By GINNY VAN ALYEA
A year ago this past summer, Michelle T. Boone left a high-profile position as head of the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and took on a newly created role at Navy Pier as Chief Program and Civic Engagement Officer, with the goal of getting everyday Chicagoans to come to the Pier for its cultural offerings, not its food court. Classified as a nonprofit as of 2011, Navy Pier, now referred to as Chicago’s Mission Driven Cultural District, is host to contemporary art installations and a range of public programming set against the backdrop of Lake Michigan. CGN spoke with Boone about the importance of public space and how the city is supporting artists in ways no other city can.
CGN: What were your expectations when you began your work with Navy Pier?
Michelle T. Boone: For me, the best part was that I didn’t have any expectations, because it was a totally new position. To walk into a place that is so iconic, with a long Chicago history, and be charged with redefining how people think about Navy Pier in the 21st century, was really exciting. In particular I was thrilled to have the opportunity to lay the foundation for what art and cultural programming at the Pier would be. Other people may have had expectations of me, but I walked in the door with the vessel totally empty, ready to fill it with ideas and inspired by the opportunity.
CGN: In 2016 Navy Pier marked its 100th anniversary. Its more recent reputation among locals has been as a place to go only if you have to, or with out-of-towners.
MB: Personally, I was absolutely one of those people. I did not see it as an option for cultural programming, or even for entertainment. The times that I did come to the Pier were for very deliberate purposes – for EXPO CHICAGO or SOFA, for Shakespeare Theater. These were one-offs. I even surprised myself in accepting this position because of that, but that was a major attraction to the job. If I could be a part of helping to change those perceptions because of the new ideas and the new programming here, then that was going to be the real test, starting with myself first.
CGN: It sounds like your primary challenge is to offer programming that makes everyone – locals as well as tourists – want to come back again and again, and to enjoy high-quality programming put on by the Pier.
MB: Navy Pier is misperceived as a tourist trap, but close to 70 percent of the people who come here are actually Chicagoans. We have to do a better job telling that story. What’s the reason for Chicagoans to come? How many times can you ride the Ferris wheel? The philosophy for me in developing artistic programming is leveraging collaborations and partnerships with Chicago artists and cultural organizations, because they bring the reputation and the quality work; hopefully they bring the audience, too. It’s a great vehicle to introduce those audiences to the new Navy Pier, and it’s an excellent way for us to enhance the visitor experience for the guests here. They may not have come to Navy Pier for a cultural program, but how great to be surprised by some really moving experience that you didn’t think was going to be here?
CGN: The Pier itself, with its spectacular backdrop, has the potential to be the ultimate public space.
MB: It’s an oasis in the city. It’s the happiest place in town. Everybody’s in a good mood because they’re here with their family, they’re here on vacation, or they love showing it off to visitors or guests. For hardcore urban dwellers that are surrounded by concrete, buildings and limited green space, to be reconnected to the water is a tremendous asset that is also part of reminding Chicagoans the value of the Pier. You can’t find a bad view out here.
CGN: People living in the city don’t have much space of their own.
MB: Right. These public spaces become that much more important. We don’t have the city squares of Europe. What we do have are public spaces that are populated all over the city. I think people are paying more attention to and investing more resources into reclaiming abandoned space as public space for programming, for gathering or for just plain respite.
CGN: I think that what you’ve just said provides insight into the year of public art and the valuable opportunities public space offers working artists.
MB: Not every artist will have their work in a museum, and not every singer can be on stage at the Lyric Opera. That’s another great thing about public space – the potential to create more circumstances, for emerging artists especially, to showcase their work and to find new ways to be employed and to showcase work locally. It can help sustain the ecosystem of artists living in the city of Chicago and keep it vibrant.
CGN: These public opportunities allow artists a great deal of freedom to do what they want to do, while removing some of the financial pressure.
MB: Because it’s free public programming at the Pier, we’ve got this huge platform for artists to think about us almost as a test kitchen for trying out new ideas and collaborations, risk free. I think, overall, you can try ambitious, creative ideas in Chicago, and if something fails it’s not going to kill your career in a way that it might in New York City. In Chicago if a bold idea doesn’t work, the community is supportive enough to allow you the space to come back with something new. You can learn from it, you improve it, you find new ways to do things, and you come back even stronger. For an artist, the more critical risks of, ‘Oh my God, are we going to sell tickets?’ are removed here.
CGN: This fall the Pier is hosting a packed lineup of arts programming. Can you talk about the thought behind bringing high-caliber contemporary art to this space regularly?
MB: I think one of the motivating forces in inviting, for example, Nick Cave and Jeanne Gang to be at the Pier in September, was to have the Pier itself be a site as well as a participant, and to enhance what happens during the week of EXPO CHICAGO. Nick will continue to curate at least three other performances, and he’s going to work with a local performance curator to invite community based art groups to perform here at Navy Pier. Up until the middle of November or so, community performance companies have an opportunity to interact with the Jeanne Gang designed objects as well. It will carry beyond just these two sort-of signature performances that happen in September, but that will serve as inspiration for what will also happen in the fall. There will be at least three more performances. As part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial programming, the Jeanne Gang-designed objects used in Nick Cave’s performances will remain on site as visual art sculpture installations when not used for the performances.
We’re working to have another two or three public conversations with thought leaders around the Architecture Biennial. Lee Bey is also doing a photography exhibition, called Lakeshore Vibe: The Architecture of Streeterville, at the Pier that will debut as a part of the Biennial.
CGN: How do you think a place like Navy Pier can make Chicago standout from other cities?
MB: I think in general Chicago is becoming a city that is really a model for demonstrating the value of public space. The City of Chicago is showing many ways of animating and activating our public space in a way that invites residents to reconnect to one another, to art and to nature.
The history and the legacy that we have with our park system, the vision of keeping the lakefront free and clear, the transformation that you see happening with the River Walk, the addition of the 606 – I think there’s a movement happening where people are really valuing what public space is and how it can improve the quality of life.
Photo of Michelle T. Boone, Heidi Zeiger Photography / Navy Pier.