Of the many ideas at Chicago Ideas Week, the biggest one to catch on may be Chicago Ideas Week itself.
We've reached Year Three of this annual festival of discussions, demonstrations and interactive experiences, and what recently seemed new now feels institutionalized. Chicago Ideas Week, along with its yellow balloons and banners, has become part of the city's fabric just like Mayor Rahm Emanuel's reign over a similar time frame, and that's likely no coincidence.
The mayor is Ideas Week's co-chairman and has been an active participant, both in actual programming (he will lead a Divvy bike tour Monday as one of this year's Labs and also will participate in the "Politics: State of the Union" Talk Tuesday evening and an Oct. 20 Master Class discussion with Eataly chef/restaurateur Mario Batali and moderator Bill Kurtis) and behind-the-scenes support.
"We love Ideas Week," Emanuel senior adviser David Spielfogel says. "I feel like it's gotten in the bloodstream a little more. Ideas Week itself has done a good job of expanding beyond downtown venues and figuring out how to engage communities, and that is rare."
Ideas Week receives no city money, its budget supplied by sponsorships, grants and donations, including a sizable one from Brad Keywell, the Groupon co-founder who launched Ideas Week in 2011. Ideas Week Executive Director Jessica Malkin describes the festival as "intellectual theater," two words suggesting the intersection of serious-minded discussions and cultural experiences.
Last year Ideas Week took to Twitter to ask the question: "How do we get illegal guns off streets?" This year the festival is collaborating with Living Rooms Across America on an intimate discussion in a Hyde Park residence Sunday evening about gun violence, with young people, activists and city representatives participating. A one-hour Master Class titled "Guns — Solutions and Action" will follow on Monday at noon (at Morningstar, 22 W. Washington St.).
From Year One to Two, Ideas Week doubled its size and scope and still reported filling every seat. For Year Three the festival has maintained its size, planning for 25,000 attendees while presenting about the same number of events, but deepened its focus.
Malkin, who reports that as of early this week 17,000 out of the 25,000 tickets had been sold (3,000 ahead of last year's pace), says one of this year's priorities is to help attendees "activate themselves" after sessions — that is, to provide outlets for people to pursue topics raised in a program, such as volunteering at a public high school after a talk about education. Each of the 24 Talks and eight Master Classes will include an hour-long reception afterward to push forward the conversation and related activities.
"We want people to have a road map to getting more engaged in the Chicago community," Malkin says. "There are a lot of motivated people who come to Chicago Ideas Week, but if you don't capture them right after a talk, the chances of them coming back (to work on an issue) is a lot lower."
In addition to the dozens of Labs — including former Mayor Richard M. Daley leading tours of Millennium Park and the under-construction Maggie Daley Park — this year's festival is introducing 16 Youth Labs, behind-the-scenes tours/demonstrations that include visits to Vosges Haut-Chocolat, gravitytank, the Chicago Department of Aviation at O'Hare and Chicago Bulls players and executives (and a preseason game) at the United Center. Malkin says 500 students will participate in this year's festival, compared to 100 last year.
Ideas Week resident artist and Bronzeville native Hebru Brantley's also worked with kids to create his multicolored-statues installation, "The Watch," in Pioneer Court on North Michigan Avenue.
"I came from where they came from," says Brantley, who is hosting a Youth Lab and participating in next Sunday's sold-out "Creative Process: A Method to the Madness" Talk. "To spark something in them is what makes it worth it."
Says Malkin of the festival's youth programming: "It's redefining who these kids will look up to. That's our hope, that it's not just athletes and celebrities, that it's people who are deeply intellectual and curious."
Speaking of celebrities: playwright/actor Tracy Letts and Batali will be among the six "Creative Process" panelists; bestselling authors Terry McMillan and Malcolm Gladwell are participating in, respectively, "Storytellers: The Written Word" (Tuesday at 4 p.m.) and "Lessons: The Choice Is Yours" (Monday at 7:30 p.m.); TV chefs Cat Cora and Chicago's Graham Elliot will be mulling "Food: At the Chef's Table" Tuesday at noon; and actor Michael Shannon, movie director/author M. Night Shyamalan and fashion designer Donna Karan will be part of the day-long, invitation-only "Edison Talks" program Thursday. All of these events are at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.
But the bulk of the speakers are people whose accomplishments aren't so culturally front and center, such as Italian skydiver/BASE-jumper Roberta Mancino and astronaut Rex Walheim (both in "Explorers: Choose Your Own Adventure" Friday at 4:30 p.m. at the Museum of Contemporary Art) and the innovators and entrepreneurs in Friday's inaugural "Tech Summit" (1 to 6 p.m. at the Cadillac Palace).
"People need to realize often it's the speakers that you have not heard of that are not household names that surprise and delight you the most," Keywell says. "The point here is to be open to new ideas and new approaches to things and trust that we are curating a program that brings really exceptional speakers to you to let you have a taste of how they see the world."
Keywell has said his impulse in launching Ideas Week was to create a successor of sorts to such ideas-oriented programs as TED, the Aspen Ideas Festival and the World Economic Forum (a.k.a. Davos) but one that's widely accessible and affordable (all Talk and Lab tickets are $15, with many given away) and based in an urban environment.
"This would be very different if it weren't in a big city," Spielfogel says. "I think we add a backdrop to it that makes the conversation more exciting and compelling."
"I would question whether any other city could pull this off as Chicago has," Keywell says. "Nearly every civic, community, cultural and other institution that we've reached out to to engage and collaborate with has responded with their arms wide open and become a part of Chicago Ideas Week, and that's part of why we've been able to grow so fast."
Yet for all of its high-minded content, Michelle Boone, the city's Cultural Affairs and Special Events commissioner and an Ideas Week advisory board member, stresses that the festival retains a cultural flavor — and not just because it includes programs on food, fashion, film, art and architecture.
"Of course, it's a cultural event," she says. "Culture is about ideas. It's about the expression of ideas."