Art smart Burnett/Arc’s public ploy promotes theatre

Alerted George Seurat painting. Can you identify the missing persons?

There they were Sunday morning.  A couple of hundred people gathered around the staircase inside the Michigan Avenue entrance to the Art Institute of Chicago.  They were staring at something odd. Something that didn’t look right — a drastically-altered version of Georges Seurat’s famous “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – 1884.”  

Those who know that painting well would have known immediately that a number of the key characters Seurat put in the painting were missing in the version that greeted them at the entrance to the Art Institute.

If there was any doubt about this, those in the Art Institute foyer could have walked a couple of hundred feet farther into the museum and seen the real deal itself – the actual Seurat masterpiece itself with all the characters exactly where they are supposed to be.

But there was a reason for this mysterious version of Seurat’s famous painting to be hanging where it was Sunday morning.  It was at the center of an elaborate pop-up marketing event conceived of by Leo Burnett and sibling Arc/Chicago and then executed on this particular Sunday morning by Chicago Shakespeare Theater and the Art Institute.

Just after 11 a.m., a group of actors dressed in exquisite costumes that made them appear to be the missing figures in the painting quietly gathered in front of the altered version of the artwork and sang a stirring song from “Sunday in the Park With George,” the Stephen Sondheim musical that is being revived at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, starting Sept. 26.

After that one song, the actors left the Art Institute as quickly as they had materialized.  They departed to continue rehearsing for the start of performances of the musical.

Those watching this event at the Art Institute clapped in appreciation of what they had just seen and heard,  even as they were being handed small cards that said “George, where has everyone gone?” on one side. 

Printed on the other side of the card was, “Believe it or not, they’ve gone to Navy Pier.”  In smaller print, the card invited those watching at the Art Institute to “celebrate Georges Seruat’s masterpiece with us at Chicago Shakespeare Theater with the production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Pulitzer Prize-winning and Tony Award-winning “Sunday in the Park With George.”

Burnett/Arc work pro bono for Shakespeare Theater

Though the performance/pop-up marketing event at the Art Institute lasted just a few minutes, it was, in fact, the opening salvo of a new relationship forged between Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Leo Burnett, in conjunction with Arc — a relationship that is to go on for at least the next three years.

According to Chicago Shakespeare Theater executive producer Criss Henderson, his theater company, considered one of Chicago’s most prestigious institutions, has teamed up — on a pro bono basis — with Burnett to explore new ways of developing customer loyalty as it pertains to a theater company.

For years, if not decades, most theater companies subscribed to the notion that the way to establish customer loyalty in the not-for-profit theater world was to get everyone to buy a season subscription.  Customers got several plays in one package, usually at a substantial discount, and theater companies got their patrons and a big chunk of money up front at the start of a season.

But everyone in the arts world knows the subscription template is broken. Lifestyles have grown more hectic over the years, and the cost of going to theater, as well as other arts, has skyrocketed.

Theatergoers today are more inclined to pick and chose the theater they want to attend.  Which puts pressure on theater companies to produce a string of hits only. Or else find other ways of establishing loyalty among their audience base.

It’s not going to be easy, as Henderson knows. But Burnett and Arc believe they can be helpful.  Noted Denise Fedewa, director, strategy for Arc Worldwide:  “We’re working with CST to develop a new 21st century approach to theater marketing. This approach will align the lifestyle needs of both CST’s existing and new audiences with CST’s world-class theatrical performances.”

As for Sunday morning’s little event, it was for Bill Reishtein, group creative director at Arc, a small first step toward the ultimate goal of redefining theater marketing and consumer loyalty.

“We wanted to bring some pop culture techniques to these century old masterpieces to turn on a much broader audience to the experiential extravaganza that’s right here in Chicago at the Art Institute and Shakespeare Theater.”

Contact Lewis Lazare at