OPINION: Kerfuffle Needs a Ker-makeover

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A ChiArts dancer performers for donors at last year's Kerfuffle event. Photograph by Oscar Munoz.

by Valeria Pacheco and Damayanti Wallace

A student waits nervously in the corner of a room, practicing over and over again waiting to be called on stage. There is a murmur in the crowd as they pick at their plates of food. The student walks out. Lights come up, and action.

The student performs like their life depends on it. Once they are done, applause fills the room. Everyone stands, and, after a few “congratulations,” the student is rushed back into a corner, never to be seen (at least by this audience) again.

This is Kerfuffle. Kerfuffle is an annual event organized by The Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts), billed as a night of fun featuring ChiArts students so that board members, alumni, teachers, parents can mingle over dinner and student performances.

Our problem with Kerfuffle is that its organizers, whether they mean to or not, sometimes treat student performers — like cattle even though they are what many people come to see.

Over the past four years there has been a lot of feedback — both positive and negative — surrounding Kerfuffle. Jose Ochoa, artistic director of ChiArts, said that Kerfuffle is fun and celebratory work.

“ChiArts, is one of the only schools that does a gala this way. We are unique: we don’t do it during gala season; it’s on a weekday; we do a lot of things differently,” Ochoa said.

The event started in 2012. Since ChiArts is a nonprofit, donors and sponsors are essential, and Kerfuffle helps the school get money from them. If the event has enough sponsors (especially big ones, such as State Farm Insurance) it’ll increase the number of ticket sales. For example, if one of the sponsors is State Farm, people who are a part of State Farm are more likely to  become interested in ChiArts.

When structuring the event itself, there’s a lot to do. Someone has to be responsible for securing a venue; finding seating, tables, and catering; and recruiting students to help out. Ochoa said that he can only work with what the venue gives him and he can’t ask for much more. That can get difficult at times.

The students are often there to please the audience so that donors or potential donors can see what their money produces.

But the event cannot be based on students and their artwork if they are not a fundamental part of the event’s foundation. 

Students work as performers, ambassadors, and staff for the event. We talked to a few of them to get a sense of what is working and what isn’t according to the student body.

Nia Sarfo, a senior Musical Theater student, said that the event is very good for exposure. As an artist, she feels that it’s a good way to get her work out there.

“It allows students to familiarize the general public with their name,” Sarfo said.

But Sarfo isn’t pleased about everything Kerfuffle stands for.

She went on to say that she disliked that students had to sit separately from guests when eating. Some students have had to eat meals on the floor because tables were too crowded. She said she thinks that performers should be able to interact with guests, even introduce themselves.

“Why hide us?,” Sarfo said.

“Kerfuffle as a freshman was an eye opener,” said creative writing student Lydia Wilborn, who is now a junior.“I got to see and meet writers, sponsors, and lovers of the arts.”

But, she said, she felt a little uncomfortable being put on the spot to write poems that she knew she wouldn’t be able to revise.

Noa Batson, a senior dancer, also expressed discomfort — especially surrounding the people who physically touched her during the event.

“I was in a pink tutu, tiara, pointe shoes — essentially I looked like a walking music box,” she said. “it’s kind of like being a show dog.”

Thalia Agosto, a senior visual artist, said Kerfuffle helped her gain confidence as an artist. The setting was professional — very different from a classroom.

I think one of my favorite parts was being able to listen to the jazz band perform while I was drawing,” Agosto said.

Agosto did take slight issue with the lack of a chair for her to place her iPad on while drawing. “Just in general better planning to make sure we have what we need is important,” she said.

Casey Street, a senior musician said that for the most part, he loves Kerfuffle. He loves performing, so playing for hours isn’t a problem for him. He believes Kerfuffle is a great place to get exposure even though you may not be interacting with anyone directly.

“Sometimes I think that they bring too many people and it can be a bit much. It can be a lot of kids running around. I can see how it can get uncomfortable for other people but, it doesn’t affect me as much as other people,” Street said.

Ochoa explained that liquor (full bar) is being served to adults, many of whom are guests of guests, and, as he put it, “We have a responsibility to the students to make sure they are safe.” But he also noted that for the last two years, near the end of the event there has been a dance party for all to enjoy.

“The students are around and are the life of the party. Last year the Latin Percussion group was the closer and the year before Ravyn Lenae sang while students hung out and enjoyed her performance,” said Ochoa in an email.

But the party in and of itself isn’t enough.

ChiArts has always been fastidious about upholding the basics of traditional fine arts. But we have a unique opportunity to change the way people think about art and treat artists. This is a building of more than 600 scholar artists, and yet we still stick to the status quo of treating artists badly, by forcing them to do work and not paying them while hanging recommendation letters over their heads.

As the first public arts school in the city we have the opportunity to revolutionize the way art is seen in Chicago. Since we have this platform, we should use it to its fullest — starting with our largest fundraiser of the year.

When we talk about the safety and treatment of students, it’s hard to rely on what the systemic narratives have been. Many public schools are rife with overcrowding. We’re told that that’s “just the way it is.” In 2019, we should have the ability to know the difference between “the way something is” and when it’s problematic. When we stick to the status quo, nothing changes. We have to be bold enough to make sure that things change.

Kerfuffle is unlike any other fundraiser and for ChiArts as an institution to still be using the excuse of time limitations and traditional norms when it comes to artists is disrespectful.

Students love the opportunities the event brings and would love if they could make their own connections out on the floor. It makes sense to give students what they are asking for, not only because they are part of the reason the school needs  money but, because the people who attend ChiArts are the future and they are asking for more.

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