Chicago's power players: 6 women to know

Highlighting the movers and shakers of the city's cultural scene

Over the summer there was a palpable sense of enthusiasm when Patricia Barretto formally took the reins at Chicago’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance—a 1,525-seat performance venue nestled on the edge of Millennium Park. Barretto previously served as the Harris’s interim chief after the abrupt departure of former head Paul Organisak, and by many accounts, her appointment was the stability everyone hoped for and ultimately received.

The changes didn’t stop there. Soon after Barretto took over, the Harris promoted Laura Hanssel to Chief Financial Officer and Senior Vice President of Administration; Lori Dimun added Chief Operating Officer to her title as General Manager; and on the administrative side: long-time employees Meghan McNamara and Elizabeth Halajian were promoted to Director of Audience Engagement and Director of Development, respectively.

With a newly vaunted executive team, the Harris can claim bragging rights: it is one of the few venues in the country whose leadership predominantly skews female. That’s just one in a series of good things happening under Barretto's watch, which got us thinking about other prominent female executives making waves in the Chicago cultural scene. Below are several worthy of recognition:

Heather Hartley Executive Director, Audience Architects

Among her many responsibilities, Chicago Dance Month might be Hartley’s most ambitious. It’s also one of her most important. The annual monthlong fest has exploded since it first began five years ago, and it’s given dance organizations something they’ve long wanted in a coalescing initiative of this size and scope: an opportunity to connect directly with people who might not otherwise know them. Credit Hartley for taking it from online initiative to full blown extravaganza, as evidenced by this past year’s kick-off celebration at Navy Pier, which welcomed a dozen dance companies from around the city to participate in a newly crafted cultural parade.

Tania Castroverde Moskalenko Executive Director, Auditorium Theatre

After Brett Batterson left for Memphis to become chief of Memphis’s Orpheum Theatre Group in 2016, the board tapped Moskalenko to run one of the most historic and most beautiful venues in the city. And judging from just a single season at the helm, Moskalenko's influence is being felt on a grassroots level. The former President/CEO of the Center for the Performing Arts and the Great American Songbook Foundation in Indiana has shown a deep reverence for history, as evidenced by the theater's “Golden Celebration of Dance,” an event honoring the 50th anniversary of the Auditorium's grand re-opening following a prolonged closure that lasted more than a quarter century. The celebration features, among others, dancers of American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and the Joffrey Ballet.

Cristina Rocca Programming Director, Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Jeff Alexander took over the CSO from newly minted Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter in 2015. And he brought help. Cristina Rocca has made a career out of doing things differently than most, and it’s shown in CSO’s expansive repertoire over the last two years, highlighted by four new world premieres during the 2016-2017 season alone, commissioned in whole or in part by the orchestra. That was enough to warrant an uncharacteristic shout-out from classical music critic Lawrence Johnson, who asserted that Rocca “deserved plaudits for bringing the CSO back into the 21st century.” And while the latest season at the CSO was met with tepid skepticism, there’s no denying that old favorites have their place, proving that Rocca is keen to the sorts of delicate politicking required to satisfy loyal subscribers with deep pockets. What kind of splash is in store for 2019-2020? We're guessing many people are anxious to find out.

Roell Schmidt Director, Links Hall

Tucked away on Western Avenue, Links’s small but formidable venue plays incubator to some of Chicago’s most experimental and Avant Garde artists. And for respectable rental rates, we might add. One of the people responsible for that is Schmidt, who has directed Links Hall for the better part of 10 years—building relationships in the process and pumping up her rolodex with an envious assortment of contacts. But most impressively, she presided over a move that saw the former Links go from a small pair of studios in Wrigleyville to a substantial performance venue that arguably houses one of the most welcoming bars in the city. That may sound trivial, but the results speak for themselves: people enjoy a drink with a show, and the more they enjoy it, the more Links benefits from the revenue.

Anna D. Shapiro Artistic Director, Steppenwolf Theatre

In 2014, Shapiro took over for the late-great Martha Lavey—a local icon. For most people, the task might seem daunting. But Shapiro has carved her own path while sticking to the founding principles that has made Steppenwolf successful for decades. That has proved to be both effective and forward-thinking, even if negotiating the two is delicate on multiple fronts. One doesn’t need to look far to see her work coming to fruition—from the opening of Steppenwolf’s new lounge area to a re-branding campaign that launched earlier in 2017. For Shapiro, the question always appears to be: What’s next?