How far with the leaders of Penn’s arts and cultural institutions go to get people through the doors?
By Monica Anke Hahn-Koenig | Illustration by Peggy Honeywell
“I think we should have go-go dancers in the windows!” says Claudia Gould, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art. She’s only half kidding. Spaces like the ICA, the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, the Arthur Ross Gallery and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, among several others, face difficult challenges in attracting visitors. They’ve also recently come up with some creative ways—short of hiring exotic dancers—to draw audiences from the Penn campus, Philadelphia and beyond.
What’s keeping people away from Penn’s undeniably rich and varied cultural opportunities? “Unfortunately, there’s one common denominator: money—which we don’t have,” laments Gould. Funding is a major stumbling block for cultural institutions everywhere, of course, not just those at Penn. All do receive support from the University, but it’s never enough. Says Gould, “The University wants not to give us any money except for the building. That’s their goal. That’s not my goal. I’d like them to give us more money.” As it stands, the ICA has to raise $1 million of its own each year to stay within budget.
Besides supporting things like programming, operating expenses and employee salaries, money is also critical for advertising and promotion. Without a healthy publicity budget, it’s difficult to get the word out about the resources at Penn, especially in Philadelphia’s high-priced advertising market, one of the most expensive in the country.
Both ICA and the Annenberg Center are feeling the pinch. In recent years, efforts to bring their budgets out of the red reportedly played a role in the departure of longtime directors Patrick Murphy at ICA and Stephen Goff Ar’62 at Annenberg. Their successors—Gould, formerly executive director of Artists Space in Manhattan, at ICA, and Michael Rose, who had directed the Glassboro Center for the Performing Arts at Rowan University for 10 years, at Annenberg—were touted as much for their business and marketing acumen as for their artistic credentials when they were hired, in September 1999 and March 1998, respectively. In one economizing move, the two institutions currently share a marketing director, Roy Wilbur. Naturally, leaders at both institutions wish they could have him full time.
Some organizations lack even a part-time marketing staff. “We don’t have a publicity budget,” says Dr. Dilys Winegrad Gr’70, director and curator of the Arthur Ross Gallery, the University’s official art gallery, located in the Fisher Fine Arts Library. They are left to publicize on an ad hoc basis, whenever a curator or other staff member gets a chance, or to rely on the University to make people aware of their centers. Even given the best of intentions, this is a recipe for inconsistent and often ineffective publicity.
At Annenberg, the size of the operating budget is tied directly to ticket sales. This makes good, effective marketing of the utmost importance. “The University needs to find a more focused way in terms of advertising what’s available on a weekly basis in the arts so that it’s not a scattershot approach,” says Rose.
Even students are often unaware of the cultural opportunities Penn institutions have to offer. “I don’t think students see museums as part of what we [as Penn] do,” says Winegrad. She tells a story about encountering a student peering curiously through the gallery doors. When she invited him in, he said he really needed to study instead.
The Morris Arboretum in Chestnut Hill has an even harder time making students aware of its existence. “Sometimes we feel like this lonely planet out here by ourselves,” says Kate Sullivan, director of marketing. Students make up a very small percentage of its annual visitors, despite the arboretum having repeatedly been named “Best Cheap Date” in Philadelphia by Philadelphia Weekly.
When people do hear about events at campus cultural institutions, there is a “perceived barrier” between the University and the rest of Philadelphia, notes Dr. Jeremy Sabloff, director of the University Museum. “If you’re standing in Rittenhouse Square, the perception is that we’re significantly farther away than the [Philadelphia] Museum of Art, but in fact, that’s not the case,” he says. “We need to break down the idea that somehow the Schuylkill River separates us from Center City.” Many Philadelphia guides gloss over the University’s offerings, and tourist maps often relegate University City to a small undefined space on the left side, with (perhaps) a few buildings identified.
Another barrier, says Sabloff, is “the perception that this place is somehow dangerous.” Crime in the University City area has been a perennial hot-button issue, and especially so in the wake of several high-profile violent crimes in 1996. Though crime is down significantly since then, fear among prospective campus visitors lingers.
