Profile: Advocate for the Arts Award Honoree David Hiller
October 1, 2023 | Noel Morris
From the United States Supreme Court to the Los Angeles Times to a seat at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion—Chicago-native David Hiller has made many stops along the way. A tireless philanthropist, he champions families, civic engagement, the humanities, and the free press. But his relationship with the Grant Park Music Festival comes from something personal: he likes going to concerts.
“I’ve been a lover of music since I was little,” said Hiller.
Growing up in the northwest suburbs, he played clarinet but soon discovered the allure of the theater. “I was active in our high school musicals,” he said, taking lead roles in several shows. To this day, the Grant Park Music Festival’s annual salute to Broadway ranks among his favorites.
Apart from hanging around his school theater department, young David Hiller served on the student council and achieved the rank of Eagle Scout. He also did something exceptional for a high school kid.
“I got my first real job working for a friend who had a business called the Telestrator,” he said. The Telestrator is a device that enables users, such as sportscaster John Madden, to scribble on TV screens. “It was a brand-new technology, and I helped to develop their marketing approach.”
Years later, Hiller would return to telecommunications but first headed to Harvard and Harvard Law School. Earning his JD in 1976, he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart from 1979-1980. Stewart proved to be a valued mentor.
“I think he is one of the great justices of the last few generations,” Hiller said. “He wrote smart, balanced lawyerly opinions, avoided unnecessary ideology or politicization, and was a very kind and thoughtful man—and a good writer. I learned a lot about writing from him.” After his stint with the high court, Hiller remained in Washington, D.C., working for the Attorney General’s office until 1983, when he joined the law firm of Sidley Austin. Though Hiller made partner, the association was short-lived, as a recruiter soon turned his head.
In 1988, the Tribune Company invited Hiller to come on board as general counsel. He remembers reflecting on his hometown newspaper and its subsidiaries, WGN and Cubs baseball, and thinking, “Hey! If I’m going to be a lawyer, what could be better than this?”
Over two decades, Hiller held leadership roles at the Chicago Tribune, eventually becoming publisher and chief executive officer in 2004. He later served as publisher and CEO of the Los Angeles Times. In his years as a newsman, he saw a golden age in print media—and its twilight. Through the early 2000s, the digital revolution largely displaced the printing press, altering the flow of information and imperiling the field of professional journalism. This became a battle cry for David Hiller. In 2009, he assumed the role of president and CEO of the McCormick Foundation, founded through the estate of one-time Tribune owner Col. Robert R. McCormick. One of the largest in the United States, the Foundation supports projects that uplift Chicago families and the free press.
“The local news is a primary ingredient in effective local democracy,” said Hiller. “It’s how people know what’s going on; it’s how people know what needs to be addressed.”
To make his case, he likes to quote Thomas Jefferson, who said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
David Hiller retired from the McCormick Foundation in 2020 but hasn’t stopped working. Today, he serves on the board of many of Chicago’s leading cultural institutions, including the Field Museum, the Illinois Holocaust Museum, the Chicago History Museum, and Roosevelt University. In Washington, D.C., he serves on the board of the Campaign Legal Center, which champions voter access and fair elections. And recently, he agreed to join the board supporting that Art Deco high school in Park Ridge, the Education Foundation for Maine Township, where he once sang the roles of Merlin (Camelot), Finian (Finian’s Rainbow), and Horace Vandergelder (Hello, Dolly!).
Hiller is ever the music lover and ever the champion of those who uplift the community. This is how he came to support the mission of the Grant Park Music Festival.
“I think free concerts that are open to everybody is truly one of the great gifts to the city's people,” he said. “I think the Festival’s effort to bring diverse conductors, musicians, and audiences into the mix—connecting to the entire city—is very important. When you have the right musical selections, it’s encompassing and inclusive. And the Grant Park Music Festival’s selections are wonderful.”
During the summer of 2023, Hiller turned out for several Festival concerts: “I do love the salute to Broadway,” he said. “And because of all the patriotism, I love what the Festival does around the Fourth of July.” As he went on to list other favorites, it became clear he’s an all-around Festival fan.
“As a singer, I really, really enjoy it when the Chorus is involved, although the pure orchestral concerts are wonderful, also,” he said.
Ever the advocate, Hiller is quick to articulate the importance of stewardship: “It does take philanthropic support. The Festival wouldn’t be able to exist if it weren’t for the generosity of its donors,” he said.
“I think everybody who has the opportunity needs to be useful," said Hiller. "I’ve been very fortunate in my different careers, so I have the ability to give time and financial support." And that, he does in spades.
On October 10, 2023, the Grant Park Music Festival will honor David Hiller with the Advocate for the Arts Award. Other 2023 honorees include the Robert and Isabelle Bass Foundation, Inc., and violinist and one-time Festival Fellow Caitlin Edwards.