Links Hall's 40th Season Looks to the Future, Reflects Chicago's Present

When Links Hall moved into its new space on Western Ave., the site of the old Viaduct Theatre (and the old viaduct, as it turned out), Bob Eisen scheduled a rehearsal to see if it “still felt like Links.” It did, said Links Hall director Roell Schmidt, who for nine years has been the force behind Chicago’s hallowed grounds for experimental dance and performance.

Forty years after Eisen, Carol Bobrow and Charlie Vernon took over the lease on an empty room with white walls, Links Hall audiences have witnessed thousands upon thousands of performances in a place that has gone from one where everybody knows everybody to a place where everybody goes. For the founders and the current staff – Schmidt, associate director Anna Trier, communications director Felicia Holman and production director Brett Swinney – who sat down with me to talk about their plans in celebrating Links’ 40th anniversary, Links has always been about looking forward, not back. 
As a tribute to Chicago’s rich performance community, Links subsidized the season’s rental program completely, making the space free for artists who were selected from a call for proposals. The response was overwhelming, and more importantly, reflected Links’ recent efforts to improve representation for artists of color, different cultural backgrounds and artists working in a wide variety of performance practices and genres. 
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation: 
SCD: What is the thing that makes Links Hall unique? In some ways, and I mean this with so much love, it needs to be a little out of control and unwieldy. Is that what makes it Links? Is it the white walls? Is it the artists that come through the doors? 
Felicia Holman: I would say all of the above, literally. For me, being both a performing artist at Links and on staff for the past five years, the integrated risk, from audiences, from artists, the openness, the community… I tell people that, yes, Links is an institution, four decades in the game, but it’s really such a community. 
Brett Swinney: Aside from the stuff that happens onstage or in the office, it’s really how we contribute our value to the larger art world and the world around us. Aside from really making sure that audiences are entertained, it's that they're also educated about what they're seeing. There’s a lot that goes into coordinating and working with the artists to make sure that the audience feels that it's a safe space to take risks, not really in terms of what they see, but with how they feel about it, how they leave that space with those ideas, and how they act on that. 
SCD: Has that risk-taking spirit among the artists and the founders created some kind of agency around taking some risks organizationally? Like how you made this season’s rental program free, for example. 
Anna Trier: There was a little more planning than that, Lauren! We crunched some numbers first. 
BS: I would hope so. There's a swinging for the fences mentality, and really, I'm hoping that works out. I think it's been evident since I've been here that we're being nurtured by the artists that are going to take advantage of the resources here. 
AT: I think the way we conduct those relationships, even the larger-scale projects that we've been able to take on as we've become a larger organization (I mean, calling us large still makes me laugh), but as we've been able to take on some of these grander projects, I think we've done a really good job of not changing what our essential relationship is with the artists. So we work with an emerging artist who's doing their first show, for the first time, the same way we work with an established artist who we're doing an international project with. We expect the artist to contribute the same things. We expect them to self-promote. I think part of what makes Links Hall still Links Hall to me is the fact that we have a really different relationship with artists and with the artistic community than a lot of arts organizations. We really see ourselves as peers. 
Some of that is because we all have backgrounds as makers and have been artists ourselves. We're working for an organization that was founded by artists and always led by artists. So we see ourselves as equals, not as better than. We don't have an artistic director or a curator. We partner with artists in our community to come up with what those programmatic visions are, which ensures that we never have a singular voice dictating what happens at Links Hall, or a single background or a single perspective. 
We expect the same amount of effort and the same amount of respect from all artists, and we offer the same amount of effort, and the same amount of respect. I think that's beautifully unique. I think it's a rare thing that we offer, and I'm proud of it. 
SCD: That idea of being on the same playing ground and treating everybody equally really speaks to the way that you have (not) curated this season, which reflects a really wide variety of artists and styles of performance. Was it first-come first-served? 
Roell Schmidt: There were a couple factors we had in mind. As people's proposals came in, we reviewed them and tried to slot people in based on what they said would be the better time of the year for Aug.-Dec. We hope to be able to open Jan-Jun at the end of Sept. Money's going to make that decision. 
