May 2, 2020
Dear Chautauqua Family,
I write today with a message I never conceived I would need to convey, but one that is necessary for the health, wellness and safety of our beloved community. Late yesterday our Board of Trustees decided unanimously and with moral clarity to suspend any in-person programs on our sacred Western New York grounds this summer. We will not be convening as we usually do, but rather in a new, online space, as a distributed but still tightly knit community of lifelong learners and lovers of the arts, education, interfaith and recreational programming. I invite you to read the news release at this link, and to view the above video, in which I provide a few remarks and then participate in a traditional Chautauqua Q-and-A session. Much more information will of course be shared in the coming days and weeks, but I wanted to gather with you as soon as possible after the board’s decision to hear your thoughts and to share some of my own.
I share in the collective heartbreak and grief this decision is sure to evoke. I assure you — after weeks of careful and painstaking analysis by our amazing and dedicated staff and trustees, in consultation with governmental and other leaders and public health experts — that this is the right decision, to ensure the safety of our community, our region and our future. We are so grateful to all those within the Chautauqua community who have reached out in recent weeks to offer your counsel and expertise, or simply your heartfelt sentiments and well-wishes as we collectively confront a world-historic moment marked by uncertainty, grief and suffering.
As we confront a new paradigm for Chautauqua, the staff and I remain hard at work, committed to delivering the most high-quality and complete Chautauqua experience possible in the online space. This initiative is deeply embedded in Objective 2 of 150 Forward, our year-old strategic plan, so while it is not simply a response to these current circumstances, our plans and efforts to take Chautauqua’s mission and experience beyond the grounds have certainly been significantly accelerated. The Board of Trustees has expressed immense confidence in the need for Chautauqua’s emerging presence in this space, and in our ability to achieve our goals. We will have much more to share on these new initiatives and online platforms as the season draws closer, so please stay tuned. We look forward to boldly exploring this new path with you — as I’ve requested previously, we ask for a spirit of experimentation and discovery as we navigate the next several months together.
Thanks to decades of expert stewardship and leadership, the Institution is on relatively solid ground as we confront this crisis. However, like all not-for-profit organizations in this moment who have suddenly lost major earned revenue streams, we will be dependent more than ever on philanthropy to fulfill our mission this year. I am profoundly grateful to the members of our community who have already delivered on and, in many cases, increased their pledged support for this year. I, too, have significantly increased the portion of my salary that I dedicate to the Chautauqua Fund. While we will be offering full refunds for gate passes, Athenaeum Hotel deposits, and other purchases, if you are able, we ask that you consider making a donation or deferring some portion or all of your committed 2020 Chautauqua gate pass expenses to help us deliver on our mission in a new way and continue to serve as an economic anchor for our home region, which depends on us now and likely even more in the coming months and years. In making this request, please know I also realize this is not feasible for all.
Before I close, I need to note that never in my three-plus years as Chautauqua Institution’s president have I been more profoundly grateful and proud to be a part of this team. The ingenuity, care and dedication displayed by the Institution’s board and my staff colleagues in service to this mission, this community and each other — all while contending with the chaos and uncertainty this crisis has introduced into all our professional, personal and familial lives — has been nothing short of heroic. We are dispersed more than ever, and yet united more than ever in our commitment to ensuring that Chautauqua rises to a moment when it is needed more than ever. It is my hope, as we enter a season unlike any other, that our community members are able to feel this same collective connection and pride.
You may remember, if you joined us last Aug. 25, that the final Sacred Song Service of the 2019 Summer Assembly was titled “Camp Meeting Has Ended” — a nod by our beloved late organist Jared Jacobsen, missed and mourned still, to the remarkable history and seasonal nature of Chautauqua’s assembly. In my Three Taps of the Gavel address at the end of the service, officially bringing our 2019 physical convening to a close, and with due respect to Jared, I proposed a slight revision to that title to highlight our mission that calls us to come to this place to explore the best in human values and continue that exploration when we leave. As I remarked on that lovely, warm evening:
Perhaps tonight we title our time “Camp Meeting Commences.” Because Chautauqua does not end today. Indeed, Chautauqua commences today. … The notion that Chautauqua commences comes from none other than Chautauqua’s co-founder, Bishop John Heyl Vincent. He concludes his book The Chautauqua Movement, written in 1886, with these very words:
“The real ‘Chautauqua’ is not dependent longer upon locality. The grove may be cut down, the buildings consumed by fire, the golden gate broken into fragments, the Hall of Philosophy remain only in memory, all visitors cease to tread the sacred paths of the old resort, and the Summer Meetings be forever abolished, — yet CHAUTAUQUA remains and must remain. The Chautauqua of ideas and inspirations is not dependent upon the literal and local Chautauqua. May they long remain united, and each minister to the strength and glory of the other!” (p. 252)
No one, least of all myself, could have foreseen how these words could be interpreted so markedly differently just seven months later. Fortunately, our “locality” remains intact, and expert hands will continue to tend to its gardens, pathways and venues; it is a different force outside of our control that keeps us from our literal and local Chautauqua. I feel deep sadness, as I’m sure you do, knowing we will not be together in person this summer. But just because we aren’t physically convened doesn’t mean we can’t assemble. The Chautauqua of ideas and inspirations, of artistry and beauty, of grace and spirit, of agility and endurance, continues on, far beyond the bounds of our idyllic grounds. May they long remain united, and each minister to the strength and glory of the other.
In two months, we will gather together, from across the world. I will Tap the Gavel Three Times. And Chautauqua 2020, though different in format and assembly, will commence. In the meantime, you and your families are in my prayers, as always. Be safe and well.
All my best,
Michael E. Hill
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