LINCOLN SQUARE — The Old Town School of Folk Music’s executive director is retiring, citing a desire to focus on his health and begin a new chapter in his life, the school announced Thursday.
Bau Graves, 66, took a leave of absence from Old Town in November after being hospitalized with serious blockages in three coronary arteries, according to the school. His leave came at a turbulent time for the school, which is facing protests over the sale of its former Lincoln Park headquarters and a unionization movement from its teachers.
“It has been my honor and great privilege to serve Old Town School and its extended community for 11 years. They have been, by far, the most challenging — and deeply rewarding — years of my professional life,” Graves said.
“Being director of Old Town School is a total immersion experience, and it was my good fortune to have been immersed in a collective that is the most warm, welcoming, creative and, to me, loving community that I have ever experienced.”
Graves, 66, has served as the school’s executive director for the past 11 years. During his tenure the school expanded its Lincoln Square campus with construction of the East Building at 4545 N. Lincoln Ave. and, more recently, decided to sell the school’s longtime home at 909 W. Armitage Ave.
That move garnered criticism from teachers, students and longtime fans of the school, which based its operations out of that Lincoln Park building for decades before moving to Lincoln Square.
He also focused educational programing at Old Town so that 100 of its teachers went on paid performance and education exchanges with 10 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. This programing allowed global artists to come to Chicago for residencies at the school.
With Graves stepping down, Deputy Director Rashida Phillips will continue as the school’s interim executive director, a position she’s held since Graves first took his leave of absence. Additionally, Kish Khemani, the chair of the schools’ board, said a board committee is set to begin the process to find a permanent successor for Graves.
“It’s important this process is thorough, not rushed and to give ourselves time to consider input from the community of teachers, staff and students as we develop criteria for this selection,” Khemani said.
“We deeply appreciate Bau’s many contributions to Old Town School of Folk Music during his service. From successful fundraising for, and construction of, the Lincoln Square campus to his vision for Old Town School making a local and international impact, he brought music and dance to countless people whose lives have been enriched by our programs.”
Khemani also said the school hopes Graves’ recovery goes well and that he remains in good health.
When news of the plan to sell the 909 W. Armitage Ave. property to create an endowment fund for the school was made public the school’s community was unhappy, and began a campaign asking the school to reconsider.
Last month the school told members of “Save Old Town School” the building wouldn’t be put on the market until March 31, giving those who want to save it more time to negotiate.
Additionally, the school’s faculty has also filed formal paperwork with the National Labor Relations Board and signed cards to form a union with the Illinois Federation of Teachers.
Dave Zibell, a spokesperson for Old Town, said the timeline for the building’s sale remains in place.
“The board is still committed to extending the discussion period through March 2019,” Zibell said. “[And] our position remains neutral [on the unionization drive] and we respect their right to organize.”
Rich Gordon, a member of Save Old Town, said he’s “sorry to hear that Bau’s health is such that he can’t come back to work.
“It’s important to realize that he’s done a lot of important work at the school,” Gordon said. “Especially since he arrived after the board had decided to build the new building in Lincoln Square and take on debt to do so.”
Gordon says Graves should be given a lot of credit for getting the school debt free via a major fundraising campaign after it expanded its campus in Lincoln Square.
“But not everything he accomplished was popular, a whole lot of us still question the Armitage sale,” Gordon said. “But the challenges the school now has are significant and it’s probably time for a new director to take them on.”
As for the school’s leadership saying it wanted feedback from teachers, students and staff during the selection process, Gordon said it was nice for the board to recognize how invested all levels of the school’s community are in its future.
“And Save Old Town continues to believe the fundamental challenge facing the school is building enrollment and reaching people who aren’t taking classes now or maybe are taking fewer classes than they did before,” Gordon said. “That’s the central challenge facing the school and hopefully the new executive director will see that as an opportunity and not a problem.”
Chris Walz, a teacher at the school and member of the Old Town Teachers Organization, said he hopes Graves’ health improves.
“I’m sure the strain of being executive director was a heavy one,” Walz said. “I’m still trying to process this announcement like everyone else is. I wish Bau and his family the best and want to thank him for his work and service during his time at the school.”
Walz said the search for a new executive director creates an opportunity to revitalize the school and like Gordon, is glad the board is pursuing feedback from the school’s community during the search.
“I think teachers and students working together along with the school, the whole community can be reenergized by this transition,” Walz said. “Our union is looking forward to helping be part of that search.”
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