And once people from other parts of the city and beyond decide they do want to visit the campus, getting where they want to go can also be a problem. Parking at Penn is at a premium. As surface lots have given way to developments like Sansom Common in recent years, parking spaces in the immediate vicinity have dropped from 8,000 to 5,000. Visitors from outside the city especially can be reluctant to use public transportation—and unwilling to walk more than a few blocks from a parking space to their destination. A sidebar to a May 5 Philadelphia Daily News article touting the many things to do and see around University City began: “One word about driving to the University of Pennsylvania campus: Don’t.”
It will be difficult to draw people from off-campus “unless we can provide adequate, reasonably accessible, reasonably priced and safely located parking.” says Dr. Peter Conn, the Andrea Mitchell Professor of English and deputy provost, who chairs a recently formed committee of campus arts and cultural organizations.
So, it’s a tough time to be the director of a Penn cultural institution: There’s never enough money, it’s expensive to spread the word, and people harbor misconceptions about the neighborhood. It is difficult, acknowledges Sabloff—but exciting, too. “In one sense it’s daunting, but I think there’s every reason to be positive,” he says. There are signs that things are beginning to change, and the heads of these centers are taking matters into their own hands to get the word out and get people in the doors.
Claudia Gould has been ICA director for barely a year, but she and her staff have already made strides in publicizing the exhibitions they mount. She recalls that, when she was executive director of Manhattan’s Artists Space, she couldn’t get on the institute’s mailing list. Exhibition notices were sent by first-class mail to ICA members only. Now, the ICA sends bulk mailings to a greatly expanded list, often targeting specific audiences depending on the content of the exhibition. And Gould has also made a point of including a Philadelphia artist in each new show to draw in members of the local arts scene.
In years past, the Annenberg Center was the venue for touring shows from Princeton’s McCarter Theater, as well as the home of the old Philadelphia Drama Guild and the Philadelphia Festival for New Plays. Today, the center faces increasing competition for audiences, performers and productions from a burgeoning theater scene in Center City, with much more to come from the Philadelphia Regional Performing Arts Center, currently under construction at Broad and Spruce streets and scheduled to open in late 2001.
Few regional companies mount tours anymore, says Rose, in part because the National Endowment for the Arts no longer provides support for them. Shows that do tour tend to be very small or to be commercial musicals, “and most of those are not quite what we’re looking for, so that makes it a bit more of a challenge.” Philadelphia’s more vital theater scene, though, he says, is “good all the way around—because there is a growing interest in theater, and I think we can be very successful in presenting theater. It really depends on what we’re presenting, and issues of quality and content.”
Theatrical presentations have increased over the past two years at the center,“so we are really trying to build our theater programming back,” says Rose. “But we have also diversified our programming tremendously.” Last year, PENN Presents was established as the professional performing-arts arm of the University with an eye toward increasing University-wide collaborations and the diversity of programming at Annenberg’s three theaters and the renovated Irvine Auditorium. In addition to programs in theater, dance and the Philadelphia International Children’s Festival held in the spring, “now we’re doing much more in classical music and jazz, neither of which were genres that the Annenberg Center presented in any significant sense,” says Rose.
The center offers a variety of subscriptions series and discount ticket programs for general audiences, and “has made a major initiative over the last two years to develop student rush programs and work with the College Houses,” says Rose. “We continue to hammer away at student participation.” For the first time in many years, he adds, this year Annenberg will produce its own special brochure for students.
To make more people aware of the University Museum, Jeremy Sabloff is trying not only to bring people into the museum, but also to bring the museum to the people. Many of the exhibits travel to major national venues, and the museum often sponsors alumni events in conjunction with the traveling shows. For example, “Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur,” featuring objects of Sumerian arts and culture from the 4,500-year-old royal cemetery at Ur (the city famed in the Bible as the home of the patriarch Abraham) has been traveling since October 1998 to eight cities across the country. Currently on exhibit at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York (through September 10), it will then travel to Chicago’s Oriental Institute Museum, October through January, and finally to the Detroit Institute of Art from February 2001-May 2001.
