Monday, September 1, 2014

Chautauqua: Change and a Great American Place

It’s been three weeks since my vacation at Chautauqua Institution. But, with Labor Day concluding the summer for most people—and with this upstate New York community ending its own nine-week season with the traditional “three taps of the gavel” eight days ago—now seemed to be an appropriate point to take stock of the past season, and to look forward.

In any case, longtime readers of this blog know from past posts—photos, quotes, my own reflections—that I’m never really done with this venerable place, because my experiences here carry forward throughout the year, and even longer.

Over the last 20 years, I made the long trip from my northern New Jersey home to this Victorian village in southwest New York at least six, maybe 10 times. For all the ways that this most American of places remains preserved, those experiences have varied for me. This year, I had to adjust to circumstances even more varied than before. So, in its way, did Chautauqua.

Let’s start with weather. This was the longest stretch of cool summer weather that I could remember. The owner of the bed and breakfast where I stayed told me she hadn’t had to turn on the air conditioning all summer. I thought that this was some kind of eccentric and counterproductive attempt at conservation of energy until I experienced the next week. Humidity was nowhere to be found, and if the temperature climbed into the 80s on any day, it didn’t stay there long.

I had had experiences other years when the combination of high temperatures, high humidity and high floors in Chautauqua inns had left me so uncomfortable as an asthmatic that I resolved never to book a room where ceiling fans rather than air-conditioning units cooled the rooms. What I experienced earlier this month, then, was nothing less than a meteorological fluke.

That was not the only out-of-left field experience for me, as it turned out.

The dominant event of the summer was the weeklong appearance at the Amphitheater by Ken Burns. As I wrote in a prior post, the lines to see him at the morning lectures were lengthy, as he was accorded a reception befitting a rock star.

Even before Burns stepped on the grounds this year, though, he had made his presence felt. When I tried, late this winter, to book a room on the grounds the week he was there, I was told by one house after another that they had sold out as early as the prior summer, when the 2014 schedule was announced. I had not experienced anything like this before in all the years I had gone to Chautauqua. 

In other words, Chautauquans experienced another fluke.

All of this meant that I was thrust considerably out of my comfort zone this year. After e-mailing just about every accommodation on the grounds, I had to take a place offsite.

Of all the offsite rooms I could have gotten, I couldn’t have been more pleased with this one: only a mile away, in a beautifully decorated bed-and-breakfast, with a gracious hostess who prepared mouth-watering morning delicacies (sausage scramble, beef and green onion quiche, cinnamon apple oven pancakes). She even offered rides to and from the grounds so that guests would avoid walking or biking on Route 394, where they could fall prey to rural speeders!

I would not have had a problem getting a place on the grounds had I come the week before. A friend who had been staying on the grounds then told me that about half the seats in the Amphitheater had been vacant for some morning lectures and evening entertainment, indicating a number of vacancies in the accommodations.

You can say that this is one result of Chautauqua’s programming, which focuses on a different theme for each of the nine weeks. The week preceding the Burns visit, the morning lecturers focused on “Brazil: Rising Superpower.” It might have been more appropriate if the season brochures had included a question mark at the end of that phrase. The topic might have seemed relevant a year ago, but, as so many learned with this summer’s Olympics, this “rising superpower” had shortchanged its own citizens on housing in an attempt to buff up the facilities related to the athletic event.

Leave aside the unfortunate scheduling timing, if you can. This kind of topic might strike some as the intellectual equivalent of “Eat your spinach—it’s good for you!” Chautauqua’s programmers might be under two misimpressions: 1) the seriousness of a theme equates to its value, and 2) its regular visitors—highly educated and informed about current events—will patronize the events, no matter how portentous (or even pretentious) the theme might be.

The latter assumption is deadly to the future of the institution. As a doctor friend (and frequent Chautauqua visitor) told me: “I’m sorry, but when I’m on vacation, I’m looking for escape. I’m not looking to be depressed all over again!”

