‘A New Appreciation’
Hill Reflects On First Year, Moving Forward As Institution President
CHAUTAUQUA — This was a year of sweeping change for Chautauqua Institution, but Michael Hill is taking it all in stride as he guides the cultural learning center into its 145th consecutive season of programming in 2018.
One year after stepping into his role as president of Chautauqua Institution, the 18th man to hold the position since its inception in 1874, Hill said he has learned much from his first season, all while eagerly looking forward to what the future has in store.
Hill was appointed to the post by the Institution’s Board of Trustees in November 2016, whereupon he immediately set out to work with then outgoing president Tom Becker to ensure a “seamless transition” between their presidencies before his term officially began on Jan. 1.
Hill’s arrival came amidst one of the more eventful offseasons among Chautauqua Institution’s long and storied past, namely in the demolition of the former amphitheater building — which had been constructed in 1893 — at the conclusion of the 2016 season, and the construction of a new structure in its place.
In addition to learning the presidential process and what his duties would entail, he said he was also faced with the fact that the institution’s largest venue for hosting live and popular entertainment currently consisted of a “large hole in the ground” as of the beginning of his term.
However, he credited the project’s architect and contractors with pulling off an amazing feat of engineering in getting the new amphitheater built and functional in time for the start of the 2017 season.
When it came time to commence the new season Hill was able to draw on his familiarity with Chautauqua and its grounds, as he had served for a time as assistant editor for The Chautauquan Daily during his college years. And while working as an editor for Chautauqua’s news publication and actually overseeing the daily workings of the institution from its top executive position aren’t exactly one in the same, he at least had the benefit of some background knowledge regarding Chautauqua’s offerings and operations.
Using words like “intense” and “enchanting” to describe his first season as Chautauqua Institution president, Hill reflected that there was never a dull moment during the nine-week marathon.
“I was about halfway into the season when I realized that I really hadn’t had a moment to myself, except to sleep, in about four or five weeks,” he said.
Hill is now fully immersed in preparations for the 2018 season and said he is “excited” for the coming year, which will be the first season he’ll be building from scratch.
He said he and the staff are working on multi-year planning that consists of projecting the kinds of conversations that will be relevant over the next 2-3 years, and trying to measure the programming’s impact on Chautauquans who head home following the season.
“If folks come and participate in Chautauqua, what happens when they go back to their communities? Are we making them stronger citizens, and how are they changing their own communities?
“We want to participate in that dialogue by not just prepping people for nine weeks and sending them forth, but by being a part of that conversation year-round,” he said.
The following are Hill’s responses to questions posed by the The Post-Journal as he gears up for Round Two at the helm of Chautauqua Institution.
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P-J: From a personal standpoint, what does it mean to you to be included among the ranks of such a small, select group of people who have kept this institution fluorishing for nearly a century and a half?
Hill: We’re getting ready to put up in these hallways a listing and pictures of each of the presidents, and looking at a PDF of that display was pretty humbling.
Before me there had only been 17 others who have been given the gift of sitting in the chair of trying to help guide and shape the institution in that unique way.
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From the reading I’ve done about these men, what they went through to preserve and advance this place is significant.
I describe myself as the 18th president a lot because I don’t want to forget about the other 17, and what they’ve done in service to this institution is incredible. So, some days it’s awe-inspiring, every day it’s humbling, and some days it’s scary; but it’s really a privilege. It’s a privilege that I feel fortunate to be able to do this at this point in my life, and I feel really lucky and excited about where we’re going.
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P-J: Obviously your job isn’t confined to just one nine-week stretch over the summer. Now that you have that first year under your belt, how would you describe the job in the offseason and the process of preparing for another season of programming?
Hill: One of the things I always found kind of funny is when people say, “Well, the season’s done, so now what do you all do?” I have a very new appreciation for just how many hours it takes to prepare a nine-week festival. So where we are now is trying to fill in each of those days and organize the hundreds and hundreds of programs we’ll offer.
We’re definitely trying not to be so “off” this offseason. We’re in the last week or so of our Winter Village, which was our opportunity to keep the grounds open and inviting to our community and others who may want to visit. And that certainly is something new that my colleagues and I have been trying to do with Chautauqua Institution that hasn’t been done for a while, which is to have Chautauqua not be just about the nine weeks. So we learned a lot and will be doing that again next year.
It’s been nice to see Chautauqua be used and celebrated and welcoming to folks who are primarily from this region year-round. I spoke at my opening installation about our desire to turn our gates into gateways, and this was one of our first big experiments with doing offseason programming. So there’s a learning curve for us, because it’s a fulltime job already to prepare for a season and now we’re doing additional work that hopefully keeps Chautauqua in the eyes and minds of folks outside of those nine weeks.
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P-J: If you had to boil down Chautauqua’s intentions and objectives into a brief synopsis, how would you do that? What is it that makes the institution so special and unique in today’s society?
Hill: One of the things that I love about our mission is, in many ways, it is succinct but profound. We do programs and activities that explore the best in human values. How people define and use those values is the great mystery and blessing of what we do here. We present topics, artistic experiences, spiritual and religious experiences, and community gatherings because we want people to go forward and make their communities stronger and better. I think that while Chautauqua certainly has been relevant throughout its history, it’s most relevant now when you think about what’s happening in our country.
Regardless of what political party you’re in, we find a United States that’s extremely fractured and we find people running to echo chambers and just talking to people who believe what they believe. Chautauqua’s entire ethos says you can’t do that. Communities can’t be strong and vibrant, and the best in human values can’t show up, unless people who agree and disagree with one another are in active dialog. For me, that’s what makes coming to the institution now so exciting.
The nation needs an institution like Chautauqua to not only raise up deep discussions about the most important issues of the day, but to provide a safe forum for people who may disagree about those topics to come together and actually celebrate that they disagree. And to move forward in a way that allows us as a community to find solutions, or to at least feel we know what our neighbor’s thinking and not feel that as something that’s an affront or assault. I think that’s the most exciting thing about us, and I feel we have a unique opportunity to do something that could put Chautauqua into what is its most important heyday of its nearly 150 years.