When former Dallas Theater Center artistic director Adrian Hall stepped out onstage Saturday at the City Performance Hall (carrying a cane — he’s 84), he received a heartfelt, standing ovation before he ever said a word. He was there to receive Theatre Communications Group’s Best Practitioner Award, a lifetime achievement recognition. That was natural for a man who, these days, has his name often followed by “theater legend,” having directed on Broadway and off Broadway and artistic-directed simultaneously in Dallas and Providence. Reportedly, in classic Hall fashion, his speech was lively, inspiring — and it started way back with the ancient Greeks.
But Hall was hardly the only North Texan getting ovations during TCG’s visit here this past week. As reported earlier, TACA was recognized as the best local arts funder. Rep. Kay Granger of Fort Worth was very warmly received as well — because, frankly, she’s a rarity: a Republican who has actively supported the arts, both in Congress and locally, when she was the mayor of Fort Worth.
And Maxwell Anderson, director of the Dallas Museum of Art, impressed the crowd with his smooth, charming, impeccably well-informed self. It seems odd having a museum director show up at a theater conference but he was actually one of two: The other was Nina Simon of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. They both spoke about the rather different audience engagement techniques they’ve been implementing at their institutions — as possible guides or inspirations for the assembled theater artists.
For Anderson, of course, that meant explaining and extolling the DMA’s new free admission and free membership initiative. The free-membership program — visitors register at electronic kiosks (i.e., iPads) and track their gallery visits with “activity codes” that let them earn and redeem points for valuable prizes — is actually a way of gathering the kind of visitor data that no museum has ever had before. With that data, the DMA can learn what’s working, what’s not, and it can show foundations and patrons just what it’s achieving, who it’s reaching.
The big difficulty in applying the DMA’s advance, as one audience member pointed out, is that waiving the admission price was not a huge sacrifice for the DMA. General admission tickets represented a tiny percentage of the DMA’s budget. Typically, ticket revenue for most non-profit theater companies represent anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of total income. So, the questioner asked, could Anderson please solve this revenue dilemma for the theaters?
Anderson conceded the point; his system could not be directly applied by theaters. But he noted that one advantage of the free-membership system is that people who use their points to earn passes to visiting exhibitions (the ones that require paid admission) often will attend with someone else, who will pay to get in. In other words, the freebie generates increased revenue. He suggested that, at least in that small area, the theaters might learn from the DMA’s experiment.