The Grant Park Music Festival was conceived by Mayor A. J. Cermak during the Great Depression in 1931 when the city presented a series of free concerts to lift the spirits of Chicagoans. The following year, James C. Petrillo, the president of the Chicago Federation of Musicians, vigorously labored to turn these concerts into a permanent summer tradition. Petrillo’s motives were twofold - to make classical music available for all Chicagoans, and to provide secure employment for union musicians.
As Petrillo pursued his dream of a concert series in Grant Park, the area just south of the park was being transformed for the Century of Progress Fair to commemorate Chicago’s 100th anniversary. Among the developments was a venue for daily concerts by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
In 1934, Petrillo was appointed to the newly created Park Commission and convinced the commission that a permanent series of open-air symphonic performances in the new shell would benefit the city. With the venue, seats, security, parking and $100,000 raised from the public, Petrillo inaugurated the symphonic series in 1935.
On July 1, 1935, the Grant Park Concerts made their debut, commencing with the march from Wagner’s Tannhauser. The following year, the Chicago Park District assumed complete financing of the concerts. During that time, some of music’s biggest stars performed at Grant Park, including violinist Jascha Heifetz, conductor Andre Kostelanetz and soprano Lily Pons. The concerts were often broadcast on NBC and CBS.
Since 2001, the Festival has been presented through a unique collaboration of the Chicago Park District, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and the Grant Park Orchestral Association. The Grant Park Orchestral Association is a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the Festival’s programs and priorities. The Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus reach over one million people annually through free classical music performances and the Festival’s extensive community engagement program brings music education to young people from across the city each summer.