Chautauqua Institution

Chautauqua Institution President Thomas M. Becker's off-season letters to property owners provide updates on recent actions by the Board of Trustees as well as other issues impacting the Chautauqua community.


Dear Property Owners,

It is with eager anticipation of a new season, Chautauqua Institution’s 138th, that I have this opportunity to review with you in some detail our work during this past off-season as well as my excitement about this upcoming summer.

During this off-season, my colleagues in the senior administration have gone through a series of sessions where we have tried to focus not just on what we do and how we might be better at it, but to think about why it is we do the work we do. It is very comfortable for any of us to tweak a program or process in an effort to improve the overall experience you have here. And we do that every year with great intention and diligence.

Yet, in a time of economic challenge, when the competition for people’s time and support is increasingly severe, and at a time when Chautauqua should be more relevant than ever, it is important to step back and look at what we stand for and what is our intrinsic value. In doing so, we become better able to respond to these times and assure that Chautauqua remains the preeminent expression of lifelong learning anywhere.

I believe across generations, Chautauqua imparts, nurtures, and reawakens curiosity. It takes seriously the obligations of a citizen in a democracy to be engaged with the important issues of our time, to be practiced in discussing those issues across boundaries of partisan considerations, and to understand individual self-interest in balance with the common good.

Chautauqua values love, forgiveness, compassion, justice, mercy, peace and joy, all of which serve as the basis for the religions of the world and the possibility for interfaith cooperation. We believe the arts teach us about ourselves, transcend the boundaries of communities, and open us to ideas, beauty and inspiration. We recognize the need for renewal, re-creation, healthy living, connection to the natural world, play and socialization at every age. We believe we must be open and welcoming to all who wish to participate with us. We believe tradition binds us together in community and that respect and affirmation are integral within a community of consent.

These are our values. They are why we, from religion and education to recreation and the arts, create the programs and experiences we create. They are why we conduct our community the way we conduct it and care for our physical space as we do. With these values in mind, and also the more tangible goals expressed in the Board of Trustees’ strategic plan for the period 2010 to 2018, we have developed the upcoming season.

Chautauqua may never have seen a more rousing first two weeks than we anticipate this summer. Roger Rosenblatt’s continuing conversation about the written word with his “friends” and Jim Lehrer’s exploration of the issues that inform and the conduct of the election, in conjunction with a mid-week Fourth of July, has us scrambling to find accommodations for all who would like to be here.

I am very proud of our approach to the second week’s examination of the issues of the 2012 election and believe it reflects our values to engage you in the obligations of citizenship. In Jim Lehrer, Andy Kohut and Ralph Cicerone you will hear non-partisan analysis of what is at stake and how we might move forward. In Whit Ayres and Donna Brazile, Mark Shields and Michael Gerson, you will receive quite partisan approaches balanced by a different perspective and moderated by one of the best in the business.

It is my hope that throughout this summer, in an environment where we will be challenged to leave behind the divisive partisan ranting we have heard daily since last on these grounds, that all of us will make an extra effort to be respectful of each person’s viewpoint, be it spoken from the Amphitheater stage or on a front porch. I fear that the reflex to applaud and cheer those points of view we find admirable has the effect of discouraging fair and honest debate among those who may disagree. Let us demand of all whom we encounter this summer, thoughtful analysis, respectful listening and honest exchange unembellished by a sense of winning or losing.

The knowledge that we are opening to two weeks of high attendance has reinforced the attention we have been paying in recent years to employee training. One of the great challenges in delivering a high quality experience to each visitor to the grounds is the fact that we go from under 100 year-round employees to nearly 1,700 employees in the late spring and summer. Seasonal employees are the ones with whom you and your family are likely to have the greatest interaction, be it at a motor gate, walking into the Amphitheater, at Boys’ and Girls’ Club or at the Afterwords Café. Most of these employees arrive on the grounds less than a week before the season begins, giving us very little time to imbed in them the values and information (and sometimes the sense of humor) required to resolve appropriately all of the issues with which they will be confronted in the first week, let alone throughout the season. During this off-season we have invested in new training techniques for seasonal employees and spent time with our year-round staff, those who supervise our seasonal managers, focused on customer relations. We will continue and expand this commitment to staff training in the years ahead with the goal of making the experience of every Chautauquan positive and rewarding.

I would love to highlight for you here each of this summer’s lectures both at 10:45 and in the afternoon at the Hall of Philosophy, but I will not. To the extent you are here and not otherwise committed, take advantage of this incredible opportunity to hear from a remarkable array of women and men. A focus we have had is to find ways for you to have greater interaction with our speakers. We encourage all of them to come with their families and stay for multiple days. We do so with a much clearer conscience now that Hagen-Wensley House offers a new level of comfortable accommodations for our guests. More and more of our speakers do take us up on this offer, and a number of speakers, including Nick Burns, Wes Moore, Geraldine Brooks and Derek and Sissela Bok and others, will all be here for extended periods of time.

