Joan White Harris ’52 once told her husband, the entrepreneur and philanthropist Irving Harris, that if he wanted a better return on his investments he should look beyond the social problems that made up his foundation’s portfolio of causes. “If you keep on chasing pathology only, you’ll never catch it all,”she recalls saying to him. “Look at what’s beautiful and strong and healthy, and by that I mean the arts.”
Years later, when the husband-and-wife team invested $39 million in a landmark 1,500-seat performing arts venue, Irving Harris told the Chicago Tribune, “This is something Joan has dreamed of for 20 years.”
Indeed, it was Joan Harris’ determination and grit in the face of bureaucracy and naysayers that made the Joan W. and Irving B. Harris Theater for Music and Dance a reality. The cultural venue, which opened in 2003 in Chicago’s Millennium Park, now is a centerpiece of an energetic arts community, providing performance space to dozens of up-and-coming local troupes, as well as to established performers like dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and soprano Renée Fleming.
It also solidified Joan Harris’ standing as one of the country’s leading arts patrons, an accomplishment that was recognized in 2013 when President Obama awarded her the National Medal of Arts. In February, she returned to campus to receive the Smith College Medal at Rally Day.
“Her energy is like one of the great wonders of the world. It’s an inspiration, a thing to behold.”
For Harris, creating the Harris Theater fulfilled her vision of a vibrant space where arts innovation could happen, a place that focused not on the established canon but on more diverse creative expressions. “I have a strong feeling toward the music of living composers and contemporary art,” she says. “I’m not so interested in the kind of class-affirming sense that comes from engaging always in museum-type music or museum-approved art. It’s all wonderful, but if you don’t have new art today you’re not going to have old art tomorrow.”
Harris’ leadership and reputation for making things happen (see “Advocates for the arts and social justice” for a partial list of her leadership roles) has won her the admiration of celebrated performers, who have also become her friends. “Joan has the highest ability to detect artistic excellence,” says pianist Wu Han.
“It is spectacular to feel her impact on the arts.” Another friend, the actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith, says of Harris, “She seems to find the right people and right issues and has a never-ending intellectual curiosity.”
As a girl growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, in the 1940s, Harris aspired to the concert stage herself. But thrice-weekly lessons did not produce the desired result. “I’m a failed pianist,” she says. Nonetheless, the arts were an important part of her family culture. She remembers attending concerts with her parents, Martha and Louis White, and sister Rachel. Indeed, young Joan begged for piano lessons. Her teacher, unfortunately, was a “wrist slapper,” Harris recalls; still, she absorbed her teacher’s passion for music.
When it came time to select a college, her father told her she “could go to college anywhere in the world as long as it was within two hours of New Haven. And the best schools were women’s colleges,” Harris says. At Smith, she took courses on the history of music and music theory and studied cello. “I almost flunked out of college because of the cello,” she says, laughing.
Her time at Smith nurtured a lifelong love of music along with another growing passion—social justice. “There was one, possibly two, women of color, I think, in the whole college,” she recalls. “I joined an interracial group that got very little traction, but we worked with students at Yale and Howard University for a couple of years.”
After graduation, she went to New York City and worked for Oxford University Press, following what she describes as a well-worn path for graduates of women’s liberal arts colleges. She married, and in 1953 followed her husband to Chicago, where they raised three children, Louise Frank ’84, Jonathan Frank and David Frank. Eventually the couple divorced, and Joan went on to find the love of her life, Irving Harris.
A major philanthropist and anti-poverty advocate, Irving Harris was an innovative businessperson who ran the Toni Home Permanent Company with his brother; after its sale in 1948 he became chairman of Pittway Corporation. He was also a social entrepreneur who came to believe that education, beginning at a young age, was the best way to break the cycle of poverty. To that end, he helped create early-childhood initiatives, including Project Head Start in the 1960s, the Erikson Institute for child development and the Ounce of Prevention Fund. “His mission in life was to fix everything that was wrong, and that included poverty and discrimination and basically everything that could be done for infants and children to give them a fair start,” Joan Harris says. “I’ve spent my life going to concerts and museums because it gives me pleasure, but I think my feelings got crystallized watching my husband, who was brilliant and a visionary.” Irving and Joan had been married for 30 years when he died in 2004 at age 94.
