In a 1999 profile published in the New Yorker, the writer Malcolm Gladwell described the “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg.” Weisberg was the city of Chicago’s first commissioner of Cultural Affairs, serving from 1989 to 2011, when she retired at the age of eighty-one. The essence of the story was that she was one of those people who knew everybody—a “connector”—for jobs, for collaboration, for friendship.
The irony is that if Gladwell’s story were to be written today, it would be about the woman who stepped into Weisberg’s formidable—and legendarily extravagant—shoes when she succeeded her as the Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, Michelle Boone. Six Degrees of Michelle Boone. Everyone I know who is engaged in the cultural life of Chicago knows and loves Michelle. And Michelle loves them back, by connecting them, by commissioning their work, by being a friend.
After DCASE, Boone moved over to Navy Pier as Chief Program and Civic Engagement Officer, where she was charged with reconnecting Chicagoans with what had become known as just a tourist trap; she harnessed the power of arts and culture to advance the cause. And in April of this year, Boone was announced as the new president of the beleaguered yet mightily affluent Poetry Foundation.
The Foundation, which was started almost twenty years ago when the tiny but prestigious Chicago-based Poetry magazine was gifted more than $100 million from the estate of Ruth Lilly, the Indiana pharmaceutical heiress. Led by a succession of white men, it quickly became the world’s epicenter of poetry as well as a star of the cultural firmament in Chicago, when it opened its graceful, understated John Ronan-designed headquarters in 2011.
But when George Floyd was murdered and the national reckoning over race took on greater urgency, a brief statement of solidarity issued by the foundation blew up in its face. A coalition of hundreds of poets signed a letter that read, in part, “For years, your constituents have been calling on the Foundation to redistribute more of its enormous resources to marginalized artists, to make concrete commitments to change-making efforts in your local community and beyond. We find this statement to be worse than the bare minimum.” The letter made specific demands and soon president Henry Bienen was out. In short order, the magazine published a poem that threw kerosene on the racial insensitivity flame, and editor Don Share was out, too. Poetry, both foundation and magazine, spiraled through a year of trauma and uncertainty.
The hiring of Michelle Boone to right this ship was a stroke of genius. But it was surprising, too, at least from Boone’s side. For as perfect a hire as she was for the foundation, she pretty much could have any job she wanted in the cultural world. So why this?
I visited Boone at the foundation’s mostly empty headquarters—the staff has not yet returned to work in the offices and it remains closed to the public—where we discussed this, as well as the past and future of the Poetry Foundation.
Why don’t we start by talking a little bit about your journey to get here?
The journey has been a long one, and a lot of peaks and valleys. My career in arts administration started in 1998 with Gallery 37, which was great, because it was a program that got me introduced to a wide range of Chicago artists and arts organizations, through the partnerships that the program did all over the city. I was at Gallery 37 for about seven years, and then got a call to see if I was interested in an opportunity at the Joyce Foundation to be cultural program officer. Ended up going there and ran that program for another seven or so years, and then got a call to go in and see then-mayor-elect Emanuel about the commissioner position. I did that for about six years, and got a call to see if I was interested in leading a new initiative at Navy Pier for developing and launching a new series of arts and culture public programs. And I was at the pier for about six years, and then got a call to see if there was an interest in joining the Poetry Foundation, which was something I had not thought about.
I have to say that, in each of those instances, I was really happy where I was. I loved Gallery 37; I loved being a part of the transformation that happened with young people when they were exposed to the arts. I got a chance to work with artists. I loved the impact that I felt like I was able to make through the resources at the Joyce Foundation, and that work was regional. So, it was beyond Chicago.
The Cultural Center and working for DCASE was, you know, the Lord’s work for me. I love the idea of being a public servant, and that was such a critical moment for the department, with it joining forces with the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, so just really sorting through what a new agency looked like; how that would work; the massive amount of programs that the department was responsible for.
Were you right after Lois Weisberg?
And she had been there forever.
She had been there for a long time. And that had a lot to do with why I accepted the offer to go in as the Commissioner. Gallery 37 was a program in the Department of Cultural Affairs, and I worked for Lois. And loved her, admired her, and had a great love for what Cultural Affairs represented. Some of that magic over the years had kind of died away. And so, this period of transition for the department, to me, I felt like if there is any way that I can be helpful in restoring some of that magic that the department had, and really wanting to be a part of ensuring that the agency didn’t go away. It was at a time when budgets were really strapped for the city, and it could’ve gone either way. It could’ve disappeared and that would’ve been that. Not to say that I was a savior for the department, but it was really gratifying to be part of the team that ensured that the legacy of what she had established would continue.
