Chicagoan of the Year for Dance: Giordano’s Michael McStraw

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Giordano Dance Chicago kicked off its 60th anniversary with dazzling performances at the Harris Theater in October. That the show was among the best this year is perhaps no surprise if you know this historic jazz dance company, but there was no guarantee they would make it to 60. In fact, the pandemic nearly forced them to close their doors for good.

Unsung heroes in the form of arts administrators saved countless organizations from financial ruin. In GDC’s case, that hero is executive director Michael McStraw.

A presence in Chicago’s dance community for nearly 40 years, McStraw’s eclectic background includes lifelong participation in choral music and a degree in geology from Allegheny College, located 40 miles from his hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania. That is where McStraw first discovered dance at age 19. He continued his training through graduate study in modern dance at the University of Michigan, then tested out his dance career for a year in Cincinnati.

“I made $400 that year,” he said.

Urged by friends, McStraw moved to Chicago in 1984. He performed well into his 50s, appearing with Akasha Dance Company, DanszLoop Chicago, Jan Erkert and Dancers, and Mordine & Company Dance Theater. The latter was his first foray into arts administration in the early ‘90s as the company’s managing director. McStraw joined GDC in 2010, following a 17-year career in operations at G.D. Searle and Takeda Pharmaceuticals North America while raising his kids. (He cites being a dad and grandpa as among his greatest accomplishments.)

“You would be surprised at the applicability of the skills you learn producing dance concerts in the corporate environment,” he said. “There’s no difference between moving pharmaceuticals across the United States and choreography. It’s all movement.”

McStraw’s time in corporate America gave him tools to think differently about the nonprofit dance world once he reentered it full-time.

Over the course of a decade, McStraw implemented a growth mindset at GDC, bringing them up to an annual budget of $1.5 million — and growing. “Giordano was not right sized when I joined,” he said. “I don’t think GDC ever wants to be a $25 million organization. We believe we should be operating at $2-$3 million.”

Then the pandemic arrived.

“We made some really distasteful decisions to make sure that the organization survived,” he said.

Among those decisions was cutting staff to bare-bones, which meant McStraw took care of everything from grant writing to fixing the toilets at their offices in Old Town. GDC wasn’t set up for remote work yet, so in addition to seeking emergency funding, records had to be digitized to communicate with artistic staff working from home. McStraw isolated in his garage while going between the office and the home he shares with his partner in Lindenhurst.

GDC got support from the Economic Injury Disaster Loan, Shuttered Venue Operators Grant and two rounds of the Payment Protection Program. McStraw directed the process and simultaneously pushed for a new strategic plan.

“It was an opportunity,” he said, quoting a colleague who said that “performing artists never let a good crisis go to waste.”

The results of his efforts are not simply an organization spared by the pandemic, but one that emerged stronger than ever, revitalized and ready for the next 60 years.

Giordano Dance Chicago is not the only institution to benefit from McStraw’s acuity. This fall, he was named a trustee at the Harris Theater, where he’s served on a committee for resident companies since joining up with GDC in 2010.

In its short history (the venue turns 20 in 2023), the Harris has become internationally renowned for its bold presenting series highlighting international luminaries. The tricky part has been balancing that with the needs of Chicago’s resident companies. A clear shift began when Patricia Barretto was appointed CEO and president in 2017; McStraw joined as an ex officio board member representing the resident companies the same year.

“I had a vital role in helping to change how the community and how the Harris thought about resident companies,” said McStraw.

That wouldn’t have happened without willing leadership, and McStraw credits Barretto with beginning to mend the Harris’ relationship with Chicago companies. Barretto died of breast cancer in March 2020.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the resident companies leaned on each other and acted as a de facto support group.

“It became a wonderful resource,” McStraw said. “That was possible because of the work we’d done in earlier years.”

McStraw said current Harris Theater CEO Lori Dimun has continued to nurture relationships with resident companies. As a full trustee, his primary goal remains largely the same: to advocate for all resident companies — not just his own.

Looking back, McStraw notes the influence of strong, female leaders on his career, including Nan Giordano, Barretto and Dimun.

“Often, we hear that women in dance are not recognized for what they’ve given or what they do,” he said. “I’ve never been involved with a dance organization that had a male artistic director.”

Looking ahead, he hopes Chicago’s dance community will continue looking out for each other.

“If we’re not supporting one another,” he said, “then why are we doing this work?”

“When you, by necessity, put your head down and just do the work in front of you, then you’re missing some of the importance of your presence as a member of a community. You have to look up, look around and know when to offer a hand.”

Lauren Warnecke is a freelance critic.

Chicagoans of the Year in the Arts: See all the names for 2022.



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