Institution leader facing rising criticism
While Chautauqua Institution has invested heavily in the Jefferson Project to address the harmful algal blooms, some of the residents there believe it’s time for the institution to refocus its financial priorities.
Richard Reiser Jr. wrote a long letter to the institution’s Board of Trustees. In it, he said Chautauqua needs to get back to its Four Pillars – Arts, Education, Recreation, and Religion – the core of the Summer Assembly experience.
In a phone interview, he insists residents there want to see Chautauqua Lake in a pristine condition, but believes someone other than the Institution should be the primary funding agency.
“If your resources are strained, as is the case with Chautauqua Institution, you have to make very difficult decisions and you have to ration your resources,” he said. “I think the lake ought to be looked at, addressed, and studied but the way to think about this is, who is the constituency that’s going to help Chautauqua Institution? It’s small, so you’re going to have to pour your resources into making sure your programs are strong. If you don’t have sufficient resources, you have to set priorities and your priorities should be your core programming and your core mission.”
But Chautauqua Institution President Michael Hill said investing in the lake fits within their vision and mission.
In 2019, the institution adopted a strategic plan to run through 2028. In it was the recognition of the need for a healthy lake.
“The health of Chautauqua Lake is absolutely critical to the long-term success of Chautauqua Institution and the county,” Hill said in an interview.
The strategic vision helped the Jefferson Project be brought from Lake George to Chautauqua Lake, so it could among other things, understand how to deal with harmful algal blooms, which are extremely toxic.
The Jefferson Project is now in its third year. According to Hill, the institution has spent about $4.5 million on the Jefferson Project. But that money will eventually be returned.
“All of it is being repaid by private (donations) and other philanthropy,” he said.
This year, Chautauqua County took the lead in funding the Jefferson Project, paying $1 million from its American Rescue Plan Act funds, which the county received from the federal government to help recover from COVID. The decision came after the Institution told officials they were facing financial difficulties due to recovering from the pandemic.
Reiser was glad to see the county legislature contribute but believes more entities should.
“There are many who can support the Jefferson Project and things like it. There are four or five lake organizations. There are towns surrounding the lake. There is the county of Chautauqua, there is the state of New York, and there is the federal government. All of those should be participating in the costs,” he said.
CHAUTAUQUA LAKE INVESTMENTS
If you were to ask county officials, they have been calling on the state for years to help fund Chautauqua Lake, particularly with weeds, since that problem is not being solved with the Jefferson Project. The Jefferson Project’s focus is more on HABs.
On Thursday, Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand was at Chautauqua Institution. Before she arrived, Hill said he suspected he would have a conversation with her about Chautauqua Lake.
Earlier this year county officials met with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to talk about the lake, and the possibility of having it dredged.
Beyond the Jefferson Project, Hill said they see themselves as long-term partners and investors of the lake.
“I would say we intend to be partners around issues around the lake forever. I don’t see us backing away from our commitment to the lake because it’s so essential,” he said.
He has talked about the creation of a research center that would study Chautauqua Lake and how its affected by things like nutrients and climate change.
“It is our goal, in partnership with the county and others, to create what we call a ‘smart lake,’ which is in essence a lake and watershed that can in real time tell us what is happening in our environment that allows us to collaboratively and collectively care for this lake to make sure it’s always a part of Chautauqua County,” he said.
When the strategic vision was adopted, it was pre-COVID. The pandemic upended a lot of organizations and the Institution was one of them.
Hill noted that because of the strategic vision, they had laid the groundwork to do streaming, which helped them financially over the last three years.
“Our plan had called for us to think about ways that we could engage in different ways than our traditional summer program and thank God that we did. We created a streaming platform that allowed us to stay in front of people,” he said.
Still, they did lose some funding.
“We are in our ‘growing out of COVID phase’ like every other major organization that does work similar to ours,” he said.
According to the Chautauqan Daily, the institution started the 2023 season with $10.5 million in cash reserves, which is about 20% of the annual operating budget.
In the article, Hill called the 2022 season “disappointing” and broke down a $6.6 million increase in expenses from 2019 to 2022.
“We’ve been on a three-year journey through this COVID period,” Hill said. “We had hoped that last year we would be able to emerge fully from our pre-COVID conditions, and certainly that was not the case.”
