Financials focus of Institution Leadership Forum; community airs concerns

Chautauquans gather for a leadership forum with Chautauqua Institution executives on Aug. 23, 2023, in the Hall of Philosophy. HG Biggs/Staff Photographer

Kaitlyn Finchler
Staff writer

The second and last Institution Leadership Forum of the season covered financials, fundraising initiatives and commemorated the one-year mark of the attack on Salman Rushdie and Henry Reese, before shifting to an open comment period for Chautauquans.

The meeting opened as votes were being tabulated in the Class B trustee election. Sebby Baggiano, executive vice president and chief financial officer, reported the audited financial statements.

BDO, a national accounting firm, was selected to conduct audits for 2020, 2022 and 2024. It succeeds a regional Western New York firm who had done the audit for years prior. 

“They say the 2022 consolidated financial statements present fairly in all material respects of the financial position of the Institution as of Dec. 31, 2022,” Baggiano said. “All changes in the assets and its cash flows for the year ended in accordance with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America.”

The one change, he said, is the audited financials impacting 2022 adopted a required accounting standard effective last year.

However, the Institution was “dissatisfied” with the $4.5 million loss of operations revenue before depreciation, Baggiano said. The audit report includes revenue related to capital from an operating budget standpoint.

“The gate pass, ticket sales and attendance … did not return to pre-pandemic levels in 2022,” Baggiano said. 

A shortfall of $2 million in earned revenue was a result of decreased attendance, he said. The operating budget results also show spending for The Jefferson Project at $2.3 million — that will eventually be paid for through philanthropy — included in the $4.5 million loss.

“The other big component is the hotel operations which is consolidated in these reports with the Institution and in the $4.5 million loss,” Baggiano said. “Lodging occupancy was down, and food and beverage traffic was down.”

This, he said, is mainly due to the “lingering effects” of the pandemic. The offset to the 2022 operating losses were covered by additional COVID-19 relief programs.

Candace Maxwell, chair of the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees, continued the meeting with remarks of coming together for the one-year anniversary of the attack on Rushdie.

“Let me start off by saying that I am grateful today that we are gathered as a community,” she said. “Especially when we reflect on what was happening here on the grounds just one year ago.”

She said she was grateful not only for all of the staff but also community members who charged the stage to help Aug. 12, 2022, in the Amphitheater.

“On the evening of Aug. 12 last year, they helped us all to reclaim all that is the soul of this place,” Maxwell said. “Again, I am grateful. It could have gone another way. We could have turned against each other in fear and anger and frustration.”

The staff, she said, are the “ones who wake up every day asking themselves how they can make Chautauqua Institution the best” it can be.

Then, Maxwell said she “has to address” the disrespectful and “extremely hurtful” behavior toward Institution staff she said is occurring this summer.

“Folks, if you think that this is the random one-week occasional visit who are doing these things, I’m afraid you’re wrong,” she said. “Most of these patrons involved in these incidents are known to the staff, and many of them are known to you.”

Maxwell said these occurrences don’t reflect the values on which Chautauqua was founded, and are further egged on by online newsletters that claim to publish “in the name of satire.”

“As I said at the last Leadership Forum, it’s ultimately up to each of us to live into all that is our Chautauqua community,” she said. “Beyond that, what is mine to do today is to listen and to illuminate where I can and to demonstrate commitment to dialogue leading to deeper understanding.”

Continuing the one-year anniversary dialogue, Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill, reflected on what it means to come together as a community, and  said the staff acknowledges the community’s calls for more opportunities to be in dialogue with staff are heard.

“We understand you want (a) greater line of sight into our decision-making process and timelines,” Hill said. “We hear those calls and we’re going to look for additional ways to communicate beyond the summer assembly.”

Hill also said there’s a goal to leverage a campaign to raise funds for “an expression of opera” in the Amphitheater in 2024.

“(There’s) a companion goal to develop designated endowment funds to make that possible in perpetuity,” he said. “We’ve received an encouraging response to this call for support. We look forward to doing what we can to continue to bring that forth in the coming weeks.”

