Rob Klein and Jared Hochberg Credit: Courtesy ArtNight Chicago

Salon is the word that popped to mind when I first heard about ArtNight Chicago. It used to be a thing. Not the place we go for a haircut (in spite of COVID-19, that’s still a thing), but those wine-fueled conversational forums that got their start in the 17th century and were still going strong in the 19th. Wiki defines them as gatherings, usually in the home of an “inspiring host,” where guests amuse each other and “increase their knowledge,” just by talking. The last one I attended in Chicago was in the 1990s, when, I think, they were eclipsed by book clubs.  

The next thing I thought was “talent show,” but that wasn’t right either. As founder Jared Hochberg was quick to tell me, no one needs any special talent to participate.

ArtNight, it turns out, is more like a show-and-tell with social hour, or a very friendly open mike. For one thing, it’s sober as a church picnic. There’s no alcohol (or, at least, there wasn’t before the pandemic turned it into a Zoom event). Also, no sense of competition. Just an earnest, nonjudgmental forum where—though the major demographic is 20-something—everyone’s welcome to share whatever they love to do, and to learn about the passionate pursuits of others. That might be art, but it could be anything.    

Hochberg launched ArtNight in 2016, his senior year at the Oberlin Conservatory. The son of former Old Town School of Folk Music teacher and administrator Wayne Hochberg, he’d been lucky enough to grow up in a home where “the assumption was that music is for everyone, that anyone can play—just give them a maraca—anyone can join in and sing.” He was disappointed, he says, to find that “a lot of really wonderful musicians” who were at Oberlin but not in the conservatory were too intimidated to make music there at all: “It seemed like the need to impress, the need to be great, was a hindrance to just doing it for your own reasons, out of a sense of joy.”    

“It started in my dorm room and was all music at first,” Hochberg recalls: “There’d be a hip-hop group, followed by a string quartet.” Then, gradually, he says, there were other things—a math presentation, a sign language demonstration—and it morphed into a place to share whatever people were passionate about. 

“It was really special,” he says, “on a Friday night, to deeply engage in a science presentation, after a band played.”

In 2017 Hochberg came back to Chicago and began putting ArtNights together here, with longtime friend, cofounder, and fellow musician Rob Klein. They’ve been holding two events each month: a brisk midmonth showcase, where as many as 15 “sharers” get five minutes of presentation time each; and First Fridays, with six presenters taking 15-minute slots. Both events open with an icebreaking activity; First Fridays also include small group discussions.

Before the shutdown, ArtNights were held in the apartments of a rotating group of hosts, and included postprogram hangout time and potluck food. They’re still, in theory, alcohol-free, which Hochberg says helps differentiate an ArtNight from a party. “We want to support people in feeling comfortable and confident,” Hochberg says. “Our aim is to foster an environment that’s open and accepting, so that people don’t need to drink.” ArtNight’s not anti-alcohol, he adds, it’s just “a couple nights of the month where you don’t have a glass of wine.”    

Since April, it’s been happening online. At the First Friday event I attended in July, the icebreaker had everyone introducing a favorite book, and the discussion probed the American dream. Presentations included a demonstration on how to make your own rainwater garden, a two-person performance of an original radio drama about Elijah McClain‘s fatal encounter with Aurora, Colorado, police, and a self-taught guitar player/vocalist’s version of “It Ain’t Me.” At the midmonth meeting in June, the five-minute gigs ranged from financial advice on investing to a short story excerpt read by its author and a Scottish folk song performed by Hochberg himself.  

Until now, ArtNight’s been a word-of-mouth phenomenon, attracting friends of friends and their friends. The COVID-enforced shift to online events has freed it of space and geographic limitations and could actually broaden its reach, Hochberg says. With that in mind, starting with the next midmonth event, they’ll be contacting organizations in all of Chicago’s 77 official communities (alphabetically, three at a time), looking for folks of any age willing to hop onto Zoom and share their passion in five-minute slots, or simply to attend and make some new friends. But first, there’s the next First Friday, August 7. It’s free, and there’s an equal-opportunity chance to be a presenter, Hochberg says. “Anyone can sign up to share; all that matters is do what you love. We’re here to support that.”  v

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