Alison Cuddy is CHF's new artistic director Credit: Ben Gonzales

Not counting cofounder Eileen Mackevich, who once did just about everything at Chicago Humanities Festival, current staff member Alison Cuddy will be the festival’s first full-time artistic director and first full-time Chicago resident to hold the job. Although Cuddy’s an insider, her promotion is evidence of a major change at the organization—the attempt to break out of its narrow calendar slot as a festival and to function as a year-round entity.

Her predecessors were imported public intellectuals with university ties, starting with former New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Weschler, who spent about five days a month here most of the year and was also serving as director of NYU’s New York Institute for the Humanities.

Weschler was followed by University of Illinois anthropologist Matti Bunzl, splitting his time between Chicago and Urbana-Champaign. When Bunzl left in 2014 (to head Austria’s Wien Museum), he was replaced by University of Indiana English professor and jazz trombonist Jonathan Elmer, who also heads IU’s Arts and Humanities Institute. According to a CHF announcement, Elmer stepped down in June to return full-time to the Bloomington campus.

There was a consistent pattern in those out-of-town hires: quirky, charismatic Renaissance man with academic chops and broad cultural connections. If he had a high profile and/or international presence, all the better.  

Cuddy breaks that pattern in several ways, beyond the obvious one of gender: unabashedly local and fully (though not only) plugged into the Chicago cultural scene, she’s a former broadcast journalist with the kind of self-effacing persona that lets the spotlight shine on whatever subject she’s pursuing.

CHF’s executive director Phillip Bahar attributes Cuddy’s selection to a strategic planning process two years ago, during which it was decided to position the organization less as a two-week festival and more as a year-round entity. Given that change, a part-time commuter as artistic director was no longer feasible:  CHF needed “a full-time person, truly committed to the culture of Chicago—someone grounded here and connected here,” Bahar said in a phone interview last week.

There’ll probably also be some cost savings. Bahar said “odds are high” that CHF will not be hiring anyone to fill Cuddy’s previous slot, as associate artistic director. (Welcome to the world of work in 2017.)

The major CHF event is still the annual fall festival (October 28 through November 12 this year), but a former spring children’s festival has been dropped in favor of a second adult festival. And there are sporadic one-off public events, like a half-day “Speech and Privilege” seminar coming up Saturday. Less-visible activities include a composition training program for teachers, and an annual three-week workshop on nonacademic employment for PhDs (funded by the Mellon Foundation).

CHF’s budget, which has hovered around the $3 million mark for at least the last decade, was $3.9 million in 2016, Bahar says. In an environment offering more competition for audiences than ever, CHF now produces about 140 programs annually (roughly 90 in the fall festival), and sells or gives away as many as 45,000 tickets. Ticket sales—never meant to be a major source of revenue—account for a mere 10 percent of income, while 80 percent comes from donations, mostly from individuals.

Cuddy joined CHF in 2014 as program director, after a decade as a producer, talk-show host, and culture reporter at Chicago’s public radio station, WBEZ. That’s the same background Mackevich had when she and Richard J. Franke (then head of the John Nuveen Company) launched the festival in 1990, as a one-day event under the auspices of the Illinois Humanities Council.

So for Cuddy, who told me she’s thinking about ways to get more coherence in CHF’s scattered programming (perhaps by extending the fall-festival theme), there’s a personal coherence to this history. In her first job at the radio station, producing its “Odyssey” program (which she calls a radio version of a humanities festival), Cuddy worked with CHF speakers on a project that ended with a panel discussion that included Mackevich. “From the beginning at ‘BEZ, I had a connection with CHF,” she says. “It’s literally come full circle.”