The Charms of Chautauqua: Creating an Arts-Filled Vacation

By Bell, Judith | The World and I, June 1998 | Go to article overview

The Charms of Chautauqua: Creating an Arts-Filled Vacation


Bell, Judith, The World and I


Every summer the Chautauqua Institution in New York State offers arts and entertainment, a stunning array of educational courses, and recreation--all in an idyllic setting.

"All passes, art alone endures." This motto, emblazoned over the proscenium of Norton Hall--a pink and lavender confection of a building on the grounds of the Chautauqua Institution in southwestern New York State--forms the cornerstone of the Chautauqua philosophy. The 124-year-old educational institution on the shores of Chautauqua Lake was founded during the heyday of the late-nineteenth-century Utopian movement, which advocated the melding of the arts, commerce, and community.

Marty Merkley, vice president of the institution and director of programming, explains: "Cofounder John Heyl Vincent wrote that a wide range of interests on every level about every subject--history, economics, social issues, the arts--needed to be available. People were to come to Chautauqua and pick from everything that was here, and take the experience back home for the betterment of themselves and their communities. It is this philosophy that continues to make Chautauqua unique."

Students of all ages and backgrounds come to Chautauqua each summer for vacations that nourish the spirit and the mind in a setting of natural beauty and lively recreation. People usually stay for a week or two, but can come for only a weekend or even a single event. They can also stay the whole summer if they wish. Each week the institution offers 165 courses and seven to eight lectures--together with performances it adds up to two thousand events in sixty-five days. In addition, four schools of the arts (art, music, dance, and theater) provide intensive summerlong training for selected young people on the verge of professional careers in those fields.

There is at Chautauqua a pervasive feeling of accessibility and immersion. Visitors walking around the 750-acre grounds, which include a charming Victorian village, can hear the opera or symphony rehearsing and see artists at work or dancers taking class. The arts are in the air--they are part of the community, something you breathe in.

"We try to keep in balance all the various levels of culture," says Merkley, who is also responsible for the professional performing arts programs at the institution. "There's a balance of Eurocentric-based Western traditions that we enjoy in Beethoven and Brahms against the multicultural and contemporary influences. Each of us is like an artist coming here with an empty canvas. We paint on that canvas our experience of Chautauqua. The programming is the palette from which we paint--religion, opera, the lecture platform. We take the experience home, it affects our lives--we may decide to support the arts in our community, to volunteer. There are many choices we can make, to improve ourselves. The more we know, the more choices we have, and through them we gain opportunity. That's the Chautauqua message."

The Chautauqua Institution began in 1874 as a summer educational retreat for Protestant Sunday school teachers. The Civil War had ended only nine years before, and peace brought with it a tremendous hunger for knowledge. This was the Progressive Era, when the middle class was emerging but few could afford a college education. When Lewis Miller--an industrialist, inventor, and philanthropist from Ohio--and Philadelphia Methodist minister John Heyl Vincent announced a summer assembly of learning for Sunday school teachers to keep their instruction methods fresh, the response was overwhelming. The program expanded to include families and offer academic subjects, music, art, and physical education. Ultimately Chautauqua pioneered continuing adult education, correspondence courses, and "great books" curricula.

Soon summer "chautauquas" were opening across the nation in tents, supplying Americans with what Webster's defines as "popular education combined with entertainment," in a movement that would peak around 1920. …

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