Catching up with Caryn Harris







Constantly curious, always bewitching, and clearly conversant: Caryn Harris is even a bit more. Think of the dazzle of a Chicago skyline, and Caryn might spring to mind, her leadership stretching from one end of our city to the other.

Caryn’s influence shapes our institutions, from the Art Institute of Chicago, where she sits on the Board of Directors and chairs the Photography Committee, to the Field Museum, where she serves on the Executive Committee, to the Board to Harris Theater of Music and Dance, to the University of Chicago Humanities Committee and its Women’s Board, to the Board of the Council on Global Affairs, and the many other places which grow with the seeds she sews. This May, along with her husband, King, Caryn will receive the Music Institute of Chicago’s 2019 Cultural Visionary Award, which recognizes individuals who have provided visionary philanthropic and civic leadership in the arts in Chicago and across Illinois.


King and Caryn Harris. Photo by Bob Carl.

We asked Caryn to tell us what skills she likes to bring to the groups impacted by her proactive involvement: “I think I might be good at communicating, and I try to stay very involved, even if it takes lots of time. I try to really listen and have a sense of passion for all that I do. I am constantly learning, frequently visiting, for example, the collections of the Field, knowing what we have.”

Being recognized by the Music Institute of Chicago, which brings, among its many programs, music education to 6500 students from the inner city as well as several suburbs, seems just right. What many people might not know about Caryn is that she was one of Chicago’s most devoted teachers, specializing in early childhood education. A native New Yorker, she began teaching in Boston’s inner-city neighborhoods. She taught for a year at the Dalton School in New York, with plans to teach in Harlem, but a blind date with her future husband on July 4 put into motion her move to Chicago.

“If you are devoted to early childhood education, you can walk into a any classroom and tell if the students are doing well or if the room just looks pretty with colorful cutouts and the like. I have always followed the more progressive teaching methods and philosophy,” she shares.

After moving to Chicago, Caryn accepted a job teaching with the legendary Helen Stern at the Mary Meyer pre-school. “Helen was my mentor and every day after class we would meet for at least 20 minutes to talk about the children and how the day went,” she remembers. “You start the year by thinking what it is you want to accomplish by the end of the year. You learn to love every student and want them to walk into the classroom and feel safe and greet their teacher with hope.”

For those who volunteered with Caryn during the days when she taught, they knew that even if the most important VIPs might visit Chicago, or the most glamorous invitation came up during school hours, that Caryn would not leave her classroom or her students to participate: “It was poor in paycheck but rich in job, and I love that part of my life. At one point I just became burned out. I knew it was time for a different schedule and other passions.”

Growing up in New York, Caryn frequented museums, ballets, and other cultural events with her parents, Harriette and Noel Levine, who lived into their nineties and lead charitable boards, leaving a legacy with their work and generosity. Philanthropists and collectors of 19th-century photographs, such as those by Julia Margaret Cameron, and 20th-century works by Man Ray, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, and many more, they left their extraordinary collection to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where a wing is named in their honor.

Caryn’s passion for photography, having learned much from her father who pursued photography as a hobby, continues as she works with Matt Witkovsky, Curator and Chair of the Photography Department at the Art Institute. She terms the most recent exhibition by the Chicago photographer and MacArthur Foundation genius grant recipient Dawoud Bey as “extraordinary.”

Caryn’s own love of the ballet from her childhood continues at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance: “Joan Harris really has done an extraordinary job, and we have a small board that really listens and has brought magnificent dance troops in from all over the world, Hamburg, San Francisco, the Paris Opera Ballet. Our motto is to ‘do it right the first time.’ ”

With her only son, John, and his wife, Stephanie Field Harris, and their young children, Caryn is an encourager, always looking for events where they might learn, and is probably the proudest grandmother at skating events. Known to many for her posse of accomplished pals, shiny and swinging blond hair, and impeccable sense of style, to truly know Caryn is to glimpse her joy when she is with her family.

When we asked Caryn what she would recommend to people who would like to get involved in charitable and cultural events, she shared: “There are all sorts of opportunities for learning and engagement for people of all ages. At the Harris we have the Mix at Six programs, and at the Art Institute, various support groups such as the Old Masters. The Symphony, Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, Museum of Contemporary Art, Lyric Opera, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and other organizations have younger boards. And the programs at the Council on Global Affairs are beyond a treat.”

Receiving the Music Institute award, Caryn says, “makes me feel I have come full circle.”

“I have had such a very rich life, but my love of children is at the center,” she continues. “My dear friend Alexandra Nichols encouraged me to attend the gala several years ago, and the children’s performances that night are spectacular, as well as their programs throughout the year.”


Performers at last year’s gala, students from Joseph Lovett Elementary. Photo by Ana Miyares.

In addition to the Cultural Visionary Award presented to the Caryn and King and Harris Family Foundation, Wynton Marsalis will receive the Dushkin Award that evening. Named for the Institute’s founders, Dorothy and David Dushkin, the award is presented to international luminaries of the music world. Voice faculty member Susan Charles will receive the Richard D. Colburn Award for Faculty Excellence. Students from the Institute’s many programs will perform throughout the gala, co-chaired by Jeff and Christine Morse and Scott and Areta Verschoor, along with Alexandra and John Nichols, Karen and Dan Pritzker, and Catherine and Frederick Waddell as honorary chairs.


Wynton Marsalis. Photo by Joe Martinez.


2018 Dushkin Award recipient Pinchas Zukerman, honorary co-chair Alexandra C. Nichols, and Music Institute President and CEO Mark George. Photo by Bob Carl.

The mission of the Music Institute of Chicago, founded in 1931, is to lead people toward a lifelong engagement with music, providing resources, education, and inspiration to communities across Chicagoland, regardless of age, level of experience, or financial means.

For further information about the Music Institute of Chicago Gala, visit