In Heather's words (Part 1): Reflecting on See Chicago Dance and the community it supports

Editor's note: As Heather Hartley, the former executive director of See Chicago Dance, and her husband Phil Reynolds, the former executive director of Chicago Dancers United, embark on the next phase of their careers in North Carolina with a new organization called Trillium Arts, I had the pleasure of chatting with Heather for nearly an hour about her time in Chicago, the progress made and challenges that remain at See Chicago Dance, and what's next for her and Phil. I found it tricky to boil down our conversation into sound bites, and frankly, I think all of it's worth reading. Look for part two of the conversation tomorrow, and on Thursday, I chat with SCD interim executive director Surinder Martignetti about what's next for the organization.

Lauren Warnecke: We have had quite a lot of shake up at the executive level in Chicago dance. As you know, it's not just you and Phil. There have been a lot of changes at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Links Hall and High Concept Labs – all of these shiftings happening in Chicago dance. So, I thought it would be interesting to hear you reflect on the current moment, and then also to recognize that this is happened before. I want to understand the staying power of See Chicago Dance and how it's been – this is not the right word – but allowed to be so successful, and what it has taken to get to this point. What are the challenges that you’ve faced? 

Heather Hartley: I've been reflecting on a lot of this. Phil and I have also talked about it quite a bit as we were going through our family transition and making these decisions. The dance community is incredibly resilient and change is its middle name, in some ways. There are also these periods of longevity. To kind of step back from it and exit myself from being a personal player inside of it, I think times of change are actually healthy. I think it's indicative of growth. When I think about the period of stasis that most recently comes to mind, it was a chunk of time not long after the Great Recession when all of the foundations were shrinking their dollars and their giving. From 2008-2012, nobody was taking a new job. Everyone was hunkered in. So, in some sense I think that [change is] indicative of a cultural sigh of relief.

I do think that artists and people in the arts in particular – they will be resilient no matter what. That's been true in the dance community for decades. It's interesting to be thought of as an elder, in some sense. I feel like I'm mid-career, mid-stride, and curious to see both what me and Phil personally will do, but also how the community evolves. See Chicago Dance is solid. The board is filled with phenomenal, dedicated, passionate people who love dance and love the arts. The baton is being passed to people who are, I don't know, 8 to 10 years younger than us that are in this natural moment to step into a different role. It's kind of the way it should be, you know?

I think one of the things that I've also reflected on is how this is a moment where Chicago can really rise to an occasion. By that I mean, we have a new mayor. We have studies and data out there, part of which See Chicago Dance is involved in, that show that the dance community in Chicago, while it has grown, it has not grown economically. Our dance artists are among the lowest paid in the country, and the coastal cities are doing a much better job of taking care of their dance artists. So, this is a moment and an opportunity to figure that out. Were I to stick around I have a lot of ideas about it, but I think it's about valuing the arts in a way that Chicago really could take this moment to think about. That would be my hope, that whatever this next evolution is, that with all of this new energy, both at the political and city-wide levels, within organizations and ground level leadership, that we celebrate our strengths but are also honest about our faults. I don't think it's okay for people to work for no money all the time, and I don't think that there should be foundations that don't ask hard questions. There are a lot of young people coming up through the generations, and I think there are a lot of questions that need to be asked about sustainability. It's not going to benefit anyone if everyone just sort of wrings their hands and says, “Well, that's the way it's always been.” Those are my hopes and thoughts for the future.

Phil and I, we have so many wonderful artists that we love to work with here. We absolutely want to create a sort of a traveling road, that pipeline, and that's certainly something that is part of our – it's still in formation, not quite out of the oven yet – but the model that we have is to absolutely provide opportunities for some of the Chicago artists that we feel could benefit from reflective time.

You asked about the start of all of this, and the history, and all that juicy stuff. I've also been reflecting a little bit on this. Again, it’s kind of funny to think of myself as someone who's been around the block a couple of times, but I was thinking about key moments that I feel like I've had the great privilege to be involved in:

One was actively loading the truck, making a marketing plan, building the database and helping Phil lay out the seating chart for The Dance Center in its current location. We were the crew that moved it from Sheridan Rd. – like, literally moved it – and created the campaign to launch that new space. 

Similarly, Phil and I were part of the original committee that was there when they broke ground at the Harris Theater. I was on the marketing committee that helped lay out the seating chart in the Harris floor plan, and was on the initial marketing committee that set up the box office. The very first public performance in that space was actually the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. So if I'm not mistaken about that, the first time we toggled on the box office and opened the doors with ushers was a Dance Center co-presentation with the Harris. And there it was: we were part of that moment. And so when I think about See Chicago Dance and how it has evolved, it started right along with all of these different moments. 


Look for parts 2 and 3 of Heather's "exit interview" on See Chicago Dance this week. Community members are invited to toast Heather and Phil at a going away celebration Thursday June 6, 5-7 p.m. at the Dance Center of Columbia College, 1306 S. Michigan Ave.