Mrs. Joan W. Harris became a trustee of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1978 and a life trustee in 1994. She is a major supporter of the CSO’s MusicNOW program, held at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, where she is a current trustee and past chairman. She is also president of the Irving Harris Foundation, a private family foundation established by her late husband. Mrs. Harris previously served as a member of the President’s Commission for the National Endowment for the Arts, as commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs for the City of Chicago, and as president of the Illinois Arts Alliance. In recognition of her leadership and contribution to the arts in Chicago and across the United States, in July 2014 she was awarded a National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C.
What inspires your relationship with the CSO?
I moved to Chicago from Connecticut as a very young woman. I had been a regular attendee at concerts all my life, so it was important to me to start attending events when I arrived here. The CSO is among the oldest and most revered institutions in Chicago. The CSO is unique in its attempt to reach out into the broader community, and I really applaud that. Of course, I am most proud of the CSO’s relationship with the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, which is home to the CSO’s new music series, MusicNOW. The Harris Theater really enhances MusicNOW. By its very design, it’s the natural home for the program. It’s a house that caters to the “now,” to the adventuresome.
What are some of your favorite memories of MusicNOW?
I’ve had the pleasure of attending almost every MusicNOW concert. I wouldn’t dare try to pick a favorite composer or piece! I’m a very strong advocate for the development of MusicNOW and music by living composers. If we don’t support and encourage the creation of new music today, we will not have any old music tomorrow.
What was it like to be awarded the National Medal of Arts?
It was an honor and a very exciting moment for me to receive the National Medal of Arts in Washington, D.C. this summer. I traveled to the White House to accept the award. The President was very gracious. He spoke in glowing terms about the importance of the arts in our lives and in society. There was a beautiful ceremony where each award recipient was called up individually. A citation was read and we were each presented with our medals, one by one. The medal weighs about eleven pounds! My three children traveled with me to accept the award. They’re all grown, but we were all so struck and filled with awe and reverence at the experience that my son kept saying, “That’s my mom!” It was a very special event for us.
What inspires your ongoing advocacy for the arts?
It’s important to me that we, as patrons of the arts and as members of society, work not just through the CSO and institutions like it, but through every possible avenue, to make sure arts education stays a part of our schools. I hope we can continue to work with the City of Chicago to make sure the arts are part of every child’s experience every day. We need to make every effort in whatever way we can to encourage arts education in schools.
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[Photo by Jocelyn Augustino]