Wired for Culture: Eugene Carr '82

by Gary M. Stern

Just how did a cellist-turned MBA-turned arts administrator end up on the Internet? The trek from the practice rooms of the Oberlin Conservatory to the boardrooms of venture capital firms has been Eugene Carr's professional journey since his graduation from Oberlin in 1982. Today he is founder, president, and CEO of CultureFinder.com-the Internet's only site specializing in national arts events and ticketing.

CultureFinder.com offers detailed listings for more than 300,000 cultural events a year, covering classical music, theater, dance, ballet, and Broadway, and includes schedules for 2,200 arts organizations performing in over 1,300 cities in the U.S. and Canada. With the explosion of e-commerce on the Internet, CultureFinder expanded its scope to offer online event ticketing, discount tickets, and weekly event recommendations in 12 major cities.

The Oberlin Entrepreneur
When cellist Eugene Carr graduated from South Side High School in Long Island, he faced a difficult decision: should he attend Juilliard to study with one of the country's preeminent cellists or enroll at Oberlin as a double-degree student? He chose Oberlin for its unique combination of music and academics, but in retrospect feels that it was "most importantly an ideal laboratory for entrepreneurial thinking and experimentation."

Eugene Carr Carr, involved with WOBC-FM in his first semester, convinced then President Emil Danenberg to renovate the station's piano so that he could produce a live weekly classical show, "Stagefright." By his sophomore year he was named program director, and the next year general manager. While overseeing the programming and budgeting for the WOBC staff of 100, he thought about new ways to promote Oberlin's extraordinary music program beyond the station's listening area and conceived the idea of a live chamber music touring program. "Music from Oberlin" would be a expansion of the Conservatory's local concerts, taking Oberlin talent on the road.

Carr proposed spending his vacations traveling across the country, performing in community center concerts by night and recruiting concerts at local high schools by day. Dave Clark, the college's former vice president for external affairs, offered his full approval of the idea, and The Oberlin Trio began touring in 1980 between Erie, Pennsylvania, and New York City. The group was a multicultural dream: violinist Calvin Wiersma, a blonde, blue-eyed student from Grand Rapids, Michigan; pianist Charles Floyd, a razor-sharp black Chicago musician who would later become pop-singer Natalie Cole's musical director; and Carr, the Jewish go-getter from Long Island.

In just over two years and during virtually every school holiday, the trio presented 125 public concerts in 20 states from Oregon to New York, on Minnesota Public Radio, and even on Romper Room in Hollywood.

The group achieved exactly what Carr had hoped: it boosted Oberlin's musical reputation and helped to attract talented majors to the Conservatory. Clark describes Carr as the "manager, mastermind, and entrepreneur of the group" who arranged the bookings, contacted alumni to attend, and, of course, performed at every concert. "He had strong organizational skills and the kind of personality that allowed him to come forward in a charming way and get things done. He was a promoter of the best sort."

Nearing graduation in 1982, Carr faced a critical career juncture. Would he attend graduate school at Juilliard, or work in New York's arts management industry as he had done previously one semester?

Arts Management Beckons
The executive director of New York's American Symphony Orchestra (ASO) learned of The Oberlin Trio's tours and offered Carr a job as operations manager to oversee all aspects of producing concerts. Carr accepted the position, excited by ASO's involvement in concerts at Carnegie Hall, on PBS, and also the precursor to the "Three Tenors," a pair of concerts with Pavarotti at Madison Square Garden. In 1983, at age 23 and only months into his new job, Carr became acting director and began reporting directly to board chair Gilbert Kaplan. Kaplan was an entrepreneur himself-a Mahler scholar, conductor, and founder and publisher of the acclaimed financial magazine, Institutional Investor. Under him, Carr assumed leadership for ASO's day-to-day management, from operations to marketing to fundraising.

Recognizing his need for additional credentials, Carr enrolled at Columbia Business School, graduating in 1987 with an MBA in marketing. Rather than jumping back into arts management, he changed his perspective by joining American Express to market travel services for Platinum and Gold Card members.