The Daily noted that in response to the deficit, and “an unpredictable post-pandemic economy,” the Chautauqua Institution Board of Trustees requested the Institution’s leadership team make a three-year budget plan.
Before COVID-19, the opera had been losing money and the pandemic further hastened that deficit.
Due to the Institution’s financial challenges, changes were made to the Opera Company and Conservancy. Hill called it a “re-imagining” of the program.
“What we decided to do coming out of this period is try to envision a model for opera that was sustainable and that would ensure that we could celebrate that art form for the long-term here,” he said.
Immediate changes for the 2023 season were one less mainstage production for theater and opera, a pause on the School of Arts while a new artistic director is brought on board, a hiring freeze for selected positions outside program areas, reduced seasonal staff housing, reduced CHQ Assembly budget, eliminating raises for executive staff and reduced operating expenses across all departments.
During the interview with The Post-Journal and OBSERVER, Hill said interest in opera has dwindled nationwide.
“Every day someone sends me an article about an opera institution closing or slashing budgets around the country,” he said.
But he insists the opera program continues to remain important to the institution.
“We made a decision to figure out a new way to celebrate the forum and we’ve been grateful to so many people who enjoy Chautauqua, who have stepped in to help us figure out what that future might look like,” he said.
The Jefferson Project funding was far from Reiser’s only criticism of the institution’s spending. He calls their office in Washington, D.C. “a waste and unnecessary.”
He also questioned a number of hirings the institution has made during Hill’s tenure.
“The joke around here has been ‘defund the vice presidents.’ No one can understand why we need this many people,” he said.
In his letter, Reiser called for the removal of Hill and Trustee Chairman Candace Maxwell.
Reiser said nearly 500 people said they agreed with his letter.
“I knew I wasn’t alone but I didn’t know that I had struck a chord,” he said.
One person who agreed with Reiser is institution property owner Georgia Court. In her own letter, she called on fellow residents to withhold donations until Hill is removed.
“In these circumstances, when core programs are slashed before touching the notoriously unnecessary administrative convenience of a Washington office, generous donors, who fear for the future of the Chautauqua we love, must conclude that the leadership of Michael Hill has failed. It’s the board’s fiduciary duty to assure that the Institution operates on a firm financial footing,” she wrote.
In a follow-up conversation, Court noted that for residents who are unhappy, withholding donations is the only option they have.
“Money is our only leverage. If we withhold donations, that speaks, money speaks,” she said.
But not everyone agrees with Reiser and Court.
Summer resident Carol Rizzo said she appreciates the institution’s financial commitment to the lake.
“I’d like my grandchildren to be able to swim in this lake. I’d like to be able to swim in this lake myself. I don’t want to have to worry about if I am toxically poisoning myself every time I go out into the water,” she said.
She also sees caring for the lake part of the institution’s four pillars.
“It’s recreation. It’s education. It’s certainly the arts – you just have to see the number people drawing and painting (the lake). … And you don’t have to go far to know that every religion has some level of consecration with water,” she said.
Resident Barbara Britton, too, endorses investing in the lake. She also feels that changes to their opera program is not connected to the Institution’s investment in the Jefferson Project.
Britton lived in Lucca, Italy, a big opera community, where Giacomo Puccini is from. Even there where opera is king, opera houses have had lower attendance.
“People aren’t wanting to go to these three, three and a half hour performances,” she said.
Both Rizzo and Britton say while there are detractors of Hill’s leadership, they believe they are in the minority and will criticize the president no matter what decisions are made.
“They seem to have this anti-administration flavor, no matter what the topic is,” Britton said.
Britton gave the example of the Washington office. She said the office there allows Chautauqua to network not only with individuals but with foundations and firms that may be willing to invest millions of dollars into what Chautauqua is doing.
When Hill was asked about the Washington office, he said, “it is the equivalent cost of one concert in the summer for Chautauqua.”
Hill added that although he may not agree with the stance his detractors are taking, he appreciates their comments.
“Not everyone is going to agree with how any organization’s leadership tries to solve complex problems. But the good news here at Chautauqua is that the vast majority of people do. We’re working with them to create a really vibrant future for this place, which will celebrate its 150th birthday next year. When it turns 150, it turn it strong, it turns as an organization that is nimble and ready to tackle the future and I’m really excited about that,” he said.