Board of Directors Spotlight: A Conversation with Bill Kahn

Urban Gateways aims to incorporate diverse artistic perspectives in its online content – including the voices of teaching and touring artists, students, parents, teachers and administrators, staff, supporters, and our Board of Directors. Here to kick off our Board Spotlight series is Board member Bill Kahn. We won’t say much more about Bill because he says it better himself!

Urban Gateways [UG]: We’ll start out with the facts: How long have you been on the Board of Directors for Urban Gateways?

Bill Kahn: For the life of me I can’t remember – it’s over 20 years! It’s got to be in a file somewhere! I don’t know how long exactly, but it’s been a long time.

How about talking a little about yourself for our readers? Your career, your interests, etc.

I’ve been in marketing and communications, and corporate events, throughout my career. I was Executive Vice President of Jack Morton Worldwide, where I was employed for 22 years. My area of expertise was branded corporate events, internally and externally. I eventually formed my own company and continued to do the same thing with an emphasis on strategic communications – that’s Kahn Creative Partners, which I still have. I also co-founded a software company. That’s my background!

What’s really relevant to Urban Gateways is that in my career, I saw firsthand the influence that creative people have on achieving business goals. My corporate clients were always eager to find creative agencies who were good, engaging problem-solvers. I saw colleagues with fine arts backgrounds play a critical role in helping our clients succeed in business. I’ve seen fine arts graduates form close relationships with corporate businesspeople because they help them creatively.

So, creativity is integral to the development of the workforce. Numeracy, literacy, AND creativity should all be central to education. We need to be investing in the creative potential of students, and what’s great about UG is that it’s helping students unlock their creative potential, which is good for their future and good for the human condition AND for workforce development. It’s also good for engaging kids and keeping them in school. It achieves all those goals. We have an urgent need to keep kids in school. So how cool that Urban Gateways does that while also helping them unlock their creative potential!

Can you talk a little about your family’s involvement with Urban Gateways? Was it your father who was an employee here?

My dad worked with [Urban Gateways Founder] Jesse Woods many many years ago. He was the assistant executive director of Urban Gateways! He had spent most of his years in public health, then retired, and was introduced to Jesse Woods. He helped Jesse organize and shape the organization in its early years. He continued his work with Jesse’s successor, Ronne Hartfield. Later, he encouraged me to join the Board. So that’s what brought me in! My dad had a warm relationship with the broader Urban Gateways community that made a deep impression on me.

How have the arts affected you personally?

I studied photography in high school, at New Trier. I remember we used to go to the Art Institute and sit in a special gallery where we were presented with images by the world’s greatest photographers, and that had a real impact on me. I went on to collect photography, too – especially Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was known for what he called the “decisive moment”. Each image of his captured a quintessential moment. Sort of a photo-journalist, full of artistic, historical, and political significance. I was never a performing artist, but I had a deep connection to and love for the visual arts. It touched me as part of my school experience, and that helped lead to my career – visual creative arts applied to business, marketing and advertising.

I think if kids have a creative passion and that passion can be unlocked, that’s key. To that end, I love that Urban Gateways includes all the art forms. You look at how diverse our world is today, and you see that we have to engage with it through as many different channels as possible.

How has your Board of Directors involvement strengthened your commitment to arts education?

I think that anything you do, you should bring your full self to the activity. Being involved with Urban Gateways reinforces a really important part of myself, and that’s a passionate love for the arts. It amplifies part of who I am, in all my interactions – professional, work, and personal, I always talk about Urban Gateways. I love to talk about Urban Gateways. You think about the issues that Chicago has as an urban center, and Urban Gateways programs are actually providing value to address those fundamental issues. Everything about Urban Gateways, to me, is good. The things they do, the way they conduct themselves, the way they touch communities.

I went to a public school in Englewood a few summers ago and attended the school’s year-end assembly; an Urban Gateways performing arts program was the centerpiece. You drive up to the school and see signs warning you not to be carrying a weapon. Immediately, that’s a clear signal of an issue that Chicago communities face. Then I went into the school, and you know, you hear so many people criticizing teachers, but these teachers were working their butts off with minimal resources and so much passion. The kids were well-mannered and ENGAGED. The students were truly doing their best. I just thought, thank god there are people [teachers] with this commitment to our city! I can’t say for sure that those particular kids’ lives were transformed, but over time for a developing young person, all these positive influences reinforce each other. Urban Gateways can offer a consistent, ongoing touch, and over time, if commitment continues, you see the positive effects.

I’ve seen Urban Gateways evolve over many years, and I think now, in its current iteration, it has never been better. UG has navigated through a tough period [for funding] very successfully, and that’s important, because otherwise students might not have access to the arts.