Matti Bunzl Credit: L. Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

After five years of commuting by New York-based former artistic director Lawrence Weschler—a situation that stretched him thin and created a second-city vibe around the whole affair—the Chicago Humanities Festival has hired itself a local leader.

Sort of.

The 2010 festival, opening this weekend with a day of events in Hyde Park, marks the official end of Weschler’s tenure and the start for new artistic director Matti Bunzl. While Weschler moves up to emeritus status, meaning he’ll still be around as a consultant, Bunzl will divide his time between a Chicago condo and a home in what he calls the “far south suburb” of Champaign-Urbana. He’s a University of Illinois professor there, mostly of anthropology, but also of history, German literature, gender studies, and Jewish culture.

So Bunzl is arguably local, but definitely not provincial. Born 39 years ago in Vienna and raised there with summers spent in Israel, he’s the grandson of Holocaust survivors on both sides. His father, John Bunzl, is Austria’s leading expert on the Middle East; his mother is a physician. A dual citizen in Austria and the United States, he’s deeply ambivalent about his native country, which he says denied its complicity in the Holocaust into the very late 20th century.

As a very little kid, Bunzl says, one of the first differences he noticed between himself and his playmates was that they were surrounded by extended family, while his relatives were scattered across the globe. “I thought it was so cool that my family lived all over the world—England, the U.S., Israel, Spain, South America,” he says. “It didn’t occur to me then that there was a very specific reason: genocide.”

“I love Vienna,” he continues, but faced with anti-Semitism there as a teenager in the 1980s—his Jewish heritage, he says, was more of an issue than his homosexuality—he began thinking there must be a better place to live. And although his religious education was Orthodox (the only option in Vienna’s decimated postwar community) and he now heads the U. of I.’s Program in Jewish Culture and Society, he considers himself “theologically secular.”

A change in the status of both Jews and gays in Austria, as that country traded its “pure nation” identity for a berth in the European Union, became the subject of his first book, Symptoms of Modernity: Jews and Queers in Late-Twentieth Century Vienna (2004, University of California Press).

Bunzl came to the U.S. in 1990 as a Stanford undergrad, and to the University of Chicago in ’93 to pursue a PhD. Too much of an “academic geek” for California, he felt instantly at home in the midwest: “The University of Chicago is where I found myself,” he says. He met his partner, Billy Vaughn—now a high school teacher—in his first week on the U. of C. campus. A self-described “academic gadfly,” he’s published dozens of articles, mostly on subjects relating to Jews, gays, anthropology, and Central Europe—from “Franz Boas and the Humboldtian Tradition: From Volksgeist and Nationalcharakter to an Anthropological Concept of Culture” to “The Prague Experience: Gay Male Sex Tourism and the Neo-Colonial Invention of an Embodied Border.”

His second book, Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia: Hatreds Old and New in Europe (2007, Prickly Paradigm Press), is an extended essay taking issue with those who would equate these two phenomena. Bunzl argues that 19th- and 20th-century anti-Semitism, based on racial arguments, was a creature of the nation building of that period and has basically run its course. (Jews everywhere will be relieved to hear this.) Islamophobia, on the other hand, grounded in claims of cultural (rather than racial) incompatibility and fueled by Muslim immigration to Europe, is rampant in right-wing politics and presents a far more serious contemporary problem.

There’s room for argument—and half the book is devoted to it, with responses from a half-dozen other writers. But nothing that’s happened since that book was published has changed his mind, Bunzl says, adding that the instance of anti-Islamic sentiment that’s shocked him most has been the uproar over the Ground Zero mosque: “So not American!”

In 2008 he turned his attention to something totally different, embedding himself for six months at the Museum of Contemporary Art to research an ethnographic study of contemporary art.

He was at his Chicago condo just before Christmas last year when he got an e-mail “out of the blue” from the Chicago Humanities Festival asking if he’d be interested in talking with them about filling in temporarily for Weschler, who’d decided to take a sabbatical. (“My doctor asked me if I was going to take a break before or after my heart attack,” says Weschler, who also runs the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU.) They knew about him, Bunzl said, because he’d headed the U. of I.’s Program for Research in the Humanities from 2003 to 2007 and has been active on the Illinois Humanities Council.

He jumped at the offer. Heading up the CHF, the biggest project of its kind in the U.S. and maybe in the world, is a “dream job” he says, “an unbelievable platform from which to rethink what public humanities can mean today.” He joined CHF as associate artistic director in mid-January, a one-year appointment. This year’s theme, “The Body,” had been set, but none of the programming was in place, he says: “The entire festival had to be curated.” In July CHF chairman Willard Fraumann took him aside and asked if he wanted the artistic director job.

It’s always been a part-time gig. Weschler, who was paid about $125,000 a year, was considered a half-time outside contractor. Bunzl has directed CHF to donate his entire salary to the University of Illinois, “to compensate for any loss of my time there.” He’s taken this term off from teaching (though his other duties continue), but says between the two jobs he’s working 15-hour days, downstate at the beginning of the week, in Chicago at the week’s end.

Started in 1989 by Nuveen Investments chairman Richard Franke and run for 16 years by former president Eileen Mackevich, the Chicago Humanities Festival was originally a free, one-day program under the auspices of the Illinois Humanities Council. Now it has an operating budget of about $3 million, and the main event stretches over the first half of November, offering about 100 lectures, panels, and performances loosely gathered around a single theme. Tickets range from $5 to $28, but most events are free for students and teachers; last year’s attendance was 39,000. A children’s festival has been spun off into its own spring time slot, and there’s been an effort in the last couple years to consolidate programming and venues so that patrons aren’t trying to gallop across town to catch back-to-back presentations. (There’s one full day of programming at UIC this year, for example.) But both Bunzl and CHF executive director and playwright Stuart Flack say the biggest change came a year ago with a website upgrade that’s providing the two things CHF most sorely lacked: a permanent (albeit virtual) home and a year-round presence. Featuring a library of hundreds of free programs from previous festivals, most with accompanying teachers’ guides, it’s attracting more than 1,000 guide downloads a month and putting CHF programming into high schools around the world.

Bunzl is a more somber scholar than his predecessor, best known as the author of the whimsical Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, but he says he’s aiming for an “edgier” festival that’ll attract a broader audience, and the serendipity that’s kept CHF from sinking under the weight of academic gravity is still evident. “The Body” offers everything from lectures by basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, playwright Sam Shepard, and dancer Edward Villella to a live Savage Love podcast to “History of the Condom,” carefully researched by Bunzl’s U. of I. colleague Paula Treichler. (For more highlights, see Lit & Lectures.)