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A Decade at the Harris

With performances that both reflect on the past decade and reach toward the future, the Harris Theater for Music and Dance is celebrating its tenth anniversary during the 2013-2014 season. The schedule includes a combination of important premieres and returning favorites by nationally and internationally recognized companies, in addition to exciting performances by the theater’s more than 35 resident ensembles throughout the entire season. Harris Theater has become such an integral part of Chicago’s cultural landscape that it’s easy to forget it has been in existence for a mere decade. The first multi-use performing arts venue to be built in the downtown Chicago area since 1929, Harris Theater held its inaugural performance on November 8, 2003. The idea for such a venue began more than a decade before that inaugural performance.

In 1990, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation commissioned a study to determine the need for a downtown venue for the city’s mid-sized performing arts companies. After establishing that need, a Board of Trustees was formed and funds were raised to build it. According to Joan W. Harris, benefactor and past Chair of the Harris Theater Board of Trustees, a lengthy, extensive search then began for an architect and a location.

Finally, a site was agreed upon; an architectural firm was hired; a building plan was developed; and then, the land was lost.  The search began anew, continuing for another two to three years. Eventually, the Board was offered the site where Harris Theater now stands; however, because of height restrictions in Grant Park, significant revisions had to be made to the existing plan in order to develop the theater into an underground facility. All told, it took about 13 years from inception to opening night at the Joan W. and Irving B. Harris Theater for Music and Dance, named for its primary benefactors.

The result of this effort is a state-of-the-art venue with a 1,525 seat auditorium and a mission to partner and collaborate with the city’s emerging and mid-sized performing arts organizations to help them build the resources necessary to achieve artistic growth and long-term organizational sustainability—a mission still quite unique among this country’s venues. Harris Theater not only gives its resident companies a permanent venue in which to present their works; it also gives them time to develop and build a name, a brand and an audience.

Throughout the past ten years, the theater has continually built upon its mission. In addition to providing its constituent companies subsidized rental, technical expertise, and marketing support, the theater offers ongoing professional development, including master classes and the innovative Learning Lab Initiative, established in 2010. The project presents the Harris staff and industry leaders as professional mentors to the resident companies through the development of “innovative arts management strategies.”  This last endeavor was endorsed by the National Endowment for the Arts with an Access to Artistic Excellence grant in 2011.

Expanding on its original mission, Harris Theater has added several new programs over the past ten years, including its Family Series performances (2007); the Eat to the Beat lunchtime performance series (2008); the Access Tickets Program, which provides complimentary tickets to underserved children and families (5,000 tickets to date); and the Teen Arts Project, which promotes arts education and participation at schools and community organizations (2010). Another addition is the creation of the Harris Theater Presents series. Launched in 2006, this series presents prominent national and international performing arts companies on the Harris stage. Although it may seem contrary to the theater’s mission, as explained by Michael Tiknis, president and managing director of Harris Theater, the goal of this series “is to make the audience larger for that type of music or dance, to create a larger audience for the emerging groups.” The theater’s research has shown that these well-known groups “have brought in many people who have never attended a dance or music performance of that type before,” and Harris hopes those people will then be encouraged to see the emerging groups “before they become the next CSO.”

As with any new development, Harris Theater has had its challenges. According to Tiknis, getting funding is one of the larger challenges for companies that don’t have the high visibility of established, well-known groups, and it’s an “ongoing educative process to get the emerging groups to be appreciated for the high level of talent they have.”  He mentioned the loss of Chicago’s only Latin dance company, Luna Negra—one of Harris’s founding resident companies—which abruptly closed down in 2013. The challenge for the Harris is to help people see that there is real strength at the grassroots level, that the city as a whole benefits when both large organizations and grassroots companies are thriving.

