Links Hall is a space that champions artists’ potential. The people who work at Links both respect and recognize individuals with innovative ideas and hold equity and inclusivity in high regard. From affordable studio rentals to the venue's ever-important fellowship programs, Links Hall has proved itself to be of great value to the arts community in Chicago. And in the face of everything that’s been thrown their way in the last year, they’re maintaining and improving on their value.
Global pandemics aside, in the last 365 days this organization has weathered the passing of co-founder Charlie Vernon, rebuilding their staff and hiring a new executive director. Despite being unable to put together live performances and navigating the restructure their spring season due to the coronavirus pandemic, Links Hall is, without a doubt, in a problem-solving mindset.
I was able to speak by phone with executive director Stephanie Pacheco to discuss the ins and outs of her new job, favorite experiences of the last year and what the future of the Links Hall might look like.
Stephanie Pacheco on her first year at Links
Before relocating to the Windy City, Pacheco worked as the head of outreach and arts education at the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College. She lived in Vermont and worked in New Hampshire for about a decade, but by the end of her time there, Pacheco craved a personal and professional life shift. Chicago seemed like the best fit.
“I was doing some consulting work and talking with folks abroad. So, I was considering other things in the U.S., but 90-95% of my search was focused on Chicago,” Pacheco said. “I had friends and colleagues in the city. The arts and culture ecosystem of Chicago is really attractive to me.”
As far as what led her to Links Hall specifically, Pacheco said it was a pretty straightforward choice once she learned about the organization. “I was actually not familiar with Links Hall,” she said, “and since it was new to me, I came in cold to get to know the organization through the interview process as much as they were getting to know me.”
Once Pacheco started gathering information and talking to Links enthusiasts—who aren’t terribly hard to find—she believed it was a perfect fit. “I think the communities that know it [Links], know it really well. The minute I said it out loud to anyone in Chicago, or a lot of folks in the broader Midwest, people would say, ‘Oh, Links, I love Links.’ It was very apparent that it held a very special place in the arts world.”
When Pacheco officially began her time with Links Hall last August, it was a whirlwind of exciting opportunities and unforeseen challenges. She expressed that the community rallied around her. “I feel like Chicago came out of the woodwork to welcome me, to reach out to me, to take me out for coffee and share their Links story. Everyone has a Links story.”
When asked about her favorite moment thus far, the answer was immediate: the first live show of her tenure called “Explode! Queer Dance: Midwest” (co-curated by Clare Croft and Anna Martine Whitehead). “They put together such a gorgeous program that really showed the breadth and depth of the kinds of work— intergenerational and diverse in so many ways— Links brings in. It explored so many aspects of what queer dance can be and is, as much as it showed all the voices that come into our space.”
On COVID’s impact
Within seven months of her start date, COVID-19 became a challenge that required immediate attention. The mighty staff of four—Pacheco, production manager Giau Truong, partnerships coordinator Aaliyah Christina and marketing manager Kelly Williamson—was somehow prepared for the curveball.
“Everyone was already saying this year at Links is going to look totally different. When we were suddenly hit with this global event that forced every arts organization to feel like things are different, I actually feel like we were probably in a better position to face it than we might've been, say, two years in the future,” Pacheco said.
In true Links Hall fashion, the staff and board jumped to figure out ways to restructure their spring performance calendar. In so doing, they evaluated what Links truly stands for. “One of the things we’ve been talking about is that huge portions of our mission are about creation and development,” Pacheco said. “Yes, a piece of that is also about presentation. But we talk about new platforms for presentation and since we’re not a top-down institution we didn’t want to determine on behalf of our artists that we were going to move everything into a virtual sphere.”
Though most of the artists decided to push their shows to next year with a preference of live performances over virtual ones, others decided they were open to exploring new options. Upcoming this month, Links is hosting livestreamed puppet cabaret performances called “Nasty, Brutish & Short” with Rough House, and will produce online salons and discussions with current Co-Mission fellows Chloe Johnston and Darling Shear.
Additionally, Links decided to move forward with their Co-Mission Fellowship applications for 2021, with an extended deadline for both applying and reviewing. An announcement about the next cohort is tentatively scheduled for the end of June.
Carefully looking ahead while taking care of artists
Thinking toward the future, there’s an air of uncertainty that Pacheco is both intrigued by and cautious of. “I’m seeing a lot of really interesting innovation, but also I think we have to be careful about predictive vision,” she said. “We’re small, we’re nimble and we’re a tiny venue. The mayor’s office has deemed the next phase is not a phase in which theaters and concert venues can open, but that’s fine because we’re not there yet.”
Navigating cleaning protocols, safety guidelines and ways to use the space so it’s safe for artists and staff are ongoing conversations, but that’s not the only focus. “When Links thinks about next year, we’re thinking a lot about that mission of creation and development.”
The team is also taking steps to ensure all creators and stage crew are taken care of financially.
Thanks to the generous donations and a supportive community, Links Hall is officially paying current Co-Mission Fellowship artists for their studio time through the end of June, compensating the Art of Rehearsal mentors for their spring contracts and funding production technicians for all cancelled shows from March through June. The team is also actively refunding deposits to self-produced artists whose show rentals couldn’t happen.
“The exhaustive fundraising, applications for COVID relief grants and new gifts from Links Hall's amazing board and donors is what makes this possible,” said Pacheco. “When you ask me what I'm most proud of in my short time at Links Hall, it is these initiatives.”
Find out more about Links Hall's summer programming by clicking the event pages below, or visiting www.linkshall.org.