Jason Kalajainen is the Executive Director of the Luminarts Cultural Foundation at the Union League Club of Chicago—two organizations near and dear to my heart. Luminarts supports and fosters burgeoning Chicago artists through its highly competitive Fellowship program. We’ve worked with Luminarts in varying capacities, from their rebranding to reinvigorating an annual event.
I interviewed Jason as part of our 6 Questions feature: a series of one-on-one interviews with people we work with who make us proud. Read on to learn more about Jason’s take on “what’s in a name,” why he likes working with us and how his personal style makes him stand out in a crowd.
The former name really didn’t connect with our primary constituents—young, aspiring musicians, writers and visual artists. While it was descriptive, there was a formality about it that didn’t necessarily feel as approachable, energetic and vibrant as we wanted it to.
Secondly, the Foundation really honed its mission at that time to remove the civic engagement element—which many other offices within the Union League Club are dedicated to—so we could focus solely on the artfulness that Luminarts nurtures and rewards.
Lastly, it was intentional and necessary that the Foundation have an identity and voice of its own, apart from the Union League of Chicago—though we’re certainly closely related and connected, we are in fact a separate organization, which makes it important for us to have a distinct persona.
It’s really wonderful to be part of an organization with a rich history of appreciating, valuing and supporting the arts and community. It’s fantastic to be an offshoot of those traditions. With that said, there’s this delightful contrast between the tradition and formality of the Club and the Foundation’s mission to support Chicago’s most outstanding young artists.
I actually love that juxtaposition. One of the parts of my role I enjoy most is serving as an interpreter between those two entities. I get to explain the history of the Club and why the Fellows can’t wear jeans when they visit us, and, conversely, having conversations with Club members about the work on display, and why a piece they may neglect is actually valuable.
Being in this role is a gift and it makes me look at the world in a more well-rounded, inclusive way.
Working with BatesMeron has been great. You sit back, ask us questions and listen to our responses in order to understand what the pieces we’re trying to create, what the event is, and what our intention is, and that seems to be a driving force with you as you create the work. Your team always presents strong options from the get-go.
I have a very strong viewpoint, and Melissa has been very, very good at taking my feedback and building upon what she initially put forth to create something that’s even stronger. It’s been a fun process! I never feel like there’s an ego preventing me from being open with my direction.
The reception has been fantastic. When I do an unveiling of what’s been created the response has typically been, “Wow! This is wonderful, this is really going to capture people’s attention.”
It’s been wonderful to see what happens in their careers—even the recently awarded Fellows. Tracy Cantin is our female voice fellow this year, and just the other month, the Lyric Opera’s principal performer became ill and they selected Tracy to fulfill her role, which is remarkable for someone her age. Seeing her star on the rise is just lovely. Additionally, two of our visual artist Fellows are inaugural artists-in-residence at the Ed Paschke Art Center this year.
For me, it’s so much fun because I actually get to know the Fellows and what great people they are apart from their talents. It makes it all the more exciting in my role, and hopefully for the others who are supportive and involved in the Foundation.
Personally, what I love is the more off-beat sort of thing. Art is so much more than what’s hanging on the wall or performed in the theater. It’s going to Ikram and seeing what’s on the showroom floor there, it’s going to Grace for dinner and appreciating the interior design of that space. To have a day that’s rich with visual, tactile and artfully sensual experiences is ideal for me. I’d suggest going to the Arts Club for a lunch presentation, then wandering over to the MCA and going to the Richard Gray gallery, or to Kavi Gupta in the West Loop.
The way I dress has a lot to do with a reflection of my character. My clothes just feel right when I put them on. I do think clothing is a really accessible art form—you get to live with in a way that’s more intimate! Some days I may be wearing a bright color, or interesting pattern, my collar is popped or I have wild socks on, but it’s part of a consistent look that I hope is playfully sophisticated.