History of the Harris Theater

Land Acknowledgement 

The Harris Theater for Music and Dance resides on the traditional homelands of the Council of the Three Fires: the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi Nations. Many other tribes such as the Miami, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Sac, and Fox have also called this area home. The region has long been a center for Indigenous people to gather, trade, and maintain kinship ties. Today, one of the largest urban American Indian communities in the United States resides in Chicago, and members of this community continue to contribute to the life and culture of this city. 

To learn more about the practice of land acknowledgement and the importance of honoring native land, visit usdac.us. The Chicagoland region is home to over 65,000 American Indians and the country’s oldest urban-based Native membership community center, American Indian Center Chicago (AIC). Visit aicchicago.org to learn more about AIC’s mission to foster physical and spiritual health in the community, an active connection with traditional values and practices, stronger families with multigenerational bonds, and a rising generation of educated, articulate, and visionary youth.

The Harris Theater’s mission is to be Chicago’s home for music and dance, a vision which was set in motion by some of the city’s boldest women over forty years ago. Today, the Harris Theater for Music and Dance is a testament to the vital role that the arts play in Chicago.

The 1980s: The Seeds of Discontent

The road to the Harris Theater began in the 1980s — the performing arts were feverishly, pulsatingly alive in Chicago. Dozens of new music, dance, and theater companies emerged, while stalwart organizations experienced exciting growth. What the city lacked, however, was adequate space for its mid-size companies: those which had outgrown the storefront venues, but were too niche, young, or fledgling to fill the large houses.

The leaders of these companies formed a coalition to lobby for adequate space. They came up empty: a space that accommodated the companies’ artistic goals did not exist, and theater owners and funders were unable or unwilling to invest in one that would. Discouraged but not defeated, the companies resigned themselves to what the city had to offer, nonetheless dreaming of a solution.

1990-1998: Studies, Councils, and Sites 

In 1990, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation released a 157-page study, The Arts in Chicago. The research confirmed what the artistic community already knew all too well: the city was in desperate need of a venue which suited the needs of its flourishing performing arts companies and audiences. In terms of attendance and variety, Chicago’s arts scene had never been more robust. The city boasted nearly 100 musical ensembles and 50 dance companies and presenting groups.

With strong support from the Chicago Community Trust and many other foundations, an advisory council was formed and commissioned three further studies they hoped would illuminate a plan of action for a new theater. They surveyed artists, administrators, technicians, and citizens to determine what an ideal space would look like. Their goal at all times was to envision the best product for the existing needs of these companies — as well as a place that could grow alongside them.

By 1993, the council had incorporated as Music and Dance Theater Chicago (MADTC), with 12 local companies slated to perform in residence at the eventual space: Ballet Chicago, Chicago Opera Theater, Chicago Sinfonietta, Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, The Joffrey Ballet, Lyric Opera Center for American Artists, Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago, Music of the Baroque, Old Town School of Folk Music, and Performing Arts Chicago.

Research in hand, the MADTC board began to interview architects. Given the importance of the project to Chicago’s artists and audiences, the board focused on local firms. Only one on their shortlist placed purpose above the grandeur of the building: the contract was unanimously awarded to Hammond Beeby Rupert Ainge. Mark Holden of Jaffe Holden signed on as acoustician; Schuler Shook came aboard as theater consultants.

By 1996, the board had raised $20 million for the project from a combination of private sources and foundation grants, and $10 million from the Illinois Build Program on the merit of the future theater’s diversity of programming and civic value. Four sites were seriously considered, among them Navy Pier and Dearborn Street Station; ultimately, the board acquired land at City Front Center, on the river at Columbus and North Water. Groundbreaking was scheduled to begin in the spring, with an opening planned for the end of 1997.

Negotiations and tests continued with an eye to break ground, but construction was repeatedly delayed. Eventually, stymied by restrictions on the space from the Chicago Dock and Canal Trust, the board withdrew from the site. The future looked uncertain.

1998-2002: A Vision is Formed

Unwilling to let go of the dream, the search continued. After briefly considering sites at State and Congress and on the UIC campus, the board heard about a plan to extend Grant Park north of the Art Institute to create more green public space for the people of Chicago. The leaders of the Millennium Park project made a proposal: could the MADTC fit into the new park?

It would fit in very well. With Beeby recontracted to the project — it would need to be built mostly underground due to restrictions on vertical building east of Michigan Avenue — and $2 million from the Chicago Park District, the MADTC would forever become part of Millennium Park.

Abutted on its south end by the spectacular Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion, the Theater would serve for nine months out of the year as a home for its Resident Companies, ceding in the summer months to Grant Park Music Festival’s performances on the Pritzker stage.

2002-2003: The Dream Becomes Reality

But the road to its opening was rocky: major gaps in funding and setbacks in Millennium Park’s construction pushed back the opening date from mid-2002 to the fall of 2003. In the eleventh hour, the board of MADTC learned that the banks had turned down their applications for building loans. In this critical moment, Joan and Irving Harris stepped up and made a legendary investment: a $24 million construction loan, plus a $15 million gift, much of it intended to be put toward a matching challenge. At the time, it was the largest single monetary donation to a performing arts organization in Chicago. The Joan W. and Irving B. Harris Theater, after nearly 20 years, was going to become a reality.

On February 6, 2002, crews broke ground on the first multi-use performing arts venue to be built in downtown Chicago since 1929.

Meanwhile, Millennium Park was taking shape. Its design blended traditional and contemporary, featuring works by world-renowned artists and architects: Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion, Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain, and Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, which has become synonymous with Chicago.

On November 8, 2003, the Joan W. and Irving B. Harris Theater for Music and Dance opened its doors with a spectacular evening performance featuring the diverse group of performing arts companies who now called it home.

2006-2014: Harris Theater Presents

In 2006, the Theater’s scope of programming expanded with an opportunity to present the New York City Ballet in their long-awaited return to Chicago. It would be a significant undertaking, but the board and staff knew that this presentation — and others like it — would grow the Theater’s reputation and, in turn, the audiences and prestige of its Resident Companies.

The engagement was a smashing success, drawing near-capacity crowds and establishing the Harris Theater Presents series. Since its birth, the Theater’s presenting season has grown tremendously, bringing celebrated artists and ensembles from around the world to Chicago.

In 2012, a collaboration with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center began, offering a robust series of chamber music concerts each year. Beyond the Aria, launched in 2014 in collaboration with Lyric Opera of Chicago, shares intimate performances from opera’s brightest stars on the Pritzker Pavilion stage.

The Mix at Six and Family Series cultivate younger and more diverse audiences, essential ingredients for the continued advancement of the performing arts. These innovative series bring artistically vibrant experiences to the community, featuring international companies, forays into new genres, and premieres of new and emerging artists.