In his 1921 history of Chautauqua Institution, The Story of Chautauqua, Methodist clergyman and Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle leader Jesse Lyman Hurlbut wrote of the “Chautauqua Idea”: “education for everybody, everywhere, and in every department of knowledge, inspired by a Christian faith.”
A boon to women and the middle classes, Chautauqua made unprecedented strides in democratizing the classroom. In a time when higher education was restricted to elites, Chautauqua purveyed the liberal arts to the masses.
The Institution’s liberal arts education offerings came only after Chautauqua began charging at the gate, however.
Introduced as the “Assembly,” Chautauqua transitioned away from its Methodist camp meeting origins in 1874, and the gate pass “raised a storm of indignation all around the lake,” Hurlbut wrote.
“The thousands of visitors to the camp meeting who had squeezed out a dime, or even a penny, when the basket went around, bitterly complained outside the gates at a quarter for daily admission, half of what they had cheerfully handed over when the annual circus came to town,” he wrote.
The gate fee had not been necessary for the camp meeting, Hurlbut wrote, and the expenses of a camp meeting were “comparatively light.”
“The needed funds were raised by collections, which though nominally ‘voluntary’ were often obtained under high-pressure methods,” he wrote. “But the Assembly, with well-known lecturers, teachers of recognized ability, and the necessary nation-wide advertising to awaken interest in a new movement would of necessity be expensive.”
The balancing act between funding for robust educational and cultural offerings and the community’s demand for affordability has changed little in 140 years.
Today, an adult’s weekly gate pass can cost up to $436, which does not include the week’s $51 parking pass. Private one-bedroom, one-bathroom accommodations for a week on the grounds range from $380 to $4,000.
But the Institution is cognizant of affordability concerns and offers opportunities for lower-cost visits. George Murphy, vice president and chief marketing officer, cited the expansion of the upper age limit on the youth ticket, a 60 percent discount on the adult ticket. Before, teenagers aged 13 to 17 qualified for the cheaper ticket; now, those as old as 25 do.
Publicizing denominational houses as affordable accommodation has been a success, Murphy said. The rooms can cost half as much as other accommodations on the grounds.
The Institution also offers free passes to Chautauqua County educators and Chautauqua Lake Central School honor roll students, Murphy said. Anyone can come for free on Sundays, and for half-price to Community Appreciation Nights and the Family Entertainment Series.
“We’ve tried to create awareness, because I think a lot of people are like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s so prohibitive,’ ” Murphy said. “But there are certain things that I think we just need to communicate more aggressively.”
Another affordability initiative is the Family Scholarship Program, which is administered by the Chautauqua Foundation. Private donors subsidize families to visit the Institution for the first time, prioritizing those with lower incomes. To apply, each family submits an essay about why they want to visit Chautauqua, along with a schedule of planned activities and tax information. Those selected are given a flexible allowance for expenses including gate passes, accommodation and Special Studies classes.
Three young families visited the Institution on the Family Scholarship this summer, two during Week Two and one during Week Eight.
The Smithivas-Kinch family
Mark Smithivas and his wife Judi Kinch visited from Chicago during Week Two with their 10-year-old daughter Amanda and 6-year-old son Aurelio. Kinch works as a project manager at an environmental consulting firm, and her husband is a stay-at-home father.
“We tried to do a little bit of everything,” Smithivas said.
He took yoga and piano classes while Kinch took classes in pilates and knife skills. Amanda and Aurelio both attended Boys’ and Girls’ Club in addition to a ballet class and Group One, respectively.
“We were quite busy, and being first-timers, we tried to do as much as we could, and then we quickly found out that we were kind of overscheduled.”
Smithivas and Kinch also made it to the morning and afternoon lectures, Smithivas said, recalling Tavis Smiley’s afternoon lecture on poverty in the United States as “the best lecture I’ve ever heard. … We both sat there in the Hall of Philosophy and we were totally hanging on his every word.”
