By Patricia Barretto
Alexandra C. and John D. Nichols President and CEO
Guest Columnist
Chicago, IL, USA

On November 8, 2003, the Joan W. and Irving B. Harris Theater for Music and Dance opened its doors, becoming the first performance venue to be built in
Patricia Barretto
downtown Chicago in more than 70 years. Located in Millennium Park, the Theater’s mission was to provide Chicago’s non-profit music and dance companies with a state-of-the-art home venue, and the tools and resources necessary to present their work and grow organizational capacity.

15 years later, our mission – to be a home for music and dance in downtown Chicago – has evolved beyond what even our visionary founders could have imagined, as the Millennium Park campus and the Harris itself have become cultural destinations in Chicago.  

The Harris Theater - 2018-2019 Season

Today, the original group of nine Resident Companies has grown to include more than 25 music, dance, and cultural organizations, reflecting the richness and diversity of this city’s arts landscape. Returning companies this season include Giordano Dance Chicago, Hubbard Street Dance, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Chicago Humanities Festival, Chicago Opera Theater, and Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Music Now. Each Resident Company receives a discounted rental rate – amounting to a 68% subsidy – in addition to production planning, box office, marketing, and logistical support each time they perform on the Harris stage.

The Harris Theater has also achieved international recognition through its Harris Theater Presents series, which brings artists and ensembles of the highest caliber to Chicago audiences each year. The 2018-19 season, which is just getting started, is the first I’ve curated from start to finish as President and CEO. I am proud to say that it is also our most global and ambitious presenting lineup to date – representing artists from over a dozen countries, art forms spanning centuries, Chicago debuts, and one very high-profile North American premiere.

Headlining the 2018-19 season are Opera Atelier, one of the leading interpreters of French baroque opera, led by my dear friends (I was Executive Director of the company from 2011 to 2015) and co-artistic directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeanette Zingg; the exclusive US presentation of English National Ballet in Akram Khan’s Giselle, winner of the 2017 Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance; and a first-time collaboration between African music icons Angélique Kidjo and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

English National Ballet - Alina Cojocaru in Akram Khan’s Giselle 

As I planned our 2018-19 performances, my aim was to curate a season that would honor this important moment in the Theater’s history and the many trustees, donors, and audience members who have made this place a reality. In many ways, 15 years is not a traditionally significant anniversary, but for us it comes at an incredibly exciting time for the organization – our audiences are growing, our profile is rising, and our all-women executive team represents the next generation of leadership for the Theater.

I also wanted to make a statement about the role that venues like the Harris Theater play in today’s world. We are a home for artists creating work here in Chicago, a welcoming space for people of all ages, communities, and abilities, AND a presenter of art that reflects a multitude of voices and cultures.

We’re also committed to offering programs in unique settings and formats, and to breaking down many of the barriers to experiencing the arts through community engagement and family programming. Mix at Six is our series of after-work performances with emerging artists, where audiences can enjoy food and drink and connect with the artists at an after-party in our lobbies. Beyond the Aria, intimate performances with opera luminaries on the Pritzker Stage, is a unique partnership between arts institutions – the Harris, Lyric Opera Chicago, and the Ryan Opera Center. Finally, our Exelon Family Series helps to nurture the next generation of artists and audiences by offering low-cost Saturday matinees for audiences of all ages to enjoy together. More than one-third of each Family Series house is comprised of our community partners who receive completely free tickets through our Access Tickets program.
I’ve spent my entire career working in the arts – for institutions such as Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Canada’s Royal Conservatory of Music, Canadian Stage Company, Opera Atelier, and now the Harris – because I believe that the work we do is vitally important. The arts encourage empathy, push the boundaries of imagination, and bring people together. Sitting in a full theater, surrounded by audience members who are transported to other places and times, and knowing that we are sharing in this experience is like no other feeling in the world. The entire staff and board of the Harris are committed to making these moments possible, and even as we reflect on 15 years, we know it’s just the beginning.

(Photo credits: Patricia Barretto -Todd Rosenberg; English National Ballet - Laurent Liotardo)


All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.