It was also really important that Links Hall reflects Chicago. It's been something we've been working at for a long time, and when you have a city that's a majority people of color, then it's not OK to have a season that's majority white. That doesn’t feel right. In this moment, what we kept finding is that our direct dollars to artist programs were really reflecting that balance of artists, but our rental programs were something like 74% of what our programming was, and it was vastly majority white. That doesn't reflect Chicago, and it gives lie to what we've been trying to do for a long time, to be open and embracing and a home for everyone who wants to take a risk in the performing arts. 
So that was a big part of it. What was remarkable, though, is you can say you want to have artists of color and provide opportunities, or you want to have male artists or female artists, or whatever you want, but it all depends on who applies. It's like you're shaking the tree, and if people don't think you're a safe space, or don't think you're really committed, they're not going to apply. They're not going to take a risk on you. We were amazed; the majority of the applications were from artists of color. Which, I think is the first time in history that that's happened. That was kind of outstanding. That was part of the reason we wanted to do this. 
There are a bunch of artists who are performing at Links Hall for the very first time, which also feels important in that it's not just looking backwards. Because it's great that you did 40 years, but it's really about what's coming forward. So that's why [our slogan for the season is] "Pay the 40th Forward." It's about how we can invest in the ecosystem and keep Links strong, and keep performing arts strong in Chicago going forward. 
SCD: So did you have to look at the pool of applicants and make curatorial decisions in trying to find that picture of Chicago, or did it present itself to you?
RS: Yeah, really clearly. To be honest, there have been so many calls in the past nine years when we needed to shake the trees to be like, this is not going to be reflective of what's happening in the community, and it needs to be. And this time, we didn’t have to do that. What was really exciting is that we only had so many more proposals than we could accept, but there were artists who were working in really complimentary ways, so we did a lot of match-making. 
SCD: What do you think larger organizations can do when they have many more zeroes and many series subscribers who are way less comfortable taking risks? Can they use any of what you're doing as a model? Is it transferrable? 
RS: We got feedback [from artists] who said they felt that Links wasn't intended for them. In the nine years I've been here, we've been so grateful for people being super honest about saying, “What you want to do, and what you're saying seem to be at odds with one another.” That was helpful for us to hear and figure out. That's what makes Links Links, to everybody else's point. We are always taking risks financially, and like our artist peers we feel things immediately. There's not a cushion. There's not this ability to weather stuff; we have to respond immediately. 
AT: We live in the same economic reality as the artists in our community. 
BS: I think it is [about] staff doing due diligence to find a way to respond to the immediate needs of the arts community in equity and diversity in the arts. For the last year and a half we spent a ton of time talking about critical discourse in the arts and how that impacts artists of color. We have semi-monthly meetings with board members and various other people connected to our network, and break it down. 
When we started it, we had no idea where it was going to end, and it's obviously still ongoing, but there's something to be said that the staff and everyone is developing a vocabulary. We were not all on the same side, and I think we still aren't. But there are things that we put in place that, granted it depends on the artists and audiences you're serving, but I think it's possible to use it. 
FH: Look at the lowest hanging fruit, the intentionality, the critical thought. What does change look like for your organization from the board on down, to effect a cultural change in said organization? It’s understanding that, yeah, it's time-intensive, but if you're truly dedicated and devoted to making change, you have to bake that into new processes to make that actual change.  It's intentionality. What is the intention of this "diverse" programming? Are you trying to check the diversity box, or are you trying to have a diverse culture in your organization? What's the smallest thing you can do to create impact?
AT: We're in a city that is over 65% people of color. There's nothing to do but pick up and grow audiences by diversifying and not just serving the 30% of people who identify as from white European heritage in Chicago. I'm not worried about attendance.
For more information on Links Hall’s 40th anniversary season (which, by the way, also includes a performance by co-founder and former director Bob Eisen Oct. 3 with Paige Caldarella and Minneapolis-based Laurie Van Wieren), visit their See Chicago Dance venue page.