Amanda and Aurelio’s favorite part of Chautauqua was the freedom that they felt riding their bikes around the grounds, Smithivas said.
“They really loved having the freedom to just bike around wherever they wanted,” he said. “That’s the biggest takeaway, I think, for my family and my kids. Chautauqua has this really unprecedented freedom and safety that, back here in Chicago, we could never really do.”
The Long family
Heidi and George Long from Crawford County, Pennsylvania, also visited during Week Two with their sons Josh, 17, and Ben, 13, and daughter Anna, 12, as well as Heidi Long’s mother, a church organist who was thrilled to hear Jared Jacobsen play during their visit. Heidi Long is the front desk manager at Peek n’ Peak Resort in Clymer, and George Long raises grass-fed cows.
“We had always been intrigued by Chautauqua, but we had never had the opportunity to actually, you know, stay,” Heidi Long said. “It was a great place to spend the Fourth of July. It’s just such a unique spot on this big globe to be able to be to celebrate Independence Day.”
As a farmer, George Long found Week Two’s theme, “Feeding a Hungry Planet,” particularly relevant. In addition to the morning and afternoon lectures, he attended two of the master classes offered by National Geographic’s Dennis Dimick and Jim Richardson with his wife, who said they were “really fascinating.”
Josh took a class in 3D animation and participated in CHQ UP, where he discussed the week’s theme with other teenagers.
“He really enjoyed that,” Heidi Long said.
Josh has Asperger’s syndrome, which gives him a “unique perspective” on the world; for that reason, Heidi Long encourages him to share his ideas, especially in settings like Chautauqua. “He’s very black-and-white, and he kind of sees it and tells it like it is,” she said. “It’s very different for him.”
Meanwhile, Ben and Anna attended the Boys’ and Girls’ Club.
“They both had a lot of fun,” Heidi Long said. “They got the opportunity to try sailing and kayaking, which is something they’ve never had the opportunity to do, and they really enjoyed it.”
Because Josh and Ben both have autism, vacation plans can be complicated, Heidi Long said. “We end up putting a lot of money into getting stuff right for them, so it ends up being a lot of our expendable income,” she said.
Certain activities can be difficult for Josh, who is not as high-functioning as Ben.
“It’s amazing to see how people go out of their way to make subtle accommodations for his inabilities to do certain things,” Heidi Long said. “All of the staff at the Boys’ and Girls’ Club were really good.”
She also expressed her thanks to the Family Scholarship Program’s donors.
“It’s really neat that people are willing to allow families that might not be otherwise able to go the opportunity to partake, which is very, very gracious on their part,” she said. “It’s a nice way to spread the Chautauqua ideal.”
When institutions that pride themselves on democratizing education are prohibitively expensive, she said, “you end up cutting part of the people out of the equation that can benefit and that can contribute.”
The Roth family
Karen and Brian Roth visited from Williamsville, New York, during Week Eight with their sons Liam, 5, and Tristan, 4, and their 5-month-old daughter Brenna.
Brian Roth, a real estate investor, enjoyed taking in Chautauqua’s architecture during his visit. “Walking through all these streets is just making me drool,” he said.
Liam and Tristan took tennis lessons and attended the Children’s School, Karen Roth said.
“They absolutely love it. They come home with all sorts of little projects,” she said. “It’s been good for them, and a nice break for us.”
Karen Roth, a personal trainer, took two of Mara Wolf’s fitness classes, “Bootcamp at the Beach” and “Step Plus Strength.”
“A lot of fun, a lot of high energy,” she said. “Great instructor.”
Brian Roth studied guitar and took Brenna to “Music for Babies and Toddlers.”
“All the little ones are giggling the whole time, so it’s kind of fun,” he said.
All three families expressed the desire to return to Chautauqua without the scholarship, as soon as next season. Experiencing a week at the Institution for free, they agreed, made them more likely to visit again.
“We never would have come here if we hadn’t been given this first-time opportunity,” Karen Roth said.