The Poetry Foundation? Again, I was really happy at Navy Pier. It was great to be a part of this transformation that they imagined for the pier. You know, it’s a landmark; it’s a part of Chicago history; but it also was, and is, a place that Chicagoans didn’t necessarily feel a connection to. That’s a place you take tourists to; you drop off family members; but Chicagoans didn’t really think of it as something for them. And so, the brilliant decision to use arts and culture as the invitation to Chicagoans to get reconnected.
And then to see a lot of the physical transformation that had happened at the pier. It really harkened back to my time at Gallery 37, with partnerships with arts and culture organizations across the city. Giving this really high-profile platform to community-based organizations, and also major institutions, to have a chance to showcase their work to new audiences, was great.
And then I loved seeing the “Wow, I didn’t know they were doing this here” when people would come to the concerts, or other kinds of interactive public art installations. It was really gratifying work.
Timing is everything. If the Poetry Foundation had called me, initially when the vacancy was open, which would have been, I don’t know, June of 2020, I would not have even considered it, just because of the place that the pier was at, wrestling with, trying to survive the pandemic.
And then you fast-forward to when I got the call, March of ’21, we had weathered the rough waters of the pandemic storm. It looked like the pier was going to be okay. I had laid out the programming for the year. So, when the recruiter called, it gave me the space, and really the permission to kind of think about, what would this mean? What would this look like? Is this the right time for me?
And then, talking to the board, and admiring the work that they had done, the hard work, in trying to respond in a responsible and meaningful way to some of the charges that the community had for the foundation to do better and be better, not just in response to George Floyd or the pandemic, just historically how it had interacted, or didn’t interact, with the poetry community at large. And that kind of resonated with me, because my whole career in arts administration had been all about partnerships, collaborations, connecting with the community. And so, it felt like all of those jobs in the past had prepared me to be able to do the work, guide the work that the foundation’s ambition was for the future.
What is the mission of the Poetry Foundation now?
That’s a good question. It’s one that we’re asking. If you ask what’s the mission as it’s stated now, it is to elevate the best poetry to the widest possible audience, in its most simplistic terms. One of the charges I have is to lead the foundation through a strategic-planning process. And I think that’s going to be first and foremost, one of the questions we have: What is our mission?
The foundation bears the responsibility and the weight of this enormous gift that it was given, almost twenty years ago. There’ve been some growing pains, trying to figure out what that means. What’s your responsibility to the broader poetry community? What’s your place as a member of the cultural community of Chicago; the ambition to be a national, or even internationally recognized institution and home for poetry. It’s a question I think about a lot. What is our mission? It’s a question that I’m asking stakeholders, colleagues, poets. What is our mission? It’s a question that the staff is asking itself. And so, I think that’s really going to be the driver for how we move forward in the future.
I also wrestle with this notion of “foundation” and what that means. The Poetry Foundation is an operating foundation, not a grant-making foundation. So, it’s a bit of a confusing misnomer, because the expectation is, you are this grand resource for the field in a sector. And we can be, and we should be. We are fortunate to have a vast amount of resources. But the mission isn’t necessarily about the distribution of those resources in the way that a traditional foundation is. As an operating foundation, the primary mission in the past had been to ensure the sustainability of the magazine. But when you have the room that we have, you can do a lot more than just support a literary publication, and quite honestly, there is an obligation to try to see how we can best use all of our resources, beyond the pocketbook, to elevate, not just the best poetry, but to elevate the work of others that are also committed to the art of poetry and poets in America.
As an outsider, watching what happened last year, the intensity of the Poetry uproar seemed odd, only because the foundation issued a statement. Obviously, it was perceived as not being enough. But it was a statement. It wasn’t like they ignored it, or took the wrong stance. Do you think that that was largely because of a misunderstanding of the nature of the organization as a non-grant-making organization? Because that seemed to be what some of the –
—some of the dialogue was about: You need to help people, and you can help people, and you should help people, but you’re not helping people.
I think it was—well, it was that, and not being an active partner with the community. I’ve said this to colleagues in the field, that I get it. We’re like the rich uncle at the picnic. But there’s a lot more that we can do, in addition to financially supporting the sector and poets.
So what are the other ways that we can think of ourselves as being a resource and partner and a collaborator to the field? How do we leverage the marketing reach that we have via our platforms? How do we leverage the opportunities we might have to collaborate with other foundations to really maximize financial resources for the field? How do we even leverage the expertise of staff and board that might be able to lend expertise, counsel, to small organizations that are trying to build intellectual capacity, board capacity, professional development opportunities. I want to be more holistic in the approach, and I think the responsibility that the people, early on with the foundation, of managing that huge gift, I think they took it really seriously. I would imagine it was a very daunting burden. You’re entrusted with this gift, and it’s a lot of money, so you want to make sure that you’re proper stewards of it. And so, I think that might have morphed into a mentality of scarcity of resources that we have to hold this really tight, because it’s precious, and it was a gift, and you want to make sure that we do all the right things, at the expense of having a spirit of generosity, and thinking beyond just the pocketbook. So, I think had there been a history of really being in-step, being open to partnerships, thinking beyond just money, and how to be a real member of the community, it may not have met with such outrage in issuing a statement.
I mean—and I think they were right to issue a statement and say we stand in solidarity with the Black community—when the reality was, eighty percent of the published poets were white men. That doesn’t demonstrate much solidarity with the Black community. It’s one thing to come out and be in solidarity with the movement, but it’s another when your actions of the past don’t hold up that value.
How does the magazine fit into the foundation? Do they have independence? Or are they completely absorbed at this point? And the editorship is still open.
The magazine is one of the flagship programs of the foundation. So that’s how I think of it. But there are lots of programs at the foundation. The website is a huge resource, the vast biographies of poets—over 3,000 on the website. There’s the digital programming, the podcast, the library. You know, there are over 30,000 volumes of works in the archive here. To me the magazine is a program of the foundation. It’s a big program; it’s an important program, but I guess what I’m trying to do is to make sure that the magazine isn’t separated out from the rest of the work of the foundation.
The magazine is a tool that we use to advance the mission of the foundation. The work of the magazine should be in alignment with the work of the other programs: the community outreach work, the education work that we do with teachers—We just finished a huge, successful, two-week summer teachers’ institute. it’s a cog in the wheel, it’s a spoke in the wheel, it kind of turns things, but it’s not separated out.
So, it’s not independent.
It’s not independent.
You hire the new editor?
Yes. Myself and the board of directors.
Will the editor have editorial independence, or will they—how is that going to work, and is that a change?
Yeah, it was pretty independent. It was very much, you know, I want to be careful how I say this, because I’m actually saying it as an outsider. Because I haven’t had the benefit of working with an editor, yet. I think what the absence of an editor in this time period has shown the team is that there is an opportunity here for approaching the work with a new lens, and a different model. The foundation, in the absence of an editor, launched a guest editor program. We’ve had some really great success with this guest editor approach. In fact, we’re extending it. Initially, the commitment was for three guest editors to get through the end of the year. You mentioned the vacancy of the editor, and that’s true, and so, we’re extending the guest editor program, because we want to allow the luxury of time, to not feel pressed, that, “Oh my God, we gotta hurry up and get an editor,” without being really thoughtful about what that means, what that looks like, how this person will then continue to make room at the table for other voices to have an input into the editorial process, to ensure that the staff, that the team is also contributing. And then also that there’s some alignment with the editorial reflected through our digital platforms.
So, it’s a big opportunity that warrants time to be really thoughtful about how to approach it. In fact, as an editor, I might call on you for some advice—
—on how to do that, because there are a lot of factors to consider.
The magazine is much older than the Foundation.
It has a huge historical legacy. My perception of it has always been that there’s like these two strands, and they’re both very strong in Chicago. One strand is what I would call the Poetry magazine strand, which was—and this is before the Foundation, because the Foundation has changed it a little bit. But that would be the academic, WASPy–
—sort of institutional, the history of poetry. This sort of grand thing that’s very rarified and exclusive, right? And arrogant at times. You know?
And then there’s the other strand, which is like the spoken word, slams, and hip-hop, and some of the connections to music, also very strong in Chicago, but they feel like they live in different universes. Do you see it that way?
I think the observation is right and accurate, and you know, back to the point earlier, about wrestling with what is our mission? Even the statement of, “to elevate the best.” Who defines the best? What does that mean? How do we get out of the position of trying to frame the foundation or the magazine as the kingmaker? We know, because of the legacy of the magazine, there’s a lot of prestige, whether real, perceived, or legit, of getting your work published in the magazine. Okay, but who decides that? Who’s the decider? What is the best? Those kinds of adjectives, I think, have really crippled the ability of the magazine and the foundation to really expand what contemporary poetry is. And to showcase the wide range of poetry by being so narrowly focused to a very privileged view of what the best represents.
So, yes, the new editor, we absolutely want somebody who is going to push and change and expand the work that has historically been presented in the magazine. I don’t think you have to compromise the integrity of the work by saying you’re making room for new forms.
Right. So, the prestige remains.
Yeah, I think it can still have a commitment to excellence, but that, it’s a broader definition.
When do you reopen? When are things coming back?
Yeah, that’s the question everybody’s asking, right? So, we have, today, targeted the team coming back to the building after Labor Day. Of course, on a daily basis, we’re watching to see what happens with the virus and the variant and all that stuff. I think we want to have time in the building as a team before we open up to the public. Also, programming takes a lot of advance time for planning. As it is now, we’ll continue with virtual planning, virtual programming through the end of the year. We may make the library accessible via appointments in the fall. But we’re really just throwing a lot of spaghetti on the wall and trying to gauge that up against where we are with the state of things, with the virus, with the city mandates and health recommendations. And we’ll just see and play it by ear.
In the interim, we’re trying to think of things that we still can do to engage people with poetry, with the building. We’ve got an installation that will happen with the building on the exterior that people can engage with, without having to physically come in. So, we’re just taking it day-by-day. We’re going to see how things go, and whether we might be able to welcome people back to the space.
Taking the pandemic issues out of the question, if you were reopening next month and were going to have public programming, what would look different than before your arrival? And what would you retain?
I think it’s a whole frame of mind shift. I would like to move from thinking about this space as this kind of shrine to poetry. Here’s the deal: I always say, I’m not the head of a foundation. I feel that I’m the head of a service organization. We are here; we exist to be in service to the art form; we are in service to poets; we are in service to our community. This is not ours. This is theirs. And so, it’s how do we make this a welcoming space for poets, people who love poetry, people who are inspired by arts and culture? It starts with just creating an atmosphere of a radical welcome, that when people walk through the door, right away they feel that this is a place for them.
Now, that’s going to be a different kind of vibe, quite frankly. You know, the challenge in having your office in a public building is, it can get really noisy and chaotic. And we’re talking about people who are writers, and need quiet spaces. And it’s a library. And so, how do you find this balance of the kinetic energy of activity from people in your space, while you’re also trying to create a work environment.
But it’s something that I’m used to. I worked in the Cultural Center for years. I would have a trumpet quartet outside my office, or an Indian wedding happening. You get used to co-existing in spaces with the public. And I think we have to do that. One of the motivations in doing some outdoor art installations, interventions, is just to let the community know we’re here. You know, it’s a very beautiful, elegant building, but it’s also very imposing and not one that screams: “Hey! C’mon in!” And so, how could we use art, even as an invitation to people to come into the space?
There are some limitations. The performance space has a capacity that is really limited, and so, let’s not just expect people all to come here, but what can we do to push poetry out more. And partner, collaborate with venues and spaces at the community level to really introduce people to poetry, where they’re at. And not just rely on everyone having to come here.
Talk a little bit about your personal connection to poetry and how it’s evolving now.
I’ve talked about this before. You know, growing up in the seventies, you studied poetry in school; you’d recite poetry in assemblies. I used to write poetry. Got away from it with the busy-ness of life, from time to time. But in the interview process for this job, I got reconnected to poetry and remembered, oh yeah, I used to really have this strong connection to poetry. And in particular, I think it’s hard not to have been someone that grew up in the seventies in Chicago, and not have poetry as a part of your DNA, when you grew up with Gwendolyn Brooks, and Oscar Brown, Jr. and the slam poet movement. Even at Gallery 37, we did a lot of spoken-word programs with youth. I got introduced to Young Chicago Authors, and was really involved with those guys. The Writers’ Guild. So the thread of it was always there, and sometimes stronger than others.
The best part of the job, right now, is that I love being reconnected and being immersed in poetry every single day. And having the luxury of being able to read at least three, four poems a day; learning so much about it. Particularly for someone who thought they knew the arts community. I thought I knew everything and everybody. And now, I’m getting exposed to this whole new world that I had been marginally connected to, but not really immersed in. So, that’s been the best part of it.
You mentioned YCA, and I wanted to ask you about them, because they are obviously an organization that’s in a serious state of crisis at this point, but has played a really important role in the city, and that’s one form of poetry that we were talking about.
Do you see the foundation having a role in helping sort it out? Or what do you think is going to happen?
Well, I hope good things can happen. I think the failings of some leadership in the past shouldn’t take down the legacy of the good work of what it represents or what it does for young people; it shouldn’t tear down the institution of what Young Chicago Authors represents. With the right leadership change, and commitment, I think they can get their footing back, and I hope they’re able to do that. I mean, there are different circumstances, but I think the same kind of challenge of leadership failings are also mirrored here. And so, if I’m given the chance to try and right the ship, I would also want the person who steps in at YCA to also have that chance for change and renewal.
I think everybody’s learning, right? Everybody’s being called out on past bad behavior at all kinds of levels. And they should. If given the opportunity to make it right, we then should allow these organizations, these institutions the space to try and honor the work and do right by their community. So, if there’s any way that we can be helpful to them as they navigate that, then we should.
How do you feel about the broader cultural landscape, right now? This sort of crazy transition we’ve been in—not crazy—but –
Yeah – crazy.
I don’t want to imply that it’s crazy in the sense that it’s misguided. It’s crazy in the scale of it, and the rapidity of it, right? We’ve seen a massive transition and transformation. How do you feel about it? What do you think is going to happen?
Overall, I’m encouraged. It was a really scary period six months ago when you thought that a lot of what we had in terms of the community might disappear, that people weren’t going to make it through. And it looks like we did. We realized how resilient the community is and can be. Belts were tightened in a very painful way. But we’re here. And I think the great thing about arts and culture is that crises really become the impetus for a new wonderful work. I think over the next five years, we’re going to see some incredible work being created, developed, presented that was directly in response to all of what we’ve been through. I feel encouraged. It’s still going to be hard. I don’t think we’re out of the water, yet. There’s a lot of trauma to overcome. There’s a lot of rebuilding that needs to be done. It’s gonna take time for our audiences to still find a comfort level, and to get back to the place where we were.
But I think it’s also been a period of reflection for a lot of organizations to really get back, grounded to their mission, purpose, to what’s important. And then, how to operate more efficiently and smartly, and I think out of that, we’ll see some good things. So, I remain encouraged.
Anything I didn’t ask you that you want to talk about?
I don’t think so. I’ll just add, I’m grateful for coming to an organization with such a committed team. The team here has been through a lot over the last year, and the fact that they’re still here, they’re still committed and dedicated, despite everything, I think there’s a lot of inspiration in that.
I think that might be true at other places, too. Folks have been through a lot. It’s been really, really hard and traumatic. And even for places that have lots of resources, like this one, the trauma is still the same. People still wrestle with family matters, the isolation that the pandemic brought on. Like, it’s all the same. We all went through the same thing. And now, we’re starting to emerge and very gingerly come back out. I’m really excited for the day when we’re all in here. It’s really odd to be in a position of leadership and there’s nobody here. Being a leader on Zoom is not the ideal way to start a new job. But you know, you make it work.
That brings to mind one more question. Tell me a little bit about your board. Is it going through transition, as well?
The board’s gone through a total and an ongoing transformation. In addition to my role being new, there are three new board members that have also joined. The level of engagement for the board has been kicked up to levels that I don’t think any of them imagined, in the absence of leadership in place. And we’re going through a period of healing and renewal in terms of board and staff relations. Where these two bodies might have been very disconnected, we’re now working toward finding our way to each other that’s supportive to the ideals and mission that we want to share. The goal is that the strategic planning process will really work to strengthen a lot of that. But, no, the board has been fantastic. I cannot imagine anyone stepping into this role without being inspired by the level of commitment that the board made through those really difficult transition periods. They launched and committed to conducting an equity audit of the organization. We just did a report back to the community about what that audit revealed, and what the commitments from the board are going to be, and have been made. There was a commitment from the board in response to the lack of financial support to the community, to allocate a million dollars over two years to the field. And they doubled-down. We just closed out $2 million dollars in less than one year. There’s a real responsiveness and an eagerness from the board to see the foundation really honor, not just the mission, but the possibilities and the ambition of what the foundation imagined it could be.