“There are people who stand around and carp, and there are people who just do it.”—Joan Harris
Her causes remain rooted in the arts, but as a trustee and past chair and president of the Irving Harris Foundation—which has granted more than $14 million—she has continued her husband’s legacy of supporting early-childhood initiatives, the arts and humanities and Jewish philanthropy. “Her energy is like one of the great wonders of the world. It’s an inspiration. It’s a thing to behold,” says her daughter, Louise, a producer at WFMT public radio in Chicago.
Harris’ belief in artistic diversity and the need for public funding of the arts informed her work in the public sector at the National Endowment for the Arts and as Chicago’s commissioner of cultural arts. At the time (the 1980s and early 1990s), defunding the NEA became a rallying cry among conservative politicians who wanted to control what kind of art (if any) received taxpayer support. In a 1989 op-ed for the Chicago Tribune, Harris made her position clear: “For too long we have been told that art is elitist, rarefied, the province of the few… Art has the power to reach everyone.”
Later, after being embroiled in those politics-versus-arts clashes, Harris decided the public sector “wasn’t for me,” she said. “I found returning to the private sector was much more rewarding.”
That was when she began to shape her vision of a new performing arts venue, one with a forward-looking, more democratic sensibility than the established concert halls. “I came [to Chicago] at a time when we were inheriting the aesthetic tastes of the turn of the 20th century, where the arts organizations were run by a handful of white men,” she says. “Artistic diversity was not even on the pages anywhere.” The idea of a large new theater that would embrace the richness and depth of the local arts scene challenged the status quo. But Harris was rarely discouraged by the naysayers, once telling an interviewer, “There are people who just stand around and carp, and there are people who just do it.”
Harris forged ahead, helping to raise funds and secure a location at Millennium Park in Chicago’s Loop, the city’s bustling central business district. When it opened in November 2003, the Harris Theater became the first multiuse cultural venue built in downtown Chicago since 1929. It has gone far in creating the kind of supportive and lively arts community Harris and other believers long envisioned.
“The arts have an enduring power to bring people together and redefine human expression,” says Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Obama. “And for decades, Joan has used her love for the arts to unleash creativity in communities across the country. This is certainly true in my hometown of Chicago.”
For Harris, the theater remains a tremendous source of pride. She regularly drives her black Lexus SUV the short distance from her apartment on Lake Shore Drive to the theater’s underground garage, where a parking spot is labeled “Joan W. Harris.” The theater itself is situated underground, with just a lobby at street level. Renovations started last year to improve access and crowd flow, including larger elevators from the lobby to the theater.
One day last fall, as Harris gave a tour of the theater, she took the stairs and set a smart pace—the payoff, perhaps, for working out twice a week with a personal trainer. Walking through the building, Harris draws attention to the noticeable lack of fancy marble, ponderous chandeliers and brass plaques. “The money went into the performing machine,” Harris says. “There are not a lot of frills. Those are onstage.”
Inside the auditorium, Harris points to the lack of box seats. “Very early in the design stage I said to the architect, ‘We can’t do the old-fashioned thing. This is a democratic place. We cannot have any boxes.’”
“She is very hands-on,” says Lori Dimun, the theater’s vice president of operations and productions. “She is incredibly decisive. She doesn’t bite her tongue. She’s not a board member or trustee who necessarily loves everything they see on stage. She has an opinion, and she has a very strong level of expectation for the quality of work we present and we produce. I think that comes from the fact her name rests on the side of the building.”
The Joan W. and Irving B. Harris Theater for Music and Dance is home to 35 to 40 small and midsize arts organizations (see “A Stage to Call Home); the groups find both a performing space and the infrastructure support that Harris knows is critical if these companies are going to survive and thrive. “My heart has always been with the small organizations where I think the art is being made on a gutsy level,” Harris says.
The current Harris Theater resident companies include Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Music of the Baroque, Chicago Opera Theater and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Music-NOW. In addition, the Harris collaborates with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the National Museum of Mexican Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and Columbia College Chicago. The “Harris Theater Presents” series has featured performances by Daniel Barenboim, Mikhail Baryshnikov, the Paris Opera Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet and Stephen Sondheim.
Many of the artists Joan Harris has befriended over the years took part in a gala at the theater celebrating her 80th birthday in March 2011. It was billed as “Fanfare for an Uncommon Woman,” the title of a 1993 Joan Tower piece commissioned to honor Harris. Performers like David Finckel, Wu Han, Renée Fleming, Pinchas Zukerman and Anna Deavere Smith donated their talents for the event, with proceeds going to support the theater. “She was surprised to feel that intense devotion of the community that surrounded her,” recalls pianist Han of that evening. “Among people that do huge philanthropy, Joan understands there is no data to tell you so many people are in tears by this piece or performance. She knows cultural life is immeasurable and it needs to be supported.”