Not everyone will feel as my friend does, but enough already do to affect the place already. At the bed-and-breakfast where I stayed, the owner had no reservations at all during the Brazil-themed week, and visitors during that time told me there were even a number of empty seats at the morning lectures and evening concerts in the Amphitheater.

Over the past several years, Chautauqua had pointed to the recession as a source of whatever difficulties it experienced in attracting and retaining visitors. Now, according to an article in early August in the Chautauquan Daily, marketing staffers are acknowledging that long-term demographics play a role as well. 

Over the years, visitors have transitioned from staying for the summer to coming for only a week or so. But that makes Chautauqua only more dependent on the appeal of its weekly programming.

Certainly, Chautauqua's problem with attracting speakers has only worsened with time. Bill and Hillary Clinton, along with former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, for instance, command $200,000 a speech. A nine-week schedule of such speakers would put the institution quickly on the brink of insolvency.

At the same time, the institution often runs into a rut of repetition. Roger Rosenblatt, for instance, seems to appear early in the season every other year. The Middle East and health-care issues also show up as topics frequently. Sameness is as good a strategy for discouraging repeat visits as lack of money.

There are signs of growing impatience with the stagnating attendance. This year, Chautauqua received two high-profile media notices: a number-one ranking on Smithsonian’s “Best American Small Towns” and a very long, favorable profile in the Travel section of The New York Times.

But pointed questions were asked in the Chautauquan Daily piece about why more wasn’t done to spread awareness of them. The Times article alone, a questioner pointedly noted, amounted to “$1.5 million in free advertising right there.” The response from the marketing manager—that the article was mentioned in an e-newsletter sent to more than 40,000 Chautauquans—is inadequate: Why not disseminate it wider? My fear is that whatever gains came from those publicity coups will prove to be ephemeral.

Chautauqua’s reaction to the Times article is, in some ways, symptomatic of its ways of dealing with other, more long-term matters: the institution’s moves are belated, and meager at that. Many American metro areas are already more than 50% non-Hispanic white, but you would not be able to tell from Chautauqua.

In 20 West: The Great Road Across America (2008), Mac Nelson noted that Chautauqua “is not quite lily-white; African-American visitors are few, but I occasionally see some.” That’s damning with faint praise. At several points during my latest trip, I observed far more members of minority groups among the many outstanding arts-and-entertainment students there than among the older audience members. It is an especially dismaying demographic disparity for a community that tends considerably toward the liberal end of the political spectrum.

To an overwhelming extent, the racial imbalance reflects how racial divisions reflect class ones. It was heartening to read in the Chautauquan Daily that the institution is now offering “family scholarships” of up to a week for select first-time visitors, prioritized toward applicants with lower incomes. But, considering how persistent the racial, ethnic and class imbalance remains (Nelson’s observation is as valid now as when first made a half-dozen years ago), it is surprising that the institution did not mount as determined and all-encompassing an attempt to cope with this demographic change as it did the digital one several years ago.

I worry about other aspects of how the institution is preparing for change. A generation of Chautauquans is dying away. Will Chautauqua be able to compensate for their loss with baby boomers coming into more leisure time as they move toward retirement—or will mounting concerns about their financial future lead them to take vacations elsewhere, or simply opt for "staycations"? Perhaps even more worrisome, will a younger generation, growing up with instant electronic gratification, even be interested in the kind of intellectual, reflective way of life pursued by so many Chautauquans?

The questions are not idle ones. During the late Twenties and early Thirties, a combination of forces—the Great Depression and the nation’s mad pursuit of a relatively new entertainment form, the movies—decimated the Chautauquan movement across the U.S., and even briefly threatened the life of this town where it all started. It would be tragic if a contemporary economic malaise and technological revolution caused similar problems today.

Nobody who knows how often I have visited Chautauqua—or how often I have written about my experiences there (see this post, from six years ago, as one example)—can doubt how much this special place has meant to me. If I have criticized it here, it is because I not only would like to ensure that it will surface, but that even more people will come to appreciate it in the years ahead.

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