Chautauqua Institution, in crisis, has an opportunity for redemption

Much time is spent analyzing the depth and extent of a crisis [Deflategate] and, how a person, company or organization can end a crisis [Benjamin Netanyahu;; New York City’s crying wolf political leaders].

Too little attention is paid to staying out of a crisis in the first place.

Which leads us to a small local hubbub that has many tentacles, a far reach and growing national attention. It also leads one to ask: What were they thinking? Were they thinking at all? And, did they think about the backlash and dismiss it, out of hubris, arrogance or ignorance?

These questions arise in the months-old fight about the famed and iconic amphitheater at the Chautauqua Institution. Located in far southwestern New York State, Chautauqua is an intellectual summer camp for adults, drawing people from Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and well beyond for 141 years.

The amphitheater is a revered and symbolic centerpiece for the rolling 750-acre campus beside the lake with which the institution shares its name. It has supplied a roof over the heads of, among many others, William Jennings Bryan, Susan B. Anthony, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall, Nelson A. Rockefeller, Marian Anderson, and Bill and Hillary Clinton. Others include Jill Abramson, Michael Beschloss, Margaret Mead, Peter Bogdanovich, Rita Moreno, Dr. Paul Farmer, Gail Sheehy, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., Elie Wiesel and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Jr.

This is a special place.

“The Institution, originally the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly, was founded in 1874 as an educational experiment in out-of-school, vacation learning. It was successful and broadened almost immediately beyond courses for Sunday school teachers to include academic subjects, music, art and physical education. … The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC) was started in 1878 to provide those who could not afford the time or money to attend college the opportunity of acquiring the skills and essential knowledge of a College education. The four-year, correspondence course was one of the first attempts at distance learning.”

The 24-member board of trustees decided that the Amp, as it’s known, was looking a little shabby and needed rehabilitation. For anyone who has sat in the theater-in-the-round Amp on a warm July afternoon, cooled by lake breezes and heated by intellectual debate, this is a sacred place. Built in 1893, it is a rare venue.

As Mark Sommer reported in today’s Buffalo News:

Chautauqua’s board of trustees had announced last year it would demolish most of the structure at the conclusion of this summer’s session to build a modern replica in its place. But after a mounting uproar – including more than 2,100 online signatures and charges of a lack of transparency – the institution announced Jan. 20 that it will revisit its decision in August. Many became upset after the project morphed from a “rehabilitation” into a demolition without the public’s knowledge.

The nation’s foremost preservation organization announced Tuesday in Buffalo that it is launching a campaign to save the Chautauqua Amphitheater.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation named the 1893 Amphitheater a National Treasure – a designation the organization seldom uses – to emphasize the building’s precarious future and national importance.

Thus the questions. What were they thinking? A move like this would inevitably rankle the activist-by-DNA population that brims the place to 7,500 people on a warm summer’s day. The board had to know this demanded sensitivity, transparency and listening to the people.

The whole philosophy and institutional underpinnings of the institution are free thought, learning, respect and intellectual fervor. People who summer at Chautauqua or even just visit for the day tend to be philosophers, intellectuals, life-long learners, lovers of history and heritage. You know, New Yorker readers and NPR fans.

For this region of the country, it would be the equivalent of someone deciding to move the Statue of Liberty to Ellis Island. You just don’t do it. Reported Sommer:

“There are many significant cultural historic sites in America, but there is only one original Chautauqua Amphitheater,” Stephanie K. Meeks, the National Trust’s president and CEO, said [Tuesday] … Meeks said she was pleased by Chautauqua’s announcement postponing its decision, and encouraged its leaders to “embrace the value of the authentic building as a starting point for a renewed dialogue.”

“Any plan to demolish or significantly alter the Amp would destroy the heart of Chautauqua, and compromise the historic character that Chautauquans and visitors from around the world value. It would also threaten the National Historic Landmark status of this nationally significant place,” Meeks said.

The board members come from 15 states and Hong Kong. They are surely people of good will who care deeply about the Institution’s continued success. But the majority, at least, was not thinking clearly.

They have a chance now to “fix” this crisis, by starting over, soliciting serious feedback on its plan, and taking the time to make the entire process transparent and shared.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.




About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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