Challenges notwithstanding, Harris Theater has had some amazingly significant successes in the past decade. The number of its resident companies has grown from the original 12 to almost 40 in the current season. The number of outreach programs is steadily increasing, and the theater has achieved many milestones that have made it one of world’s leading stages for world class arts enjoyment, contributing significantly to that goal of Chicago audience development for the arts. After a 25 year absence, the acclaimed New York City Ballet returned to Chicago for opening night of the Harris Theater Presents series. Ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov performed the Chicago premiere of his then new work “Three Solos and a Duet” on opening night of the 2009-10 season. In the 2011-2012 season, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS), the nation’s most well-known and respected chamber music ensemble, began an unprecedented three-year residency at Harris Theater, the culmination of one and a half year’s work on the part of the theater to bring CMS to Chicago. CMS musicians have held master classes for Music Institute of Chicago students, and the Harris is exploring more collaborative work with the world the group.

Tiknis announced in July that CMS has renewed its residency for another three years. He stressed the importance for chamber music in Chicago—of having one of the most important chamber music societies here—because it reinforces Harris’s goal of building audiences for local groups and making Chicago an arts destination. In partnership with the City of Chicago and Millennium Park, Harris Theater presented a cultural milestone for the city, itself, during its 2011-12 season: the nation’s first free, outdoor simulcast of a live ballet performance by a major international company, the Paris Opéra Ballet. The event represented the debut Chicago appearance for the historic ballet company and their first engagement in the U.S. in more than a decade. Sphinx Virtuosi, an ensemble comprised of winners of the prestigious Sphinx Competition for young African-American and Latino string musicians, will make its fifth visit to Harris Theater on October 1, and they’ll bring with them, one of the world’s great voices, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves. And the Hamburg Ballet made their highly praised Chicago debut at the Harris last season, unveiling choreographer John Neumeier’s poignant homage to his long-time inspiration, Russian dance icon Vaslav Nijinsky. Neumeier will return with the Hamburg Ballet in February, 2014, marking one of only two appearances the company will make in the U.S. this season.

And as an incubator of sorts for Chicago’s own homegrown arts ensembles, Harris Theater has had an incalculable impact. Jason D. Palmquist, executive director for founding resident company Hubbard Street Dance, recalls that “Ten years ago, the company’s home engagements were concentrated in the spring season and presented in a variety of venues — we had no ‘home base’ for Chicago performances.”  Palmquist added that their relationship with the Harris has permitted the company “to completely and successfully reimagine its relationship with Chicago…We now can perform in the city throughout the year, each season, giving more people more opportunities to experience our work, as well as connecting us more deeply to the local community.”

Karen Fishman, executive director for Music of the Baroque orchestra, another founding resident, adds that her company is “delighted to have a downtown performing home” that offers the ability to establish a “vibrant, growing audience at the Harris Theater.” Tiknis sees Harris Theater as an integral component in developing Chicago as a cultural capital of the world and an important destination for music and dance. Tiknis explains that as the growth of local theater over the past 20 years has made Chicago a more attractive destination for actors and directors to live and work here, and for people seeking to live in a city where theater is thriving, the Harris wants to do exactly the same thing with music and dance. In terms of the Harris’ legacy, Tiknis told me that the theater’s unique model stands to reshape the contemporary view of traditional arts consumption, which may be the real benefit to Chicagoans. “The Harris Theater stands for the great adventure and dialogue between the community and artists in general, so be adventurous,” he urged Chicagoans. “We sometimes define the arts in terms of what we won’t hear or see (the classics).  It’s important to be open and excited about that. Are the arts going to an exciting place or stuck in the 20th century? We sometimes think that there are no more Mozarts and Beethovens—but we often don’t give today’s artists time to develop into a Mozart or Beethoven. Come and discover the next Mozart or Balanchine. There are some wonderful moments to be discovered.” Many of those wonderful moments are packed into Harris Theater’s new season. Artists like tap sensation Savion Glover, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony, Lines Ballet, Soprano Stephanie Blythe, Ballet Preljocaj and modern dance phenom Trey McIntyre are just the tip of the iceberg of what the Harris has to offer audiences this season. For more information about Harris Theater’s exciting upcoming new 10th anniversary season, visit