Spotlight: Washington Square Park Advisory Council


Welcome to the fourth installment of our blog series Spotlight on PACs, where innovative PACs can share their best practices and discuss common issues facing their volunteer groups. Last month we talked with the Horner Park Advisory Council about their summer concert series.

This week our guest blogger is Amy Lardner of the Washington Square Park Advisory Council (WSPAC). Last summer, WSPAC partnered with community organizations to bring a piano to their park for the public to use. This event was extremely successful in building community engagement, read on to learn more! 


The newly-established Washington Square (aka Bughouse Square) Park Advisory Council (WSPAC) was surprised when its programming partner, the Newberry Library, announced Make Music Chicago (MMC) would leave a piano in the park after the park’s first-ever Make Music Chicago event on June 21st, 2015.

“What?  A piano, just left out in the park?  How is that going to work?” WSPAC, with their Chicago Park Supervisor Joyce Freeman-Herron, wondered, “and how long will it last?”   As it turned out, the free piano in Washington Square Park was positively transformational.

From commuters sneaking a little piano practice into their daily routines, to those delighting in entertaining others, to all who passively enjoyed the impromptu music – the piano brought people of all ages and backgrounds together.

A further surprise?  Players were diligent about covering the piano back up when done, as per the sign taped to the tarp.

This is the kind of thing you go to other cities for as a tourist, and you come backing saying ‘Oh they had this great musical event, it was wonderful.’ Yet here it is right in Chicago.
— Piano in the Park Participant

For WSPAC, this project proved the benefits of working with partners to create programming and help build community awareness of the PAC’s existence.  MMC, Chicago’s biggest DIY music event, funded and produced by its parent Rush Hour Concerts (RHC), is a global event, part of the Fete de la Musique held on June 21 in 103 countries and 700 cities.  RHC has been producing free, live chamber music concerts at nearby St. James Cathedral since 2000. 

Strong alignment of the partners’ goals made this project successful. The Newberry Library is a free privately-funded public library with a strong Chicago history. WSPAC advocates on behalf of Chicago’s oldest park, commonly referred to as “Bughouse Square”.  MMC | RHC’s vision includes partnering with cultural and civic organizations across Chicago and developing new opportunities to bring classical music to people of all ages and backgrounds.

Where did the pianos come from? 

Make Music Chicago’s Artistic Director, Kuang-Hao Huang learned Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music was about to deaccession six student pianos – “Did he want them?” Thus MMC’s experiment – to place pianos in 6 different Chicago parks all over town last summer — was born, with Washington Square Park as one of the lucky guinea pigs.


  • PARTNERS GET THE WORD OUT  The Newberry Library and MMC were excellent communications partners in promoting the event, the piano and WSPAC through their established platforms. 
  • PARTNERS BECOME FRIENDS  Artistic Director Kuang-Hao Huang regularly stopped by to play free concerts, sometimes with fellow musicians. He engaged with many park goers and WSPAC members over the summer. 
  • RECIPROCATE  Spread the word about your partners' good works on social media, on your website, and at your meetings. Like them on Facebook. Like and share their posts. Acknowledge their contributions. 
  • BE SEEN IN THE PARK  Volunteers staffed a PAC information table during the event to inform people about the PAC. This person-to-person approach increased WSPAC's mailing list, even recruited new committee members. Throughout the piano's stay, volunteers took lots of photos of people enjoying the piano (with their permission of course!) to post to the PAC's Facebook page. WSPAC also kept an eye out for park/piano mentions elsewhere to re-share on social media, benefitted from its partners' social media power and used MMC hashtags like #pianosintheparks. 
  • BE PREPARED  Before the event, WSPAC created a logo and visual identity, printed a special event tablecloth with its logo, created basic black and white "About WSPAC" brochures, set up Facebook, Twitter, Instagram accounts, a free Wix website, and started using MailChimp with its new logo as letterhead. 
  • TAKE A CHANCE  Did anyone at WSPAC, new to the world of park advisory councils, all volunteers, have any idea that hosting a MMC event in Washington Square Park would work, or that the piano would become a wonderful place-making vehicle? Nope. But we trusted our partners and that made all the difference. 

The delightful and unexpected success of the MMC | RHC event and the piano in Washington Square Park has WSPAC eager about the continuing possibilities of working with the Chicago Park District, the Newberry Library and MMC | RHC. Bringing communities together in our parks is a beautiful thing to be part of.

To learn more about WSPAC, visit their website, Facebook page, or Twitter

Michaele Strauch