January 20, 2015
Dear Fellow Chautauquans,
Our Amphitheater is at the historic and physical heart of Chautauqua. More than that, it is, as The Buffalo News recently stated, “the spiritual center of the Institution.” We are all stewards of both Chautauqua Institution and the Amp, and it is in that spirit that I write to you today.
After a period of reflection and following a detailed review of the project to date, I have recommended to the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees that we defer any decisions on proceeding with the Amphitheater project until the Board’s August meeting.
During this most recent review, I focused on the change in the nature of the project from one of rehabilitation to one of reconstruction, and most importantly, the public and private communications going back and forth between the Institution and various members of the Chautauqua community. I am convinced that we have to this point acted with integrity and in a manner consistent with the mission and values of Chautauqua. However, I am equally convinced that as part of the ongoing project, we should take another look at the project’s design and cost, and re-engage our various constituencies — especially those who are so passionate in their views about the Amp and its future — in a meaningful discourse before we move forward. This deferment, too, is consistent with our Chautauqua values and mission.
To put it simply: the Amp project is too important to our core mission not to get it right. Between now and the August Board meeting, I intend to take the following actions:
- Continue to assess and communicate historic preservation matters. Recently I had a very constructive and helpful discussion with a representative of the U.S. Department of the Interior regarding its historic preservation standards; she has accepted my invitation to visit the grounds and perhaps offer additional or new ideas that may inform our direction. As many of you know, we are already consulting with our design team to incorporate possible means of additional preservation opportunities. Any such opportunities, of course, must meet the Amp’s safety, engineering, sustainability, and long-term programmatic requirements. They must also unapologetically fulfill our commitment to accessibility, all within reasonable cost and time parameters.
- Re-engage the Chautauqua community in a meaningful discourse about the Amp project. Some of the communications we have received have been thoughtful, informed, and helpful. Others have reflected more emotional responses to perceptions about the decision-making process; while still others belie the writers’ opinions about the Chautauqua community and its leadership. As President, it will be important that over time, I engage with community members who occupy each of those spaces. It is clear to me that there has been much communicating at each other but not enough discussion with each other.
I am committed to changing the current dialogue from an atmosphere that occasionally includes finger-pointing and emotional pronouncements to one where we can have authentic, fact-based exchanges with all community members who are sincerely interested in the development of the Amp. Let us remind ourselves of the actual objectives of the project (including the Amp’s sustainability for at least the next 100 years); understand the relationship between the Amp’s site and issues of functionality, safety, accessibility and design; recognize the historical narrative as well as the technical requirements concerning historic preservation; comprehend the costs and funding requirements; and, most importantly, appreciate the community impact that any Amp development will most certainly make, both short- and long-term. We should, true to Chautauqua’s principles, have a lively, civil dialogue about all of these issues. In the same vein, those discussions should result in problem-solving, better understanding, and excellent decision-making — even when we can’t agree upon every decision made.
- Utilize outside advisors and experts who can add value to our discussions and review. We have already engaged historic preservation experts, and as previously noted, we plan to work with our government’s top experts in historic preservation matters. We have also engaged a consulting firm from New York City — one that has expertise in communications, education and arts management, as well as important community construction and restoration endeavors — to help us with community re-engagement and ensure that our communications are clear, authentic and factual. I’ve asked these advisors to lay out more specifically for us the process — both before and during the upcoming summer season — to bring all who wish inside this project to explore the challenges, listen, share and engage in ways that support clarity and informed decision-making.
In recommending that the Board defer any decisions on the Amp, I am reaffirming my commitment to achieve the best possible result. And while taking these actions will result in further delays, I am convinced that it will lead us all to a decision that is right for the Institution’s history; respects our present programming and environment; and anticipates a sustainable future for both the Amp and Chautauqua Institution. I hope you will agree that this is the right path forward.
Thomas M. Becker