Participants we count on to be in residence for a week are our chaplains. Most of this summer’s chaplains are returning to Chautauqua for a second visit. In the case of Calvin Butts and Barbara Brown Taylor, it is many visits times two. They will open us to the values we embrace: love, forgiveness, compassion, justice, mercy, peace and joy. It is hard to imagine where you could go and hear such a richly diverse exploration of faith for the 21st century than you will hear at Chautauqua this summer.

Again this season, we will bring to these grounds approximately twenty-five members of the clergy who have been in church life for less than seven years to provide them opportunities to deepen their own faith, to share and find solace with colleagues in the issues they confront within their respective congregations, and to provide mentoring relationships from those on the grounds when they are here. We are so deeply invested in this program because it ably demonstrates our capacity to convene individuals from diverse geography, background and faith tradition to engage in thoughtful and deepening conversations about the difficult issues they face in their lives, to nurture and refresh their lives and then send them back to their homes more capable of leading within their communities. This program has been generously supported for many years by Alex, Sarah and Spencer Robertson; Bill and Betsy Goodell; Constance Somers; and the Holden-Daney Fellowship. I hope you take note of what Chautauqua offers these emerging pastoral leaders.

We are incredibly fortunate to have extraordinary talent and continuity of leadership within our artistic program areas. Begin with Marty Merkley who in his 22 years of service to this Institution has enhanced the quality of each and every area under his direction. Continue through all those who provide artistic leadership to our dance, piano, voice, theater, opera, instrumental and visual arts programs—Jean Pierre, Marlena, Rebecca, Jay, Vivienne and Tim and Don. Chautauqua’s reputation in the arts community continues to grow. Jane and I had the pleasure of attending Jay Lesenger’s critically acclaimed production of The Ghosts of Versailles at the Manhattan School of Music in April as well as Ethan McSweeney’s latest directorial assignment at Stratford. At one single point in time last year we had eight alumni of the Chautauqua Theater Company performing on Broadway.

During this season we will benefit from the second of our three-year collaboration with the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo on Abstraction in America, a direct result of the generous investment of several families into our visual arts facilities during the Idea Campaign. The second exhibition of works on paper held by Albright-Knox will be on display in the Strohl Art Center’s Gallo Family Gallery throughout the season. Also this year we have an additional performance by our Music School Festival Orchestra specifically created for a collaboration between the MSFO and Marlena Malas’ voice department. We are privileged to have four great pianists soloing with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra this summer. Peter Serkin will play the opening concert of 2012; Alexander Gavrylyuk, with his wife and new baby joining him for his visit, will return for two performances; Alexander Schimpf, winner of the 2009 Beethoven Competition and the Cleveland International Piano Competition, will solo with the Symphony on July 12; and, in the last concert of the season, a remarkable young (21 years of age) Russian pianist, Daniil Trifonov, who has won the Chopin, Rubenstein and Tchaikovsky Competitions will perform. In addition the Symphony will be part of a world premiere on Aug. 18th. The theater will have its own world premiere of a play commissioned for Chautauqua as a result of the generosity of the John C. Court Family Foundation in collaboration with the Friends of the Literary Arts on July 20. The play, Fifty Ways, by noted playwright Kate Fodor, will be presented as part of our continuing focus on new plays, funded again this year by the Roe Green Foundation. And I am thrilled that the inaugural Chautauqua Prize recognizing excellence in literature will be awarded this summer to Andrew Krivak for his work The Sojourn. This prize is also made possible through generous philanthropy, in this instance by an anonymous donor.

I spend this space sharing this taste of what you will find here this summer because this mix of program is at the heart of who we are and I do not believe you can find such a rich array of experiences anywhere else. That richness is captured in our commitment to exploring the best of human values and in so doing enriching your life in ways that makes you better suited to serve your family, community, country and world.

As a property owner I know that what is happening on the grounds has special interest to you. First, I am pleased to share that 2011 was again a strong year of financial performance for the Institution. We had a gain over the prior year in attendance, single ticket sales for evening specials far exceeded budget, the Chautauqua Fund once again achieved its very ambitious goal and we were able to finish the year with our expenses coming in approximately $130,000 under our budget. As a result, the Trustees agreed in February to add an additional $750,000 to our 2012 capital budget for reinvestment in our facilities.

