4 Arts-Minded Duos Who Are Seriously Enriching Chicago's Cultural & Creative Scene

By Elle Cashin, Jaclyn Jermyn, Kelsey Ogletree and Stephen Ostrowski | December 2, 2019 | People

When creatives meet philanthropists, a world-class cultural scene is born. Meet four of Chicago’s most dynamic arts duos.

Rena Butler and Meg Callahan

Player: Rena Butler
Originally from the Beverly neighborhood, Rena Butler (@renabutler) was an athletic child, throwing herself into swimming, water polo, basketball and Girl Scouts. But dance was what she stuck with, drawn to its elegance from a young age. “I could still be a bull with a glamour-girl facade,” she says. She joined Hubbard Street in 2017 and this year received the Princess Grace Award for choreography. For Butler, being onstage is about more than just dance. “There’s a beautiful element of humanity that shines through the work we do,” she says.When not onstage, she’s traveling the world, having been to 23 countries so far, or taking French classes at L’école Française in Lakeview. “I’m still just a girl from the South Side,” she says. “I could have never imagined a life like this for myself.”

Patron: Meg Callahan
Growing up in New Jersey, Meg Callahan was exposed to the arts as a child, catching dance performances in NYC and even taking classes at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. “My family prized the arts equally with academia,” she says. When she and her husband, Tim, moved to Chicago in 1992, they continued the tradition with their three daughters, who also danced. Callahan discovered Hubbard Street at Ravinia. “I was so impressed with the athleticism, the expertise of the dancers, the quality of the choreography,” she remembers. “Everything I saw that night literally brought me to tears.” The family is now a strong supporter of Hubbard Street, underwriting choreography as well as supporting the troupe’s general operations. “If there’s a vibrant, artistic culture in a city,” says Callahan, “that’s what gives it life.” –KO

Patron: Sam Landers

sam_landers.jpgSam Landers

Former advertising and marketing pro Sam Landers isn’t just passionate about the next class of photographers—he’s helping shape what it looks like, delivering books, films and exhibitions on the subject as a leader of boutique publisher Trope. A can’t-miss talent of whom Landers is particularly fond? Tobi Shonibare, who featured in Trope London, the sophomore release from Trope’s City Edition series. “When you go through [Tobi’s] portfolio, you see an incredible amount of discipline and rigor in terms of what he shows,” Landers enthuses. The relationship continues to blossom, with Shonibare’s inclusion in a future exhibition at Trope’s new headquarters, a short documentary on London photographers, and an upcoming solo book of Shonibare’s work from the firm’s Emerging Photographers series. Reflects Landers: “When you work with people like Tobi, who are self-motivated and have a point of view, it makes you work harder to produce a better product.” –SO

Player: Tobi Shonibare

Tobi Shonibare

Talk about successful pivots: London expat Tobi Shonibare first worked as a legal consultant for several years before pivoting into photography full-time. Judging by the bona fides—more than 154K Instagram followers (@tobishinobi), work for brands like Audi and Adidas, and a senior content creator position at blue-chip firm Havas—it was a prescient move. Growing his profile in Chicago, where he relocated three years ago, the 37-year-old has found in Landers a go-to mentor and sounding board: “I’ll pick up the phone and say, ‘Sam, I’m thinking about doing this,’ and he’ll give me his opinions.” As he continues to navigate a challenging and competitive industry, the Trope partner continues to serve as an important professional and personal compass: “[Sam’s] position within the field has reaffirmed [the importance of] being a nice person,” says Shonibare, adding, “Your representation is as important as any of the work that you’re producing.” –SO

