By Published on .

Ethereal," beamed MarionBardenhewer in homage last summer to the "Claude Monet: 1840-1926" retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Visiting from Worms, Germany, she had just navigated the final rooms dedicated to the translucent water lilies of the French impressionist.

She could have been waxing about the Institute's marketing task force led by Larry Termolen, exec VP-development and public affairs. After all, "Monet" transcended all other Institute marketing programs. Labor's fruit: Little elbow room for 965,000 museumgoers; memberships inflated from 92,000 to 158,000; and $5 million net profit when most exhibits end up in the red.

An economic study put Monet's direct impact on Chicago at $140 million; $22 million in restaurants, some no doubt for the occasional $39 Monet menu-veal aux morilles and le pudding kaki (persimmons) at a restaurant in the Loop.

The exhibit's budget "was by far our largest," says Mr. Termolen, 58, about the exhibit that took seven years to assemble at a cost of $4.6 million. That expense included $300,000 in media advertising, mainly print ads, and $479,000 for direct mail.

Ticket sales came alive opening day, July 22, spurred by ads in The New York Times and The New Yorker. "We started getting 50,000 queries a day at that point," says task force member Eileen Harakal, exec director-public affairs.

The Institute wasn't after one-stop viewers, but frequent users (it nets $5-plus per visitor), so 1 million pieces of direct mail pushed membership as a gateway to admission: Members received four free tickets, good at any time. Mailings got a 2.8% response.

"Two months into the show we did the unmentionable: We stopped selling memberships," says Mr. Termolen. By then, tickets for nearly all time slots-800 per 30-minute interval-had been sold through November closing.

Now comes the effort to lure back those new members, much less Rhinelanders like Ms. Bardenhewer, for upcoming fare like this summer's geopolitic-fraught "Splendors of Imperial China."

Most Popular
In this article: