Making the Humanities Hum

In the late 80s Richard Franke’s experience as a board member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera convinced him that audiences for the arts were getting older and that younger people weren’t replacing them quickly enough. A humanities festival, he reasoned, would appeal to both young and old; it could involve a variety of the city’s cultural institutions and spark a more widespread interest in the arts. Working with the Illinois Humanities Council, Franke and executive producer Eileen Mackevich founded the Chicago Humanities Festival.

As this fall’s diverse lineup demonstrates, Franke and Mackevich have tried to provide intellectual discourse in a down-to-earth forum where learned and lay people can explore ideas as equals. Topics include “I Lost My Job! Who Am I?,” “Sex, Pleasure, & Play,” and “Gossip: News in Seductive Disguise.” Roger G. Kennedy, director emeritus of the Smithsonian Museum, will present an opening address on “The Pursuit of Happiness,” and Garry Wills will deliver the keynote speech, “Chaplin: The Absurdity of Work.” Over the years speakers ranging from composers Stephen Sondheim and Stevie Wonder to playwright Arthur Miller have brought a touch of showbiz excitement to what might otherwise be a more cerebral affair.

If the festival’s growth is any indication, Franke and Mackevich are onto something. Originally a modest one-day event, the festival has ballooned into a four-day smorgasbord of more than 90 programs. It was originally budgeted at $100,000, but this year’s event, which runs November 6 through 9, has a budget approaching $1 million, and its volunteer staff numbers nearly 200 during the festival. Attendance is projected at 30,000, up from approximately 25,000 last year.

Mackevich, aided by a full-time staff of three, has proved adept at organization and production, while Franke, a seasoned businessman, knows how to handle finance and measured growth. Though now retired from corporate life, Franke was chairman and CEO of the John Nuveen Company and also chaired the humanities council’s board of directors, while Mackevich was a council staffer.

Franke and Mackevich didn’t want ticket cost to be a deterrent to festival attendance, but they did want everyone who attended to make the effort to buy a ticket, so they set the price at $3. “We wanted people to get comfortable with the idea of purchasing a ticket and making a commitment,” explains Mackevich. They also recognized from the start that the humanities do in fact embrace the arts and included a strong arts component. This year festivalgoers may attend a concert performance of The Pajama Game with composer Richard Adler or listen to filmmaker Michael Moore discuss the loss of respect between labor and management resulting from wave after wave of downsizing.

In the festival’s early days only a handful of local cultural and academic institutions agreed to help produce the event, but today the number has grown to more than 20, including Facets Multimedia, the Chicago Children’s Museum, the Newberry Library, the CSO, the Lyric, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Art Institute, Northwestern University, and DePaul University. Representatives from these organizations meet five or six times a year to lay out programming, but previous attendees are also encouraged to submit suggestions.

Once a rough list of programs and participants has been drawn up, Mackevich and other organizers recruit well-known personages such as Sondheim, Edward Albee, or Peter O’Toole (a guest this year), usually offering no more than food, lodging, and a free airline ticket. To her surprise, Mackevich has discovered big names who are only too happy to oblige. “Something about this sort of event seems to intrigue people, especially the British and the Irish,” she notes.

Inevitably, growth has brought change to the CHF. For the first time, the festival is a freestanding operation, with its own staff, funding, and board of directors, separate from the Illinois Humanities Council. Notes Franke, the board’s chairman: “It was time to break away from the council, because we were getting to be bigger than the combined programs of the council itself.” The change will allow the festival more freedom in planning and execution, but it will also put the full responsibility of sustaining the festival squarely on the shoulders of the CHF staff and newly formed board of directors.

Now that the festival is an established event, the organizers are starting to formulate long-term plans. It already has its own Web site and logo. Mackevich would like to strengthen ties with the Chicago public school system, which this year is a sponsor for the first time. During the summer organizers held workshops for teachers to familiarize them with the upcoming festival and pique their interest in bringing children to the programs.

Board member Lewis Manilow would like to see the CHF hold a couple of smaller-scale festivals during the year to maintain visibility and further broaden the organization’s reach, but he thinks any future growth will be relatively moderate compared to what has happened thus far: “Overall I think we are about the right size.” Perhaps the most impressive indicator of the festival’s popularity occurred last November, when a crowd packed Orchestra Hall at 10 AM on a Sunday morning to hear Albee’s keynote speech. Mackevich marvels, “Who ever dreamed so many people would come out at that hour to hear a speech?”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Eileen Mackevich photo by Jon Randolph.