A Summer Unlike Any Other
By Michael E. Hill
President, Chautauqua Institution
Summer is a time of rituals for me.
As President of the 146-year-old Chautauqua Institution located on 750 acres about an hour and 20 minutes south of Buffalo, my summer is usually a highly scripted affair. Over nine weeks, Chautauqua explores the best in human values through some 3,000 individual events. Ours is a storied institution replete with traditions and a sing song routine for those of us called to be stewards of this special place. On a normal June 15, which is when I am writing this, we would be preparing to receive more than 100,000 summer visitors. Our artists, speakers, preachers, some 1,200 seasonal workers and others would be descending on our grounds to open up 100-plus public buildings in preparation to explore nine themed weeks centering on the most pressing issues of our time.
As I look out my window onto Bestor Plaza, our town square, I don’t see any of that occurring. I see a few residents walking by in masks, having just visited the Post Office on the grounds. Through my open window, I hear one of our small business owners talking about the promise of a Phase Three reopening of her shop and what it will mean if people want to access it. A few members of my staff have returned to their offices for the first time in four months but many of our offices are still dark as we work through COVID-19 safety plans and protocols.
So what does this mean for our summer? Will we break the arc of tradition that so many have come to know about Chautauqua? You may have read in The Buffalo News or another media announcement that Chautauqua Institution’s Board of Trustees voted in May to cancel all in-person programming on our grounds. Some might think that we are simply going to “moth ball” the place and try again next year. But what I find so thrilling is that we have no intention of breaking that all-important arc of tradition.
In June we previewed a new way of engaging with others for the summer. Chautauqua is unveiling an ambitious effort we’re calling “CHQ Assembly,” a multi-platform online digital collective that will allow us to share all nine theme weeks, our featured lecture speakers, our chaplains of the week, our interfaith speakers, performing arts events, an impressive set of online master and enrichment classes and a space for Chautauqua Visual Arts that allows people to view exhibitions, view artwork, and shop in our Gallery Store, only hinting at the hundreds of young visual and performing artists who will be studying with us online.
COVID-19 has surely shaken the foundations of all of our worlds. We have been quarantined inside our homes, and, for many, the thought of re-emerging into society is either thrilling or horrifying. Organizations across the country are struggling with how to keep their missions alive – financially and programmatically. This summer at Chautauqua, though, we have a chance to not only maintain many of our vehicles for sharing our mission, but we get to invite others to share it with us in a way that’s as simple as watching Netflix, signing into your Apple TV, your Roku or viewing things on any internet-enable device. Our team has worked hard and with breakneck speed to make this portal to our mission available in a matter of weeks. We hope you’ll help us refine this experiment – what we’re calling a beta test – by joining us on the journey. Visit Assembly.chq.org to sign up for a free 90-day subscription to the video platform, click through to learn.chq.org to explore the available master and enrichment courses, and begin to explore the conversations we will curate on CHQ Assembly’s Virtual Porch. All CHQ Assembly platforms will be live by June 28.
This is Chautauqua’s first step toward expanding its reach far beyond our Western New York boundaries and curating a dynamic space to convene people year round.
While all of us are looking at a summer far different from the traditional, I’m excited to think about what opportunities are emerging from this very unique time. I may not be hosting large garden gatherings. We may not have 4,000 people in our Amphitheater for a lecture, a concert or a religious service. But we will be convening people, as we have for 146 summers prior, to explore the best in human values with the desire to take all we’ve learned back out in the world to make it a better place. What has long been our calling now has new relevance. Through CHQ Assembly, we aim to translate that into greater, more meaningful impact.
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