Cartoon characters at the Taft Museum? Pop and bluegrass concerts at the Zoo? Team-building workshops at the Art Museum? What's going on here? It's as if three of our most beloved local institutions had taken wrong turns and ended up in an alternate plane.

It's not that the activities are so unusual. It's just that, in the normal course of things, they would be taking place somewhere else. You know "” Disney characters should be onstage at the Aronoff, not in the middle of a quiet 19th century oasis of fine art.

But if there's one thing the great global economic downturn has taught us it's that all the old rules are in a mighty state of flux.

As a result, we're seeing nonprofit groups in every part of the country throwing themselves into events and activities that are only tangentially related to their primary missions.

Many, of course, are intended to provide new sources of revenue.

In southeast Michigan, for instance, high-end grocery stores carry food items, from cherry chicken sausage to artisanal beers, created by Greenfield Village, the huge history museum outside of Detroit.

In Boston, the retail and catalog activities of the Museum of Fine Arts were so successful and so profitable that the museum had to create a for-profit subsidiary to handle the activity "” and to pay the for-profit taxes.

Here in Greater Cincinnati, there is a constant barrage of slightly off-the-wall fundraising activities that have little to do with institutions' central goals. Think of the Freestore Foodbank's massive Rubber Duck Regatta or Children's Hospital Medical Center's annual Dance Marathon. And don't forget the bingo games and Las Vegas nights that have given a boost to many religious organizations and schools for decades.

But a new generation of "other" events has popped up in recent years, events that aren't necessarily moneymakers, but are intended to broaden an institution's image in the community. Events that set out to make new friends. The long-term goal, of course, is still additional revenue. But the approach has other, perhaps more profound benefits.

They're especially appealing to older, more mature organizations. Though many are decidedly modern organizations, their images may be frozen in the past.

Take Tunes and Blooms, the Zoo's annual spring festival of music and flowers. Admission is free, so it's definitely not intended as a source of revenue. There's a fee for parking. And visitors can buy beer and wine. But these are break-even measures.

What Tunes and Blooms does do, though, is bring upwards of 3,000 people into the Zoo every Thursday evening in April. And "” this is the key point of the series "” many of those are people who might otherwise not visit the Zoo.

"On those Thursday evenings, you see a completely different group of people than you would during the day," says Chad Yelton, the Zoo's Director of Public Relations and Marketing.

Yes, there are some families, says Yelton. They're the Zoo's most prevalent demographic group. But you are much more likely to run into college students from Xavier or UC, both minutes away. Or the much sought-after young professional set.

"And then, there are the people who show up to hear their favorite band or because they heard about a good free performance on WNKU," the Northern Kentucky NPR affiliate that has co-sponsored Tunes and Blooms since it began with a single performance seven years ago.

Music is not entirely new to the Zoo, of course. It was home to the Cincinnati Opera for more than 50 years, until the opera moved to Music Hall in 1972. For a decade in the 1980s and 1990s, it hosted a concert series called Jazzoo. At first, it featured local musicians, and elephant and camel rides. But it soon morphed into a Riverbend-like venue, presenting everything from Harry Connick Jr. and Marie Osmond to Johnny Cash and the Doobie Brothers.

But Tunes and Blooms is a very different sort of event.

"This is much more laid back," says Yelton. "It's relaxed, like a giant family-friendly happy hour. For college students, there's nothing else quite like it in Cincinnati. They're at an age that they're not quite sure how to use the Zoo anymore. But this is nearby and affordable and, thanks to the live music, they get it."

And from an institutional point of view, Tunes and Bloom is precisely what every business is looking for "” a new entry point, a new way to connect with a previously underserved population.

Multigenerational Opportunity

With the rationale behind the Taft Museum's annual Mad Hatter Children's Tea Party though, the target audience "” 7-to-9-year-old girls "” is quite different.

"It's a rare multigenerational opportunity for us," says museum spokeswoman Tricia Suit. "It's a chance for our patrons to bring their grandkids, to get a whole family involved."

Compared to a traditional visit to the Taft, which can be a very understated experience, the tea parties are downright raucous. Lawn games, rolling on the ground, craft projects.

Every year, the event "” it's April 22 this year "” features a costumed character lifted from the pages of Alice in Wonderland. This year, it's the White Rabbit.

"But we can't get away from the fact that we are an amazing art collection in a historic home," says Suit. Nor would they want to. Like Tunes and Blooms, this isn't regarded as a new source of revenue. "For us, it's enough that this event pays for itself. We like it because it's such a great opportunity for us to get new and different people in the door."

Art and Teambuilding

At the other end of the spectrum, in entertainment terms, are the Art, Inc. team-building workshops at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Launched in 2009, the program's intent is "to bring people and art together."

A wonderful goal. But that's hardly a sales pitch that corporate clients are likely to respond to very quickly.

Instead, the museum touts a host of benefits to groups that participate, everything from team-building and improved creative thinking strategies to better conflict resolution.

At $200 for a two-hour session for 20 people "” $100 for corporate sponsors "” it's hardly a program that is intended to enrich the museum's bottom line.

"The main benefit of this program is to break down barriers that people have created when it comes to visiting the Art Museum," says Regina Russo, the museum's director of marketing and communications. "Many people feel they need to know something about art history to enjoy the Cincinnati Art Museum. Art, Inc. breaks down the wall that for too long has separated people from exploring, appreciating and experiencing art. If you feel comfortable here, you'll come back and bring your family and friends."

And the pitch has met with success. Among the corporations to partake in the workshop are Fifth Third Bank, GE and Procter & Gamble.

Growing Blooms

Indeed, at the Zoo, the biggest problem now is how to accommodate the crowds if they keep growing at the current rate.

"We've talked about bringing in slightly bigger acts," says Yelton. "But if we do, it may not have that same relaxed feel that makes it so special. We'll outgrow the space we're using now (Historic Vine Street Village area). We'll have to move into one of the back parking lots."

Not a tragedy, by any means. But Yelton knows that the atmosphere and intangibles of Tunes and Blooms are every bit as important as the music or the flowers.

"I definitely hope it continues to grow," says Yelton. "But I want to make sure that we don't lose the qualities that made it so appealing to people in the first place.

It's a balancing act. But we've been balancing various interests here for 137 years. I think we can do this one, too." -