Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Chautauqua Institution and Continual Renewal

My friend has a home on Lake Chautauqua, only a few miles from the famous Chautauqua Institution – a not-for-profit community “dedicated to the exploration of the best in human values and the enrichment of life through a program that explores the important religious, social and political issues of our times; stimulates provocative, thoughtful involvement of individuals and families in creative response to such issues; and promotes excellence and creativity in the appreciation, performance and teaching of the arts.” 

Founded in 1874 as an educational vacation experience for Sunday school teachers, it quickly expanded to offer learning opportunities and programs for all ages in music, the arts, religion and recreation. Each summer, it hosts dozens of lecturers on public issues, international relations, literature and science (known as a “season”), in addition to its regular fare of courses and performances.

On the eve of the last day of the 2015 Chautauqua season, it was announced that the Chautauqua Institution was going to seek bids for the “renewal” of its amphitheater – the prime assembly forum of the Chautauqua Institution for 140 years. After studying the matter for five years, it was determined that major reconstruction of this historic gem would best honor the “history of place and purpose” of the Chautauqua Institution. 

I happened to be staying with my friend when the announcement was made, and I read the article in the local newspaper with dismay. The rationale – structural concerns, poor sightlines, seating discomfort, and inadequate backstage facilities, stage and orchestra pit configuration – seemed poor reasons for not preserving this historically significant structure in its “natural” state.

As luck would have it, my friend’s brother-in-law is an accomplished pianist and organist who has had the honor of playing the amphitheater’s Massey Memorial Organ (5,640 pipes) on several occasions. He not only knows the amphitheater, but the Institution grounds, history and programs. On the day after the close of the current season, we visited the Institution, and as I observed the charming homes and other buildings in the village, it was clear that this was a community that was continuously evolving. Homes built in the late 1800s were constructed on platforms originally used for tents in the earliest days of the Institution. Structures were added in the early part of this century to accommodate expanded programs for opera, theater and youth-oriented recreation, and have continued to be added for dance and other arts, as well as for the expanding religious denominations participating in the Institution’s religion programs. Renovation of older buildings, including the amphitheater, has been constant.  

When we finally stopped at the amphitheater, I felt a sense of loss for what may come. But I also saw the limited stage and orchestra space, the steeply inclined ramps going into the bowl of the theater (no steps and no hand rails) and the bleachers placed around the upper rim, outside the cover of the roof, in order to accommodate the ever-increasing audiences. Backstage dressing rooms and rehearsal spaces were cramped.  

As I sat – uncomfortably – in one of the wooden pews that constitute the sole seating option in the amphitheater, I gained a grudging respect for the Institution leaders and their understanding of and commitment to purpose. As with any organization, it sometimes takes leadership willing to make difficult (and sometimes unpopular) decisions in order to continue to grow and remain relevant. Failure to evolve usually is the beginning of the end for any business. If the Institution’s programs constantly evolve to remain relevant, shouldn’t the infrastructure also adjust to accommodate the changing program needs? I just hope they don’t put electronic charging stations at every seat.

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