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Denise Gardner. Photo: The Art Institute of Chicago.
Denise Gardner. Photo: The Art Institute of Chicago.

Denise Gardner Named Board Chief of Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago has appointed philanthropist, art collector, and marketing executive Denise Gardner chairperson of its board. Gardner, who in November will succeed outgoing board chair Robert M. Levy, is first woman, and the first African American, to helm the board of the Art Institute. She is additionally believed to be the first Black woman to lead a major museum board in the United States.

“It’s hard to avoid the historical significance,” Gardner told the New York Times in a telephone interview. “That does add a sense of responsibility and pressure to succeed, and that’s fine with me. I like to exceed expectations.”

A leader with her credentials is exactly what we need right now to take us into the future,” Art Institute director James Rondeau told the Times. “The experiences and the perspectives that she brings as a Black woman who is so connected to the city of Chicago will only be an asset.”

Gardner has served on the museum’s board for fifteen years as a trustee, and for five years in her current capacity as vice chair. She has long championed Black artists and has sought to make art and art education accessible to underrepresented populations. “I really want people of all ages and backgrounds to feel welcome at the museum, at home at the museum, and that they belong there and that there’s something there for them,” Gardner told the Chicago Tribune. “I’m looking forward to helping the museum move forward to becoming even more of a dynamic and leading cultural gathering place and institution in the city.”

A former president of marketing firm Insights & Opportunities and the cofounder of beauty manufacturer Namaste Laboratories, Gardner has amassed a collection focusing on Black and women artists including works by Frank Bowling, Nick Cave, Amy Sherald (of whom she was an early supporter), Carrie Mae Weems, and Charles White. She and her husband, Gary, were lead individual sponsors of the Art Institute’s 2018 White retrospective.

Gardner told the Times that Jetta Jones, the museum’s first Black female trustee, brought her on as a volunteer at the Art Institute as a volunteer nearly twenty-seven years ago. Jones died last weekend at the age of ninety-five. “I hope she knows what’s happening and I think she would have been overjoyed,” Gardner said. “This job could have been hers.”