Chautauqua Corporation meeting evaluates successes, failures of 2014 season

Kreable Young | Staff Photographer
Tim Renjilian, vice chair of the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees, presides over the Chautauqua Corporation Annual Meeting in the Hall of Christ Saturday.

While the bulk of the content at the Chautauqua Corporation annual meeting centered around the president’s report, the first item of business was presenting Hugh Butler as the Chautauqua Property Owners Association’s nominee for the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees.

At the presentation and the meeting Saturday morning at the Hall of Christ, Butler, outgoing president of the CPOA, was approved unanimously with a voice vote.

“We’ve enjoyed having Hugh as an observer at our meetings for the last few years, and we look forward even more to having you now actively involved,” said Tim Renjilian, trustee and and vice chairman of the board.

Sebastian Baggiano, Institution vice president, treasurer and chief operating officer, then presented the board’s financial statement. In terms of the Institution’s total revenue profile, he said, philanthropic revenue increased as a percentage of total revenue this year by .5 percent. Earned revenue, on the other hand, is down by 2 percent this year from its normal 80 percent. The biggest source of earned revenue comes from gate tickets sales, which were relatively flat this year, Baggiano said. He also reported that there was a revenue gain of $252,000 from the Athenaeum Hotel, which was a result of increasing occupancy and decreasing expenses.

Baggiano then turned the floor over for a report from President Tom Becker. Becker took the opportunity to look back on what he described as “a challenging and remarkably satisfying year” for Chautauqua. He first addressed the 2014 season’s programming: where it fell short, and where it exceeded expectations.

“We had weeks like Week Four, which dropped like a stone, and then there were weeks like Week Seven, which jumped over the moon,” Becker said.

While Becker said he had few regrets this summer from a programming perspective, he admitted he might have modified Week Four if he had the chance to do it over again. He explained that, when administration originally met with Colonial Williamsburg — the partner for Week Four’s theme of “Emerging Citizenship: The Egyptian Experience” — a study of Egypt seemed like a sensible, intriguing topic. Since programming is determined so far in advance, he said, by the time the actual season rolled around, various factors beyond Chautauqua’s control — such as political and military fluctuations in foreign affairs — made the theme less popular. Regardless, he said Chautauqua decided to stick with its initially scheduled programming.

“I take responsibility for that; it was a bad call on my part,” Becker said. “Having said that, I think our work this summer has been very solid at every level.”

While Becker may have considered Week Four to be a low point in the 2014 season, he was also able to detail the many successes Chautauqua enjoyed this summer. Among them were the inter-arts collaboration Go West!, being named the number one small town to visit in America by Smithsonian, and a feature article about Chautauqua on the cover of The New York Times travel section.

Becker attributed much of this success to the competency of Chautauqua Institution’s staff, which he said has grown and changed this year. Due to retirements, creation of new positions and loss, Becker said the administration has seen a lot of restructuring. First and foremost, he lamented the recent death of Ryan Kiblin, former grounds, gardens and landscaping manager, a sentiment that was echoed by many community members in attendance.

“She was really growing up into her job,” Becker said. “She was so much more than just the creator of gardens.”

Other significant staff changes were Karen Williams’ appointment to the new position of customer experience manager, and Matt Ewalt’s promotion to associate director of education and youth services.

Becker said it is important to encourage a hard-working, competent staff, because they are one of the major keys to building sustainability and community within Chautauqua.