The Museum’s award-winning Web site (www.upenn.edu/ museum) gets 200,000 hits per week from over 60 countries. At the site, visitors can read daily updates and view pictures from archaeological expeditions and objects in the Museum collection. Soon, field notes from the expeditions on which they were collected will accompany the objects. “It’s a continuing challenge,” says Sabloff, “to find ways, at least in cyber terms, to continue to bring that global audience to the museum and all that we’re doing.”
The efforts of several other campus organizations are also helping to make audiences aware of Penn’s cultural resources and to foster town-gown relations. The Penn-owned radio station WXPN, through its very popular World Cafe music program, now syndicated in 100 markets nationally, has made the public, in Philadelphia and beyond, more aware of Penn and what it has to offer.
Kelly Writers House does a good deal of community outreach, and attracts student and city audiences, as well as media coverage, to its popular readings and spoken-word programs. The University’s system of College Houses has taken strides to increase student exposure to the arts, with in-house lecture series and cultural events managed through the dorms. Penn’s music department also offers a regular series of concerts in Irvine Auditorium, featuring both student ensembles and professional groups and soloists.
The Penn Humanities Forum, directed by Dr. Wendy Steiner, the Richard L. Fisher Professor of English, also aims to attract an audience beyond campus to its program of lectures, exhibits and other events related to a different, deliberately broad, humanistic topic chosen annually. Following an inaugural event in Spring 1999 highlighting Philadelphia writers, the theme chosen for 1999-2000 was “Human Nature.” This year’s theme is “Style.” The first event of the year is an exhibit of Sylvia Plachy’s photographs at the Arthur Ross Gallery [“Gazetteer,” this issue].
The directors of Penn’s arts and culture spaces have recently begun to meet together to try to address their challenges collectively. Provost Robert Barchi established the Council on Arts and Culture last fall, and asked Peter Conn to convene it. “The arts and culture venues play an indispensable role in shaping Penn’s identity across a broader landscape and permitting students, faculty and the community to engage with Penn in ways that enrich them artistically and culturally,” says Conn. The council was formed “in order to see if there would be some advantages in having the directors of these centers meet together in a relatively formal way to share ideas, common problems, perhaps to move toward collaborative programming, including marketing, and simply to create a venue for conversation.”
The council met four or five
times over the last academic year. In cooperation with Penn’s office of
business services, it has produced an arts-and-culture brochure highlighting
Penn’s cultural attractions that will be disseminated through tourist
venues and hotels. Through the council’s efforts, those interested in
what’s happening at Penn can also call the Penn Arts Line at 215-746-ARTS
(2787) and be connected with each of the arts and culture centers to hear
the latest information.
The directors have found the council meetings exciting and productive. “I think what Peter’s doing is really making new territory,” says Claudia Gould. Annenberg’s Michael Rose agrees: “The council is a great vehicle for encouraging collaboration and encouraging different arts centers to work together to come up with collaborative approaches to building audiences.”
Conn notes that the council’s efforts must be viewed in the context of a much larger program of improvements on campus and in West Philadelphia. “The arts and culture activities are part of a larger, ambitious strategy, the West Philadelphia Initiative—a University-wide effort which has entailed substantial investment in new buildings, new infrastructure, new lighting, new environmental cleanup, new housing programs, mortgage programs and so on,” he says. “I never like to use the word problem when describing West Philadelphia—it’s invidious and slightly condescending—but I think at the same time it’s undeniable that it has not been seen as a destination.”
Since 1997, the University City District (UCD), a neighborhood improvement initiative supported by the University and other area institutions and chaired by Penn’s executive vice present John Fry, has been working to change that perception. According to UCD director Paul Steinke, the district began with two goals: “to improve the public environment of University City, and to improve the area’s image as a vibrant, attractive part of the heart of urban Philadelphia.”
Through its Clean and Safe initiative, the UCD has put on the streets of University City 40 “safety ambassadors,” who patrol the neighborhood on foot and bicycle, and 28 maintenance employees, who sweep, vacuum and wash 160 primarily residential blocks, remove graffiti and clean empty lots. It has also actively promoted University City through marketing and special programs like “Go West! 3rd Thursdays in University City,” a campaign to highlight the best the neighborhood has to offer in food, music and the arts. The first event, in September 1998, drew a crowd of over 8,000 people, and the monthly activities, held during the academic year, have continued to attract large numbers.
The 3rd Thursday events begin at a University City cultural location with a specific activity—viewing an exhibition, ice skating, sampling a special menu. Entertainment and refreshments from neighborhood restaurants or caterers accompany each event. Fliers distributed at the event guide participants to other University City attractions and nearby restaurants offering 3rd Thursday specials. According to Steinke, “The basic idea is: attract a crowd, show them a good time, and give them a roadmap to the rest of the neighborhood.”
Last season’s series began at the University Museum with a special exhibit and performance entitled “Express Yourself,” which drew over 500 people. Allison Kelsey, the UCD’s director of marketing and public information, reports that two-thirds of the 3rd Thursday attendees come from off campus to participate. December’s “Winterfest,” an evening of ice skating and a fashion show at the Class of 1923 Ice Rink, attracted over 800 people. This season, there will be another skating night, scheduled for December 21, but the program of specific monthly events will be shelved, according to Kelsey, in favor of more emphasis on providing general information on resources and activities.
The UCD will produce a comprehensive print and Web quarterly calendar of arts and culture events in University City. The first issue is scheduled for Winter 2001, covering December through February. A new Web site, UCityphila.com, will launch in late October, offering information on UCD programs as well as entertainment and accommodation information for visitors to University City, “whether they are from across the Schuylkill or across the country,” says Kelsey. And a University City guide to dining and shopping, which will also include neighborhood art and culture sites, is scheduled for the spring.
The UCD is also erecting “Walk Philadelphia” signs throughout the neighborhood, similar to the ones that have guided visitors around Center City for a few years now. The new signs, which should be up by early fall, will highlight points of interest and feature a distinctive University City logo, with a Victorian roofline and a streetcar.
As one indication that the UCD’s message is getting through, the design director for The Philadelphia Inquirer recently came to Steinke and Kelsey for help in redesigning the University City section of the map for the paper’s annual “Philly 101” guide for students returning to the city.
Penn’s arts and culture centers are also gearing up for the fall: The ICA is developing a new 600-square-foot projects space to provide an extra gallery to feature contemporary art. PENN Presents has more than 170 events booked for the 2001-02 season in dance, music and theater. The Annenberg Center will start off the fall semester with the Charlie Hunter Band and in December will host the Philadelphia premiere of the feminist comedy, The Vagina Monologues, by Eve Ensler, a hit last year in New York. The University Museum is busily building its new wing for collections storage and study, and a headline event scheduled for the fall is a dinner recreating King Midas’ funerary feast, based on recent analysis of food and drink samples excavated by Museum archeologists in the late 1950s in Gordion, capital of the Phrygian empire, over which King Midas ruled around 700 B.C., in present-day Turkey [“Gazetteer,” March/April].
To make students aware of Penn’s cultural resources as soon as they arrive on campus, the institutions will be participating in an “Evening of Arts and Culture” to be included in student orientation for the Class of 2004. This is part of an expansion of the orientation from four days to seven, in order to make it “an introduction to the core values of the institution,” says Conn. No other University events will compete with the program, as the various centers host concerts and student performances, and serve food. Musical programs include “drilling drums” on the steps of the Furness Building, sponsored by the Arthur Ross Gallery; live performances of jazz, hip-hop, gospel and classical music celebrating “Philadelphia Style—Philadelphia Sound,” sponsored by the Humanities Forum; the Charlie Hunter Band at Annenberg; and a dance party at the ICA with a DJ from WXPN. The University Museum will offer a “social,” allowing visitors to “explore the world without leaving Philadelphia,” and Writers House will host the first of its popular bi-weekly open mic programs, Speakeasy: Poetry, Prose and Anything Goes, for the Class of 2004, inviting students to share creative work or “simply come to listen and soak it all in!”