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Staff Rallies from Home to Plan 2020 Festival

On the morning of March 13, under the threat of COVID-19, Festival CEO Paul Winberg decided to send everyone home. Festival staff sprang into action, grabbing hard drives, downloading files and procuring all the necessary equipment to launch a major music festival—by remote.

To serve an average of 300,000 people per year, the Grant Park Music Festival operates with a year-round staff of fourteen year-round people. But come summer, 50 ushers, dozens of volunteers, as well as an army of professionals working in music education, patron services, security, facilities, the music library, and artistic personnel all come on board. Adding the chorus and orchestral musicians to the tally, a staff of fourteen becomes hundreds. To assure this annual cycle runs smoothly, the year-round staff has to keep a lot of balls in the air. Today, they’re doing that by remote.

“The nature of our business,” said Festival CEO Paul Winberg, “and the fact that we all have such broad-spanning jobs and duties, plus the intersections between what one department is doing and how it has impact on another—I may be really old-fashioned, but I think it’s really important that we don’t work like this under normal circumstances.”

Having a company culture where ideas not only come from regular meetings, but from chance encounters around the coffee machine is a vital part of the Festival’s operation. “I really miss that,” said Winberg. Yet something surprising has happened in its place: Technology, such as video conferencing and instant messaging, has helped to erase the distance. Daily meetings not only keep operations on track, they’re helping connect a group of people who are otherwise isolated.

“I think we’ve actually gotten closer,” said Jill Hurwitz, the Festival’s Chief Marketing Officer. “Our office has always been really friendly, but now, when you ask someone how she’s doing, it’s a more serious question.” Her team, which conferences twice daily, always begins meetings with a personal check-in—to lend support and assess how each person is doing—before moving on to the business at hand. "We laugh about our new routines, compare notes on where to get groceries," said Hurwitz.

“It has required everyone to elevate their level of trust in one another,” said Winberg. “We need to know that things are getting done—and they are. It’s inspiring to witness. Everyone is coping with this situation together—because we’re all experiencing this together, this international crisis. And we’re all figuring out how to stay focused and do this job.”

At times like this, Winberg likes to reflect on advice he was given early in his career by Brent Assink, former CEO of the San Francisco Symphony. “He told me that running an orchestra is probably one of the most challenging jobs there is,” he said. “So the most important thing is that you surround yourself with A-plus people. And this is one of those moments when I see it in action.”

To be sure, COVID-19 has filled everyone’s lives with uncertainty. For the staff of the Grant Park Music Festival, it has disrupted a well-oiled machine, yet these arts professionals are facing every possibility that there will be concerts starting June 10. And so they work. At the same time, they are continually adjusting and conferring on how they can best serve the community in a time of crisis.

“We were founded, back in 1935, to uplift the spirts of weary Chicagoans during the Great Depression,” said Winberg. “Now I think being able to produce a festival this summer is the most important thing we could be doing.”