Week Six Column from the President

Welcome to Week Six of our 145th Assembly. It’s hard to believe that this week marks the two-thirds point in our season. We have experienced so much in the first five weeks, and I’m excited about the timely topic we will probe this coming week, as we look at “The Changing Nature of Work.”

The state of work in America exists in contradictions. Wealth creation is up, but the per-capita GDP is stagnating. Working-class wages have been flat for decades, but the “gig economy” is booming. This week, we study the nature of work in the United States, examining the future of automation, the changing role of labor unions, the identity politics of the working classes and the disappearing line in work-life balance. We look across generations and social classes, seeking to find who we are in a culture that ties identity to the jobs we hold, and reclaiming and honoring the dignity of work. We are so grateful to our friends at Grant Thornton, and to Chautauqua trustee Jim Brady, who serves as Grant Thornton’s COO, for their sponsorship of this week.

One of the newest advances at Chautauqua has come straight out of this week. As I was seeking the counsel of our NOW Gen group, those Chautauquans 40 and under, one of the things they told me is that many of them are able to work remotely. Many of their employers see the benefit of workplace flexibility, understanding that not all employees need to be in the same physical space to be effective. From that advice, we were so excited to inaugurate the Dr. Robert H. Hesse Welcome and Business Center in our Main Gate complex. Video conferencing rooms and co-working spaces bring this week’s topic to reality in service to those who might come to Chautauqua but cannot completely unplug from work. I hope you’ll visit it and that the concepts presented in this new space, which honors the 14th president of Chautauqua, spur your own ideas for conversation this week.

In our companion Interfaith Lecture Series, we explore the closely knit topic of “A Spirituality of Work.” Judaism and Christianity, as well as other faith traditions, espouse various perspectives regarding the nature of work. What are the practices and disciplines within religions which foster an understanding of work as inherently spiritual? Does the American spirit of rugged individualism help or hurt in understanding our relationship to work? Why do Americans seem to overly identify with their jobs? Why does “What do you do?” almost immediately follow asking someone their name? This is particularly poignant for me as someone who spends part of his year in Washington, D.C., where “What do you do?” actually comes before asking your name. Why do people (and especially men) often experience a spiritual crisis upon retirement and the ending of “work” as a focus of their lives? Does economic inequality or wealth associated with work impact us spiritually? This week will strive to help us uncover the spiritual nature of our working lives.

Many have commented this season that our themes seem to be extremely timely. I think this week is no exception, and I’m looking forward to the dialogue that comes from the varied perspectives presented this week.

There are a few other items I hope to lift up for you. One of the highlights of my inaugural year last year was our first performance by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra of the “Harry Potter” score, with the film showing on a giant screen above the stage. For those who did not get to see that, I’d advise arriving early for part two Saturday night. It may have been the most packed event we had last year and is fun for the whole family. It’s also a real joy to watch young people discover that the music in “Harry Potter” actually comes from this thing called “an orchestra.”

Just this week, we announced the appointment of a new artistic director for the Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution (VACI). Don Kimes has faithfully built and served this program for more than 30 years. We get a chance to publicly honor Don this week, which only seems fitting as we announce that Sharon Louden will serve as the new artistic director and will also hold the title of Sydelle Sonkin and Herb Siegel Chair for the Visual Arts. It was so special to honor Sydelle and Herb at an event last weekend for providing the first endowed chair for any of the leaders of our major arts programs. If you see them, please give them your thanks.

An exciting week awaits us at Chautauqua — whether you’re continuing your journey or this is your first time with us on the grounds this season. Thank you for serving as the animating force that makes all that we do possible.

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Michael E. Hill

The author Michael E. Hill