After three years, Carr left the corporate world to launch Eugene Carr Productions, producing concerts at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center for clients such as Toshiba, Panasonic, and Japan Airlines. When Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, became the music director of American Symphony Orchestra, the ASO board recruited Carr back, this time as executive director, under an agreement that allowed him to continue developing entrepreneurial projects. During his tenure from 1991 to 1996, he vastly expanded ASO's scope: the budget increased from $850,000 to $3.5 million, the subscription base rose from 300 to 1,000, and the number of annual concerts expanded from four to a high of 40, including a four-week tour in Japan sponsored by Toshiba.

Carr pursued a creative management experiment between the ASO and the Concordia Orchestra, convincing founder/conductor Marin Alsop to implement a joint administrative plan that would reduce costs for both organizations by sharing overhead expenses and staff. For three years he served as executive director of both Concordia and the ASO, managing a staff of 14 people and running the two not-for-profit orchestra organizations simultaneously. The New York Times heralded this arrangement for its inventive approach to not-for-profit management.

Access to the Arts for New York High-School Students
When then New York Mayor David Dinkins forwarded a letter from a Stuyvesant High School student complaining about the high cost of concert tickets, Carr plunged into action. He conceived a city-wide program to address the problem, and convinced TicketMaster, Citibank, and The New York Times to underwrite the launch of a new nonprofit company, "High Five Tickets to the Arts." Today, High Five allows New York high-school students to buy tickets for hundreds of cultural events for $5 when they show an ID card at a TicketMaster location. Carr remains an active member of the board of High Five, which has a $1 million budget, ten full-time staff members, a franchise in Columbus, Ohio, and ticket sales that have reached 10,000.

CultureFinder.com is Born
By late 1994 Carr began searching for another challenge, one that would combine his passion for the arts, his determination to build audiences, his background in marketing, and his entrepreneurial spirit. On a week's vacation driving to North Carolina, he envisioned the possibilities of the Internet, which was just beginning to blossom as a consumer medium. He imagined a massive Internet site that would become a central "cyber-hub" for cultural information and tickets. Worried that he already missed the boat on this burgeoning industry, Carr jumped into immediate action.

Already running two orchestras and High Five, Carr undauntedly began developing his new company, tapping into his own funds; seeking help from friends, colleagues, and volunteers; and working late into the night and on weekends. After six months of "learning and labor," the Web site was launched in October 1995. Carr then applied to America Online's new "Greenhouse" program, an incubator division designed to invest $300,000-$500,000 in selected Internet start-up companies. In February 1996, CultureFinder was chosen from 2,000 applicants, propelling Carr into an elite group of 30 entrepreneurs whose companies were publishing for AOL's growing audience.

These days, CultureFinder reaches 200,000 visitors each month and attracts an educated urban audience. Approximately 60 to 70 percent are women, half have graduate degrees, and most are very frequent travelers. CultureFinder surveys show that two-thirds of travelers include cultural events when planning trips, so Carr hopes to include a travel service that can help arrange vacations to places such as Broadway or the Aspen Music Festival.

CultureFinder has logged 2 million "page views" as a result of its partnerships throughout cyberspace. Aside from its main Web site, it serves as AOL's primary arts-information provider (at Keyword: CultureFinder). CultureFinder's event listings have been syndicated on other sites including Digital City, Yahoo, Lycos, When.com, and CompuServe. In building the company, Carr attracted some of the most illustrious names in the arts and new media and raised close to $2 million from investors. Among them are Carnegie Hall board member Arthur Zankel, a partner at First Manhattan; Robert Lessin, chair of Wit Capital; and Tom Stemberg, CEO of Staples, Inc.

Carr says the experience of running an Internet start-up is something like a roller-coaster ride. "This business offers no guarantees, huge risks, investment banker's hours, and minimal sleep." The company has yet to turn a profit. "We're operating like most Internet companies. We're building our audience and executing our business plan, but it will take several more years before we see a profit. Despite its high-flying stock price, even Amazon.com is not yet profitable."

Still single, Carr lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He swing dances in his spare time and recently began practicing the cello again, playing chamber music with friends. "Oberlin," he said, "was a school that provided a perfect mix of opportunities for me-it set the stage for almost everything I've done since the day I graduated."

Gary M. Stern is a New York City freelance writer whose articles appear in American Way, Continental, New Choices, and Consumer Reports Travel Letter.