Joffrey's New New Guy
Asked why he wanted to become executive director of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, Jack Lemmon says simply, "The Joffrey is the Joffrey." Yet his predecessor, Robert Alpaugh, gave almost the same response when he signed on. Lemmon will be the Joffrey's third director in as many years, and while the Joffrey is in fact one of the nation's preeminent dance companies, it faces the same hurdles as any other: finding new audiences and bringing in enough revenue to stay afloat.
Lemmon comes from the Tulsa Ballet, where he served as executive director from 1995 through May of this year. Under his tenure, single-ticket sales doubled, subscriptions increased 16 percent, and endowment funds rose 28 percent, yet strangely enough the 42-year-old company's board of directors decided to eliminate Lemmon's job, elevating the artistic director to the top of the staffing pyramid and assigning Lemmon's duties to lower-level business administrators. Leanne Helmerich, president of the Tulsa company's board, did not return a call seeking comment.
Lemmon says his priorities at the Joffrey will be generating more income from both fund-raising and ticket sales, but he also wants to examine alternative venues for the company, whose three series this season will be presented at the large and costly Auditorium Theatre. The new director may also have to relocate the company's rehearsal and administrative space: the Joffrey's current headquarters near State and Lake could be the site of a new hotel development.
Death of a Sales Plan
Two sources at different concerts by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last week reported "hundreds and hundreds" of empty seats, which might explain a newly vacated seat in the CSO's executive offices: Stephen Belth, vice president for communications, resigned last week, giving the bare minimum of two weeks' notice. Belth did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment, but he told associates he was planning to stay in Chicago for the time being and would open an arts consulting business specializing in audience development. Belth's abrupt exit took many of his colleagues by surprise: Zarin Mehta, executive director of the Ravinia Festival, said Belth gave no hint of his plans at a Symphony Center event only a few days before his announcement.
Belth came to the CSO four years ago, at the beginning of a new era: Daniel Barenboim was just settling in as musical director, and the board was planning the new Symphony Center. As head of communications, Belth was charged with the task of overhauling the symphony's marketing strategy; he implemented more direct mail, published a newspaper for CSO audiences, and came up with a branding scheme to unify the wide array of concerts at Symphony Center. The symphony's annual budget reports continued to show modest surpluses, but Belth never volunteered any hard numbers to substantiate his success at increasing subscriptions or single-ticket sales.
The CSO's annual board meeting earlier this month featured upbeat reports about fund-raising and record numbers of people visiting the new Symphony Center last season (many of whom were not actual ticket buyers), but afterward several administrative sources finally confirmed that despite all the hoopla, subscriptions--once the backbone of the orchestra's audience--have been flat or falling off slightly in recent years. Some blamed Barenboim's programming choices and lack of charisma. But Tom Hallett, vice president for finance and administration, says that ticket sales have been stagnating at orchestras across the country, a trend confirmed by recent figures from the American Symphony Orchestra League. "What we're experiencing is nothing like the degradation in subscription sales at many other orchestras," says Hallett. CSO executives are convinced that in seasons to come a large chunk of the audience will buy single tickets instead of subscriptions; faced with the twin challenges of selling more subscriptions and more single tickets to scores of concerts each year, Belth may have decided to walk before he was pushed.
Hallett said it could take months to conduct a nationwide search for Belth's replacement and bring that person to Chicago, and Belth may not be the only key staffer leaving the CSO. Former CSO staffers say that G. Michael Gehret, vice president for marketing and development, and Belth's supervisor, is a finalist for the job of executive director at the San Francisco Symphony, replacing 20-year-veteran Peter Pastreich. An SFS spokesperson would not comment on the ongoing search, and Gehret, who worked at the San Francisco Symphony before coming to the CSO, was on vacation and unavailable for comment.
Last week's item about the success of Blue Man Group at the Briar Street Theatre claimed the show had never sold discounted tickets through Hot Tix booths. Briar Street, however, is a member of the League of Chicago Theatres, and all members provide at least 24 tickets a week throughout a show's run.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jack Lemmon photo by Jon Randolph.