Joan White Harris ’52 describes her mission this way: to prove the value of the arts in society and to fight for funding and respect for the arts, with a goal of opening arts experiences to a broader public. Cultural organizations in Chicago, New York and Aspen, Colorado, that have benefited from her vision include the Aspen Music Festival and School (and its Harris Concert Hall), The Juilliard School, Chicago Opera Theater, Carnegie Hall and the Library of Congress Trust Fund Board. She is also devoted to social justice and has served as trustee and past chair and president of the Irving Harris Foundation, which focuses on supporting early-childhood initiatives, the arts and humanities and Jewish philanthropy.That’s just her recent short list. Her past roles include serving on the President’s Commission on the National Endowment for the Arts, commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs of the City of Chicago, trustee of the National Institute for Music Theater, past president of the Arts Alliance Illinois and, with her husband, co-founder of the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, an interdisciplinary research center.—LKJ
Beyond her work in the public sphere, Harris is known for her hospitality and prodigious cooking skills. Anna Deavere Smith remembers being invited to stay at Harris’ uptown Manhattan apartment in 2012 after Hurricane Sandy left her without power. Harris keeps the apartment for her regular visits to New York for meetings at Juilliard and Carnegie Hall. She also has a home in Michigan where she and her late husband used to go every weekend.
Joan Harris “has an incredible passion for the artists of the city and art making in Chicago.”
According to Smith, Harris loves nothing better than to bring performers home after a show and feed them. Some years ago, Harris wrote a cookbook, An Uncatered Affair: Cooking for Friends. “It started out just as a way to collect all the things I’d done over a period of years, recipes I liked, and I very quickly realized that food and memory are very closely related. So it morphed into more of a memoir about the times connected to the food and stories about the people who have enjoyed the food,” Harris says. Her more recent specialties include tagines, which she learned how to prepare after a trip to Morocco.
Besides an impressively equipped kitchen, her Chicago apartment overlooking Lake Michigan is filled with works of art she and her late husband collected over the years. Her National Medal of Arts sits on a small stand in her study, out of view of most guests.
These days, Harris spends much of her time going to business meetings (although she has cut back on them) and attending performances. She has six grandchildren (including triplets), and of her many organizational feats, she points with particular pride to arranging a family trip for 12 to Chile in December.
Her love for piano has never subsided—she used to play a lot of four-hand on her two pianos at home—but she has no regrets about not performing and is more than happy to devote her talents to making it happen for others as she takes her seat in the audience.
“We have to fight poverty and hunger, but for what? For what kind of lives? Commerce with the arts in my view is what humanizes us,” Harris says. “That’s what makes us who we are. To share that experience in a concert hall or in a museum or by making art is incredible.”
Until the Harris Theater for Music and Dance opened in Chicago in 2003, the homegrown contemporary dance company Hubbard Street Dance Chicago had extensive international touring opportunities but few places to perform in its own hometown.“Ironically there really wasn’t a theater in the city of Chicago that was ideally suited for the company and its repertoire and its needs,” says Jason Palmquist, executive director of Hubbard Street Dance, a Harris Theater resident company. “Suddenly there was a beautiful, perfectly facilitated space for the company, and it’s had a profound effect on the company’s trajectory.”The dance company began in 1977 in Lou Conte’s dance studio on Hubbard Street. As it grew, it struggled to find a suitable performance venue—the same problem Joan Harris had faced when she worked with a small Chicago opera company.As one of the Harris Theater’s 35 to 40 resident companies, Hubbard Street Dance now performs regularly in Chicago along with touring nationally and internationally. The increased visibility at home has helped Hubbard Street build a deeper relationship with audiences and donors, Palmquist says, and has fostered “explosive growth” in the amount of new work the company is able to do.Beyond state-of-the-art facilities, the theater provides its resident companies with sophisticated ticketing and donor management software. “It would be impossible to overstate the role that the Harris Theater has had in Hubbard Street’s growth,” says Palmquist, who describes the theater as “this physical manifestation” of Joan Harris’ “incredible passion for the artists of the city and art making in Chicago.”—LKJ
Linda Kramer Jenning ’72 teaches journalism at Georgetown University and is past president of the Journalism and Women Symposium.
SAQ, Spring 2016