In the area of programming and philanthropy, Hill said the Institution is ahead in the Chautauqua Fund, compared to last year, by $758,000. Overall, donations are at $9 million more this year than at this time in 2022.

“This kind of success so early in our fundraising cycle tells us that Chautauqua can and will emerge from the pandemic,” Hill said. “We’ll be able to navigate the unchartered waters ahead because of you and your generosity.”

The forum then turned to open session, where community members could ask questions and address concerns freely. One Chautauquan asked about staff retention at the Institution, and if there was funding for human capital in technology roadmap the Institution is using, called Project 360.

“We’ve started with competitive wages and compensation, as well as the overall employee experience that we’re focusing on,” Baggiano said. “One of the things that can help with the patron experience from a seasonal standpoint, is for us to get our seasonal employees to return to Chautauqua. They need to want to return to Chautauqua.”

Next, a concern was raised about when or if Norton Hall would reopen. As it’s a union hall, the Institution has to work with IATSE on a plan for the future.

“Our main idea right now is that we could look at a larger second event for very popular speakers in Norton Hall,” said Deborah Sunya Moore, senior vice president and chief program officer. “To be completely honest, we don’t have all of those plans set in stone yet, because it’s so expensive to open. It costs about $200,000 just to open the hall.”

Phil Lerman reiterated the need to treat employees with kindness — but also said it needs to stretch across the community.

“A couple of years ago, we had a fight over what those who in good faith believed was an effort to save the Amp,” Lerman said. “Engaging with them, I know they believe that the (Institution) failed. Yet, the Amp seems to have survived and thrived, and some like it better than others.”

Lerman said Chautauquans aren’t listening when the Institution says it has a plan for the arts.

“This is not a moment that we are in dire straits and have to rally to save the arts because they are in danger, because they’re not,” he said. “We can disagree over how to do it and how to save them.”

Michael Forst wanted to publicly share the results of an informal survey he recently conducted, going to door to door asking Chautauquans if Hill should resign. Of 106 people, 33 said yes, 40 said no and 33 were undecided. Other community members speaking after Forst noted that solicitation was prohibited by the Institution’s rules and regulations, and that the survey wasn’t valid. Maxwell thanked Forst for sharing his information, and said the trustees support Hill and Institution staff, and “nothing has changed” in this regard.

Michelle Shader raised concerns about the two options for gate passes, saying that the Grounds Access Pass “inadvertently permits individuals to ‘opt out’ of supporting what truly defines this institution” — education or the arts — which she said over time has the potential to “erode the very essence and worth of Chautauqua.” The response was it would be taken under advisement and is heard.

Next, Connie Winters asked when or if Advocates for Balance at Chautauqua — a separate 501(c3) organization that hosts its own, more conservative speakers — would be recognized by the Institution, as she felt they have an agenda she doesn’t agree with. 

“We do have a commitment to diversify our lecture platform. … What I don’t agree with is that the way to get to that greater balance is to turn those responsibilities over to another party,” Hill said, and encouraged the community to use an updated program suggestion portal.

Another woman raised the concern of bike traffic going too fast, and asking what can be done to enforce the speed limit for both bicycles and cars.

“We share the concern, we’re taking a two-pronged approach,” said Shannon Rozner, senior vice president of community relations and general counsel. “We are working with an in-person whose expertise and degree is in community planning.”

The other approach is as a community, Rozner said people need to decide how to live together in a shared space.

Next, Robin Radin said the “effective cancellation” of opera calls into question if Institution leadership is capable and trustworthy in their commitment to the arts.

“Between 2019 and 2022, we’ve increased our fundraising by 13%,” Hill said. “Over those three years, about $1.3 million more have gone in.”

It comes down to economics, Hill said. When looking at balance, the only place to solve the “financial puzzle” is the arts.


The author Kaitlyn Finchler

Kaitlyn Finchler is a journalism and public relations graduate from Kent State University as of May. This will be her second summer at Chautauqua where she will cover literary arts, serving previously as the Interfaith Lecture Series preview reporter. In her free time, you can find her reading, cooking or flipping between “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Gossip Girl.” She’s most excited to see how many times she can slip the word “plethora” into her stories before Sara makes her stop again.