Art sale

Dallas-area arts groups take a lesson in marketing

Do you know TITAS? The Dallas-based arts organization has brought avant-garde dance and theater performers from around the world to North Texas, but many people don't know the name. Maybe TITAS needs an American Express card, recognized around the world.

If not a card, then perhaps a sizeable grant from Amex would help.

That was the performing arts group's hope, anyway, as TITAS and a handful of other Dallas-area arts organizations vied for a share of a $28,000 grant from the international business giant. The money was intended to help the organizations market their programs to potential audience members. TITAS -- the Texas International Theatrical Arts Society -- received just $1,500. American Express, apparently, wasn't sure what TITAS' role was either.

"We didn't get it," says Tom Adams, executive director of TITAS, who isn't discounting the $1,500 as much as he is lamenting what his organization could have done with $28,000 -- 10 percent of TITAS' operating budget.

On the wall behind Adams in his office are autographed photos of every classical ballet luminary of the last 20 years. Adams brought them all to North Texas, whether in his role as general manager of the Fort Worth Ballet or in his current post.

Quick, someone tell American Express.

"The comments from the funding panel were that they were having trouble determining what our mission was." He pauses for theatrical emphasis and contorts his face into a quizzical grimace. "Our mission is to present an abundant mixture of the best of international dance and music and performance art and to bring to this community things that cannot be duplicated here," he recites.

The grant money was awarded as part of a three-year pilot project sponsored by American Express intended to help arts groups nationwide attain a balance between creative artistry -- challenging shows -- and the bottom line -- or shows the masses will pay to see.

The National Arts Marketing Project (NAMP) selected worthy medium-sized arts organizations from across the country to attend arts-marketing conferences in Chicago -- all expenses paid. The project taught participants how to put together a marketing plan with an added bonus: a potential Amex grant of roughly $25,000 for the successful applicants in each of eight markets.

The project's national spokesperson says the potential conflict between artistic directors and marketing managers in nonprofit arts groups is so intimidating that the American Express project required that both artistic and marketing people participate.

"Artistic directors think marketing is 'make me do A Christmas Carol every year,' but that's not what it's about," says Gary Steuer, president and chief executive officer of New York City's Arts & Business Council Inc. and head of NAMP. "Marketing for a lot of arts organizations can be threatening," Steuer says. "This isn't about compromising artistic integrity."

Steuer says the project offered arts groups the same kind of image-building advice that gives instant recognition for "the card."

Several Dallas-area arts organizations were selected to attend the arts-marketing training programs this summer. Three of the groups will share $28,000 in audience-development grants. Allied Theatre Group, a union of Fort Worth's Stage West and Shakespeare in the Park, was awarded $19,000. Theater Three received $7,500, while TITAS received $1,500.

Last week found all three groups trying to sort out what they had learned from the workshops and why they had received such disparate amounts of the money

"I still stand by what we submitted, although I don't think they wanted to consider the kind of nuts-and-bolts programs we proposed," says Melissa Berry, TITAS' marketing director. "We weren't as flashy as a lot of groups."

Berry says TITAS proposed doing comprehensive market research on TITAS audiences and recruiting new audience members from the growing North Dallas suburbs and the burgeoning neighborhoods downtown.

"We've been doing our own surveying, but we wanted to be able to, with a good research company, look at who our audience is demographically, sociographically, and psychographically," she says.

Berry says preliminary audience surveys revealed the community's awareness of certain TITAS programming, such as the dance troupe Stomp and Laurie Anderson's performance piece "Moby Dick," but a lack of awareness of the arts organization as a whole.

Theater Three's associate producer Thurman Moss feels TITAS' pain, but to a lesser degree. "I'm not exactly sure why they didn't get it, but it's probably because they're successful at what they're doing," he jokes. Theater Three's grant was a straight-up request. "We needed signage, because we're obscured half a block off the major roads with the Quadrangle. And we wanted to go after the new people in this growing neighborhood."

A performing-arts alliance in Fort Worth proved the most sexy for the NAMP/American Express panel of grant-givers, and Allied Theatre Group's Joe Covault says he is both marketing maven and artistic director. "The standard sort of conflict between the marketing thing and the artistic thing doesn't exist here except within me," he says. "I did used to have the used-car-salesman image of what marketing was, though. But the arts-marketing project's whole concept was utterly different."

Covault says the audience-development plan proposed to American Express was similar to TITAS'. "We proposed direct mail to specific ZIP codes in northeast Tarrant County and in downtown Fort Worth," he says.

The TITAS team of Berry and Adams got a pleasant shock from NAMP just before they found out in November how little grant money they would receive. Another $10,000 was available for the group from funds that were left over. It will be used to buy a computer system.

So TITAS, at a grand total of $11,500, looks less like the black sheep of the audience-development trainees.

"Want to know who we'll be bringing to Dallas next season?" Adams asks conspiratorially. "We're continuing our mission to bring international dance, music, and performance art the likes of which Dallas has never seen."

Among them is a new company called Aeros.

"It's David Parsons and Moses Pendleton working with Romanian gymnasts. They're putting together a mind-boggling show that's a hybrid of dance and theater."

Berry may have a high degree of difficulty finding an audience for that one.

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