dance is something everyone can partake in and enjoy,” says Uthoff.
To ensure that patrons of Dance St. Louis continue to enjoy themselves, Uthoff tries to offer something for everyone. “Dance is unique in that if people go to a lousy sports game, movie or concert, they’ll most likely do all of those things again. But if they attend a lousy dance performance, they tend to assume it’s indicative of the genre as a whole,” he says. To offset that, his organization offers unique performances at a competitive price. “We have priced ourselves in a manner that is accessible for experimentation. We want people to feel comfortable trying dance on for size.”
He hopes the sports campaign goes a long way toward creating that comfort zone. “Pairing it with sports figures is a natural extension. I was a jock when I was a kid, and making that athletic connection with dance is a great thing.”