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July 2014
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Chicago’s Joan Harris to Receive National Medal of Arts


The National Medal of Arts, designed by Robert Graham

Program note: on Sunday, July 27 at 6:00 pm, tune into WFMT for a broadcast special about Harris Hall at the Aspen Music Festival.

On Monday, July 28th, the President and First Lady will recognize Joan Harris for her tireless support of the arts. It was announced on Tuesday that she would be a recipient of the National Medal of Arts.

The visage of Joan Harris is a familiar one around the lobbies of the Civic Opera House and Symphony Center. She’s also a fixture at the venue that bears her name, Chicago’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance at Millennium Park, though her stewardship of the arts reaches far beyond the windy city.

Joan Harris is the namesake of the Harris Concert Hall at the Aspen Music Festival. She is a trustee of the Juilliard School, and a member of the Library of Congress Trust Fund Board. She has also served on the President’s Commission for the National Endowment for the Arts.


The Harris Theater (left) on East Randolph Street in Chicago, designed by Thomas Beeby

This year, as Chicago’s Harris Theater marks its tenth anniversary, Joan Harris reflects on the creation of that performance space:

“Buildings are not just buildings. The most important thing about a cultural building is building it from…the inside, when there’s a perceived need that needs to be met by the creation of a cultural building. For years, when I was working with Chicago Opera Theater, we had no good, viable place to perform. The same was true about other small or midsize companies. So, a number of us tried…to find a place where we could share space. It didn’t work. It really wasn’t until…the early 90s when a group of foundations got together and said, ‘Let’s take a good look at this.'”

Listen to WFMT’s Lisa Flynn in conversation with Joan Harris about the Harris Theater and her lifetime love of the arts:

Joan Harris chairs the Irving Harris Foundation, a private family foundation that supports the arts and humanities, early childhood initiatives, and Jewish philanthropy. Through the foundation, she established the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, and is a major supporter of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNow series, WFMT’s Exploring Music with Bill McGlaughlin, and the Chicago High School for the Performing Arts.

Joan Harris is a lifetime trustee of the the Francis W. Parker School, a member of WFMT’s Radio Committee, and past president of Chicago Opera Theater, and the Illinois Arts Alliance.

Joan Harris established Chicago’s Harris Theater in order to broaden access to the arts in downtown Chicago, and to serve as a partner to emerging and midsized performing arts organizations. The Theater helps organizations build infrastructure and develop resources for growth and long-term organizational sustainability.

Other recipients of the 2013 National Medal of Arts include:

  • Julia Alvarez, novelist, poet, and essayist, for her extraordinary storytelling
  • Brooklyn Academy of Music, presenter, for innovative contributions to the performing and visual arts
  • Bill T. Jones, dancer and choreographer, for his contributions as a dancer and choreographer
  • John Kander, musical theater composer, for his contributions as a composer
  • Jeffrey Katzenberg, director and CEO of DreamWorks, for lighting up our screens and opening our hearts through animation and cinema
  • Maxine Hong Kingston, writer, for her contributions as a writer
  • Albert Maysles, documentary filmmaker, for rethinking and remaking documentary film in America
  • Linda Ronstadt, musician, for her one-of-a-kind voice and her decades of remarkable music
  • Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, architects (receiving individual medals), for their contributions to architecture and arts education
  • James Turrell, visual artist, recognized for his groundbreaking visual art


  • cppv

    Fantastic and we’ll deserved.

    • nmorris

      Miss you, cppv