Anna Villanyi Credit: Anna Villanyi

In the last week or so, on the cusp of the city’s partial reopening, there was a cluster of cancellations from its largest venues and events. The 2020 season is over, at least as far as live, in-house performance goes at Lyric Opera, Joffrey Ballet, Ravinia, and the Grant Park Music Festival.  Pull up the covers and go back to sleep; maybe we’ll see you next year.

Or maybe we won’t. If we don’t have an effective vaccine by then, crowds at the big legacy cultural venues will be thinner than the Trump turnout in Tulsa. Too sparse for sustainable operation.

And those that survive are likely to be changed. Under the triple onslaught of pandemic, economic disaster, and civic unrest, our elitist, donor-dependent cultural sector is showing stress, cracking at old fault lines that are economic and political as well as racial. Take, for example, recent turmoil at two bastions of Chicago’s cultural establishment: the walled Gold Coast fortress of the Poetry Foundation and the venerable Field Museum.      

Like nearly every other organization and corporation, the Poetry Foundation responded to the murder of George Floyd—or, rather, the protests over the murder of George Floyd—with a statement denouncing “injustice and systemic racism.” Its four-sentence message, issued June 3, said the Foundation and its magazine, Poetry, “recognize that there is much work to be done” and are committed to “engaging in this work,” while acknowledging that “real change takes time and dedication.”

Translation: this is going to be so hard for us, don’t expect it to happen anytime soon.  

But poets know how to parse a few lines. An open letter on June 6, signed by 27 Poetry Foundation fellows and three poets who work with the Foundation (including University of Chicago’s Eve Ewing) noted that, “Given the stakes, which equate to no less than genocide against Black people, the watery vagaries of this statement are, ultimately, a violence.”

They also observed that for years, “your constituents have been calling on the Foundation to redistribute more of its enormous resources to marginalized artists” and to make change in the “local community and beyond.” (Most recently, a separate April 4 petition, originally asking the Foundation to establish a $5 million fund to help poets, publishers, bookstores, and literary organizations struggling because of the coronavirus has attracted more than 2,600 signatures.) 

The poets listed demands including specific plans for supporting racial justice; “large contributions” to anti-racist organizations;  and “acknowledgment of the debt that the Foundation owes to Black poets” as well as recognition of “harm done” to poets who are Latinx, disabled, and LGBTQ. They called for a more diverse staff and for the replacement of president Henry Bienen and board chair Willard Bunn III.  Without these changes, they vowed to no longer allow themselves to be exploited by working with, or for, the Foundation, or being published in Poetry magazine. They gave the Foundation a week to respond and posted the letter, which was promptly cosigned by more than 1,800 other poets and readers.  

By June 10, both Bienen and Bunn had resigned. Bienen—a former Northwestern University president—exited blaming his staff, complaining in a resignation letter to the board (as reported by the Chicago Tribune), that, “I have lost respect for the staff. . . it was their work, not mine, that they found they could not stand up for.”

Which may be what inspired Red Rover reading series curators Jennifer Karmin and Laura Goldstein to take the poets’ demands a step further last week, calling for the eradication of this apparently superfluous job. The president’s salary and benefits—$436,000 in 2018 (the most recent record available)—they suggest could be better spent on free community programs. 

On June 12, the Foundation staff issued an apology “for our silence in the face of crisis,” an acknowledgment of their “privileged identities,” and a list of corrective actions underway. 

Meanwhile, at the Field Museum staff members reacted to the announcement last month of likely job and salary cuts by presenting management with a petition asking for a moratorium on layoffs, staff input on cost-cutting plans, and—if salary cuts became necessary—a graduated scale, so that higher earners would share an equitable amount of the pain.    

Museum education coordinator Anna Villanyi says that employees had suggested options that might reduce the need for layoffs, “but those were generally dismissed and, during an online staff meeting, our president noted specifically that taking graduated pay cuts at a steeper level for higher earners would be an empty gesture.” (A museum spokesperson says Lariviere meant that “the deficit that the museum was trying to overcome due to COVID was so large that reducing executive pay wouldn’t help.”)

“That was disheartening,” and a catalyst for bringing the staff together to try to be heard, Villanyi says. Nevertheless, on June 12, after benefiting from federal PPP money, and from more than $200,000 worth of vacation time that Field employees donated to avoid layoffs for their coworkers, Lariviere announced that 71 jobs were being eliminated, another 56 employees were being furloughed, and an across-the-board pay cut of 10 percent was going into effect immediately for anyone making more than $20 per hour. (Workers making between $16 and $20 per hour would be docked $1 an hour.)

According to the announcement, a previous pay cut for “top earners” had already been implemented. The announcement didn’t reveal the size of that cut, but it was also 10 percent, and only kicked in on earnings over $100,000. In 2018 Lariviere’s own total compensation was $796,000.

In theory, equity is one of the Field’s priorities, Villanyi says: “We’re trying to build to a more equitable future in access to the museum and in everything to do with our work.  And this looks like an example of something that is not happening equitably.”  v