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Program Officer, Polk Bros Foundation

Faces of the Pier: JC Aevaliotis

JC Aevaliotis, a program officer with Polk Bros. Foundation shares how much Navy Pier means to him personally and professionally. 

What did the reopening of Navy Pier mean to you? 

The Pier reopening was important for me on professional and personal levels. As a Chicagoan, after a year of fear and uncertainty and so much of life stopping because of COVID-19, it felt like an important part of our city coming alive again. The Pier is also a place where I’ve had so many wonderful times with my family. We’ve spent a lot of time there, and my children have wonderful memories and associations with so many events and institutions on the Pier. We went back the first weekend the Centennial Wheel was open. The whole experience blew my daughter’s mind. She was 2, and there are so many things that were normal for her older brother that she’s never experienced because of the pandemic. To be able to give her that experience, a sweet treat on the Pier and a chance to see our amazing city from the Wheel on a gorgeous spring day, meant the world. A bright, happy moment after a long stretch of very hard times. She still talks about it and asks frequently when we can go back.

How has Navy Pier made a positive impact on the important work of the Polk Bros. Foundation?

The Pier has become an important partner in the Foundation’s work supporting arts and culture organizations in Chicago. What we care about most in our work with arts organizations is access, helping ensure that every child in Chicago has access to arts education and all that it makes possible. Our support of free cultural programs at the Pier is also about access, both for the Pier visitors and for arts organizations. It really matters to us that visitors to the Pier get a chance to experience Chicago through artists from every corner of the city and from all the cultures and communities that make Chicago what it is. That matters a lot for arts organizations, too. I’ve had multiple partners we fund tell me that performing at the Pier has expanded their audience and helped them reach new people.

 How has Navy Pier provided a platform for helping to drive your organization’s mission forward?

Through partnerships with arts and cultural organizations from across Chicago -- including many Polk Bros. Foundation grantees -- the Polk Bros Performance Lawns allow the Pier to engage and inspire the city’s economically, racially, and culturally diverse residents and visitors. This is about creating opportunities for all Chicagoans and our city’s visitors to come together to celebrate Chicago, explore the arts and enjoy themselves. This is a place where the Pier’s mission and the Foundation’s vision align. Organizations we support tell us that performing at the Pier helps make them stronger. They find new audiences. They give their performers, both students and professionals, important performance opportunities in major venues. And one organization we fund said something about performing at the Pier that’s always stayed with me. The executive director described having one of his board members see the organization perform to an enormous audience at the Lake Stage. He said it made this longtime board member see the organization in new ways, made him feel even prouder and more engaged. That, to me, is a specific way that an organization grew stronger by performing at the Pier.

How would you describe Navy Pier to someone who has never been to Navy Pier before? 

I really love the idea of the “People’s Pier,” the vision in Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago. Chicago is truly unique in how much of its amazing lakefront is retained as public land, and the Pier is an important part of that legacy. I’d tell someone that it’s a magnificent public space on one of the most beautiful parts of the Chicago lakefront where they can access gorgeous parks and arts and culture programs from every corner of our incredible city. I’d tell them they can also find food from all over Chicago and experience cultural institutions and family attractions that they will love. It’s a lens through which to see so much of Chicago, whether you’re a long-time resident or a visitor. 

JC Aevaliotis

"I really love the idea of the 'People’s Pier,' the vision in Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago. Chicago is truly unique in how much of its amazing lakefront is retained as public land, and the Pier is an important part of that legacy."

What does the name Polk Bros Park at Navy Pier mean for your foundation? 

As one of the most visited destinations in the Midwest, Navy Pier is a tremendous public asset to the people and families of Chicago. It is an economic driver, an important cultural institution, and a space where so many from Chicago and beyond gather. The Foundation saw an opportunity to be a part of the Pier’s transformation to an even more vibrant, free public space where Chicagoans from every neighborhood and visitors from around the globe can engage with arts and culture. The Park has been central to that transformation, and it felt like a fitting legacy and a lasting testament to Polk Bros, the Polk family, and its entrepreneurial and philanthropic history. It is meant as a gift for all Chicagoans and the communities across the city who helped make the Polk Bros appliance and retail stores so successful.

What are some of the highlights of the Navy Pier experience, including events at Polk Bros Park? 

The music is incredible. Lake Stage and City Stages are some of my favorite outdoor music venues anywhere. Incredible views of Lake Michigan and the city skyline. Getting to see some of Chicago’s best artists in such beautiful space is something everyone should experience. I particularly enjoy Noche Caribeña and Chi-Soul Fest. One of the things I also love, as a bit of an arts-education nerd, is when young artists get a chance to perform in professional venues. In so many of the music series at the Pier, including Fresh Fest! And LatiNxt, you get to see incredible young musicians from wonderful Chicago institutions. Performance opportunities like that are critical to the arts education work of so many Polk Bros. Foundation partners, and I love when young people visiting the Pier get to see other young people making art. And my now three-year old daughter highly recommends the Centennial Wheel and the frozen bananas.

What is your hope for Navy Pier over the next 10 years? 

My hope is that the transformation can continue, that more and more Chicago artists and cultural organizations and entrepreneurs get a chance to share their work with millions of people at the Pier every year. That visitors discover something they love at the Pier and visit other neighborhoods and Chicago institutions to check it out. The Pier is a great asset for Chicago. I’d love for it to continue to highlight other Chicago assets, particularly in communities that haven’t always benefited from Chicago’s tourism industry but that have incredible cultural richness that should absolutely be a part of how visitors and Chicago residents understand our city.

Since most people do not realize NP operates as a nonprofit that depends on fundraising from donors, what would you say to encourage someone to contribute to Navy Pier?  

Navy Pier offers an AMAZING range of cultural programs completely free of charge and accessible to everyone. I’d say that if you have brought your kids to a movie in Polk Bros Park or impressed out of town guests by bringing them to Noche Caribeña that you should consider donating to make sure that someone else can do the same thing next year.  

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About Navy Pier

Navy Pier is the People’s Pier, Chicago’s lakefront treasure, welcoming all and offering dynamic and eclectic experiences through partnerships and programs that inspire discovery and wonder.

Since its reopening in 1995, more than 180 million guests have come to enjoy the Pier's 50 acres of unparalleled attractions and experiences. In 2022, Navy Pier continues to evolve into an accessible, year-round centerpiece for Chicago’s diverse arts and cultural treasures.

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