During these last three years, the Institution, as a result of its strong operating performance and a dedicated commitment to renewing our grounds and buildings, has reinvested over $13,000,000 in our roads, grounds, and facilities including the Athenaeum Hotel. A good portion of this spending has also been generated by philanthropic investment on the part of Chautauquans. In the current year, we intend to expend another $5.9 million. It is our hope that you will find the grounds in the best condition you have ever seen them. However, given the scope of our obligation to the care of over 100 buildings, 11 miles of roads, 1.25 miles of lakefront, walks, gardens, golf courses and tennis courts, we must remain dedicated to this reinvestment going forward. Our continued success at operating in the black as well as your continued charitable support will determine how aggressively we can pursue these investments.

Let me share some of the other more important developments which you may have read about over this winter through one of our initiatives to provide more timely information by e-newsletter, the website and other communications directly from me to property owners. Some highlights:

  • By the week of July first, we will have for display and presentation a tentative schematic design for our historic rehabilitation of the Amphitheater. In February, the Board of Trustees agreed to hire a team of architects to proceed using the Amp Study Group report as the basis for their work. We will provide opportunities for your feedback throughout July and early August before asking the design team to submit its final work for review by the Board. At that point, if the Board believes the project is on course and funding has been secured for the next phase of development, we will proceed with the design development stage of the project.
  • A sub-group of last summer’s Architectural and Land Use Regulation Study Group is drafting a series of revisions to the current regulations. The sub-group will seek your comments on these new regulations during the season. After consideration of this input, their report will be submitted to the Board for action next November.
  • The renovation of the former Refectory will be complete, a revised menu will be offered, and a better-trained service staff will be in place as we open the newly named Brick Walk Café prior to the season. In doing so, we hope to create a facility that better meets more of the needs of our Chautauqua community.
  • A new red brick walkway has been installed leading from McKnight Hall to the Carnahan-Jackson Dance Studios. This heavily travelled route, by car, bike and pedestrian will be much safer as a result.
  • The Institution has purchased the Shaw Laundry property located on the west side of Route 394. This property is strategically located between the Jane A. Gross Opera Center and our parking lots and greenhouses. It was important that we not allow this land to be controlled by another party. The property also includes ten apartments which we have been renting from the prior owner. The savings we will incur from no longer paying rent will allow us to recover the cost of this investment within ten years. We will operate the laundry service this summer on a trial basis to be of service to the denominational houses and others who have been dependent on this business for so many years.
  • We have entered into a contract with the Chautauqua Lake Association to harvest plant growth along our shoreline for this summer. We do so as a way to make the lake experience more enjoyable while we continue to make major investments in longer-term strategies to stem the deterioration of the lake. This summer, again thanks to the generosity of a Chautauquan, we will be undertaking a shoreline management study to determine how best to manage the land between Lake Drive and the lake to further reduce the delivery of the nutrients that are causing algae blooms. We continue to invest significant time and resources into storm water management and the execution of the state grant we received for this purpose. To date that work has been primarily the completion of an environmental study that must precede implementation of the recommended mitigation strategies.
  • Last year we raised the top age on a minor gate ticket to 25. However until this year a minor ticket was only available for a stay of one week or longer. Beginning this year, a minor ticket is available for purchase for any overnight stay of one to six days as well. We hope this will continue to encourage college age and those just out of college to come back to Chautauqua for the limited time they may have to be here.
  • We are working with property owners in central Chautauqua who have not had parking on the grounds to make assigned spaces available to them in the South or Main Lots. This effort responds to a number of concerns expressed over the past few years about the challenges of parking in the Main Lot.

There have been several personnel changes of which you should be aware. On May 4, Jack Voelker retired from his position as Director of Youth and Recreation. Jack has been a part of the continuity of leadership I wrote of earlier. The gains we have made during his tenure are dramatic. Jack will continue to serve as General Manager of Chautauqua Golf Club, a position that will allow him much more time with his family and his new avocation growing hops. Andy Freay, who many of you know from the Fitness Center, has become our Director of Recreation and will report to Sebby Baggiano. Gwen Papania, who has worked with Jack for many years, has been appointed as Director of Youth Activities reporting to Sherra Babcock. The Hotel Corporation has established a new position, Director of Food and Beverage Services, to help meet the growing demands on the Institution in this area. Rick Heald will serve in this position coming to us from Levy Restaurants in Atlanta.

Before I close I want to thank you for your significant investment in and commitment to the Institution. Owning property on these grounds comes with a series of rare obligations that begin with our deed restrictions, continues to our regulation of parking and access and the financial demands of a second home in a challenging climate in a state with high taxes. Then we ask for your emotional and charitable investment in the outcomes we seek to deliver. And you respond year after year. I am deeply grateful to you.

I look forward to seeing many of you very soon. I hope that you do indeed continue to discover in your time at Chautauqua over these next few months a sense of the best of human values that helps to serve you, as my colleague Joan Campbell says, “in the living of these days.”



 Thomas Becker