Patron: Ellen-Blair Chube

Ellen-Blair Chube

Museum of Contemporary Art trustees aren’t figureheads; they’re vibrant, engaged players in the community. There’s no better example of this than Ellen-Blair Chube, by day the managing director and client service officer at investment banking firm William Blair. An art collector in her own right—she’s loaning a piece from her personal collection for an upcoming exhibit—Chube has been on the board since 2017. Growing up outside Chicago, Chube visited the MCA’s first location on Ontario. “That’s where the cool art is,” she remembers thinking. More importantly, the art is inclusive. “The MCA is committed to rewriting the canon, making sure art history reflects the diversity we know exists in the world,” she says, referencing upcoming exhibits by artists of color and the fact that, since 2015, female artists have represented 50 percent of what’s been shown. “I think of diversity as a reality, inclusivity as a choice,” Chube says. “I haven’t found another arts institution in Chicago, or beyond, as mindful as the MCA when it comes to that.” –EC

Player: Michael Darling

Michael Darling

Michael Darling (@mdubdarling) has big shoes to fill in 2020—his own.  This fall marked the end of his trilogy of blockbuster exhibits—David Bowie Is, Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg and Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech—which shattered attendance records and attracted new audiences. Next summer, Darling celebrates a decade in the role, and everyone is waiting to see what he dreams up next. “With our exhibitions, we’re trying to lead the art conversation in a particular direction,” Darling says. “For us, I think that is increasingly about global issues and transcultural connections between people.” He’ll see a few long-planned shows come to fruition this season and is currently incubating an idea for a comic-book exhibit. Whatever the show, Darling’s goal for the MCA remains the same: “to be recognized as a vital and safe place where people can come and have difficult conversations, see difficult things, challenge themselves,” he says, “and not feel like commerce is pushing down on them.” –EC

Patron: Cindy Sargent

cindy_sargent.jpgCindy Sargent

Cindy Sargent’s first memory of music was messing around on a piano at home. “I think my parents had had enough of that and my ‘compositions,’ and had me take music lessons,” she says. As one of the women responsible for the endowment of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Mead Composer-in-Residence, music has been a lifelong passion. A member of both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association board and the League of American Orchestras emeritus board, she has a soft spot for contemporary classical music and how it can be a bridge for getting younger audiences into the symphony—a sentiment the current Mead Composer-in-Residence, Missy Mazzoli, shares.

“We’re often criticized for our audiences being not so diverse,” says Sargent. “Missy has explained her wish to use MusicNOW to expose music that’s not heard as much, but that she has decided is worth hearing. It’s fantastic as far as I’m concerned.” The role of composer-in-residence—the first fully endowed role of its kind for an American symphony—is something Sargent is profoundly honored to have a hand in supporting. “I have enjoyed getting to know all the composers over the years,” she says. “Someone recently joked that they’re like my children. I think of them more as my contemporaries.” –JJ

Player: Missy Mazzoli

Missy Mazzoli

“When people hear composer-in-residence, they think I’m up in the attic writing,” says Missy Mazzoli (@missymazzoli), Mead Composer-in-Residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But the role, which Mazzoli took on in the summer of 2018, also includes the curation of the CSO’s four-concert contemporary music series, MusicNOW—a responsibility she takes seriously. The current season features six world premieres, including four works commissioned for MusicNOW. Additionally, April 30 to May 3 as part of the CSO main series, the symphony will undertake “Orpheus Undone,” a piece composed by Mazzoli and commissioned by the CSO. She also notes that the CSO team has been extremely receptive of her process. “They have this incredible support for my ideas,” she says, “bringing these new voices into the orbit.” After she departs from the CSO, Mazzoli is looking forward to digging back into the world of opera—last year she became one of the first two women commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera. But for now, she’s savoring the curatorial process. “It has been a great joy to curate MusicNOW and to create this little music utopia—the world as I would like to see it.” –JJ

Photography by: Butler & Callahan photo by Frank Ishman/Shot on location at Hubbard Street Dance; Landers & Shonibare Photos by Frank Ishman/Shot on Location at Trope Publishing Company; Chube & Darling Photos by Frank Ishman/Shot on Location at The MCA; Sargent & Mazzoli Photos by Akin Girav/Shot on Location at Chicago Symphony Center