Michelle Boone was appointed to the newly created role of chief program and civic engagement officer of Navy Pier in August 2016. A lot has changed since then. Seeing public space as a place of opportunity for local artists and creatives, Boone focused on developing programs that support Chicago’s vibrant arts and culture scene, partnered with local cultural, educational and community-based organizations and creative industries, striving to elevate the overall Navy Pier experience. Her latest project? Turning Navy Pier into a beach in the middle of the harsh Chicago winter with the help of Brooklyn-based Snarkitecture and EXPO Chicago, bringing the traveling immersive installation, The Beach, for two weeks in January. Boone talks to Newcity Design Editor Vasia Rigou about the demanding job to turn the Pier’s Centennial Plan vision into reality as well as finding new ways to uphold the landmark’s mission as the “People’s Pier” by creating and offering dynamic experiences to the public unparalleled anywhere else in the city—or the world. If Navy Pier is going to become cool, she’s going to be the one to make it so.
Can you talk about the importance of public space as a place of opportunity for local artists and creatives?
Chicago is one of the most exciting cities in the world because of its many dynamic public spaces that populate the city—the parks, waterfronts (lake and river), trails (elevated and ground) and even how we use unexpected sites, such as underpasses or vacant lots. Artists and communities have been extremely creative and imaginative in how public spaces are activated and animated for creative use. Navy Pier is more than a hundred years old and it’s always been a space for creative expression—from dances to water acrobats, outdoor public art installations to indoor visual art exhibitions, live music performances and, of course, the birthplace of Chicago’s outdoor festival scene. It’s in Chicago’s DNA to have public spaces available to artists—with or without permission! Programming public space brings communities together to have a shared, collective experience through art, whether in a park watching a Shakespeare production, painting a mural together or attending a neighborhood music festival.
One of the most visited tourist attractions for out-of-towners, a funhouse-by-the-lake for families with kids, a biannual destination for the art crowd during EXPO CHICAGO or SOFA, Navy Pier takes many different forms. What parameters did you have to consider when undertaking a makeover to win over locals, national and international visitors alike?
Navy Pier is the People’s Pier and that’s always front-of-mind as we curate and present meaningful creative experiences for our guests. With such a long history, the Pier means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Sure, it might be a “must-do” for tourists, but it’s also important that the Pier has relevance for Chicagoans. We want to provide opportunities for unique cultural experiences by the lake. It’s one of the most beautiful settings in the city, and for guests to be able to also have an art experience at the same time is magical. The works we present are often ambitious, but always accessible. We try to present things here that can’t, or haven’t, been done anywhere else in Chicago. For example, it was shocking to me that the artist Nick Cave—globally celebrated and lauded—had not had any of his performative works seen in Chicago. Navy Pier was the first presenter of his wonderful performance piece, “Heard” and “Up Right,” and it was the first time Chicagoans got to see his Soundsuits come to life. Nick is an artist with local, national and international appeal, so it was extremely rewarding to provide a platform that could engage all those audiences—including Chicagoans—in one space.
Turning Navy Pier into a cultural awakening has been a personal challenge for you. Can you talk about your vision and how it has evolved?
Well, it’s not my vision, but the vision of the Pier’s Centennial Plan. I suppose it goes even further back to the vision that famed architect Daniel Burnham had for the Pier in the early 1900s. Creating a series of lakefront piers was part of Burnham’s plan for Chicago—to create spaces for citizens to enjoy the lakefront and have a space for respite and relaxation along the shores. This was the only one that was built. Navy Pier’s Centennial Plan is about the next hundred years—how can the space better serve its citizens? How do we truly make the Pier the People’s Pier? One thought was to expand public programming. The Pier did an extensive engagement process, led by Dickerson Global Advisors, asking cultural leaders in Chicago and across the country about best practices and models of truly engaging public programs in public spaces. It provided a great foundation that was built on actual insights and expertise of local programmers and artists on how best to activate the Pier with programs. At the heart of it is collaboration, and it’s proven to be the basis for all our programs.
When do you get a sense of achievement?
When I walk around the Pier or when I am at a performance and I hear people say, “Wow, I had no idea this was here!” “When did they start doing this?” or to hear how much artists love performing at our new stages in Polk Bros Park—is when I feel a sense of achievement. It’s absolutely gorgeous to have the lake at your back and the majestic skyline in front of you while listening to a jazz performance or watching a movie outdoors. And of course, you see the reward in the faces of the audiences. But the best marker are the folks that come back consistently with lawn chairs and picnic baskets—the regulars! People are looking for the programming schedule and making their plans accordingly. It’s working.
What do you see as Navy Pier’s key changes since your appointment in this position and what are your plans for the future?
The vibe is just so different now. The physical transformation of the Pier—more green space, cleaner sight lines to the lakefront, modern and contemporary upgrades to the interiors—has changed the guest experience. I’ve been here less than three years and I can see and feel it, but for others who have lived through some of the other iterations, it just must be astonishing. It’s not the same Pier. If you haven’t been here in the past five years, you just don’t know. So, the biggest change I’d like to see is public perception about Navy Pier.
Looking ahead, we plan to improve and expand on the programming we’ve introduced over the past couple of years, and continue to find new ways to uphold our mission as the People’s Pier by creating and offering dynamic experiences to the public unparalleled to anywhere else in the city—or the world.
Greek-born Vasia Rigou is a Chicago-based art critic and pop culture journalist, largely on the subjects of contemporary art, design, and fashion. She moved to Chicago in 2013 to study Arts Journalism at the School of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC,) where she was awarded the New Artist Society Merit Scholarship. She grew up to appreciate art after years of carefully planned, culture-filled travel itineraries and museum-hopping around Europe with her family. During this time, she received a bachelor’s in English Literature, in her native Athens; a master’s in Media, in Nottingham, UK; and studied foreign languages—English, German, and Spanish at the University of Salamanca, Spain. Her writing—reviewing museum exhibitions, gallery shows, art fairs, fashion shows, and music festivals among others—has been published nationally and internationally both in print and online. In 2017, she founded and now serves as editor-in-chief of Rainbowed.—an independently published website focused on the visual and performing arts, digital media, and popular culture. When she’s not writing about art or looking at art—wine in hand, she keeps up with Chicago’s creative entrepreneurial and startup community, makes lists for pretty much everything, drinks immense amounts of coffee and takes cross-country road trips every chance she gets.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: www.rigouvasia.com