Celebrated arts patron Lewis Manilow died on Tuesday, December 12, at the age of ninety. He is remembered as an important supporter of cultural institutions in Chicago. Manilow helped establish the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art, where he endowed a curatorship position, donated a variety of works, and served as the president from 1976 to 1981. Kara Walker, Shirin Neshat, and Kerry James Marshall are just some of the artists whose works Manilow and his wife, Susan, have brought into the museum’s collection. He also contributed to major Democratic campaigns for former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Clinton awarded Manilow the National Medal of Arts in 2000.
“Lewis Manilow was a driving force behind Chicago cultural anchors including the Goodman Theatre and Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art, a generous philanthropist, and dear friend,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement. “Throughout my career, Lew challenged me to think fresh and new, read great books and question conventional wisdom.”
Manilow was born in 1927 and first lived in an orphanage before being adopted a year later by well-known Chicago developer Nathan Manilow and his wife, Minette. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago and received a law degree from Harvard University. Shortly after graduation, he moved from Cambridge to New York to produce Sean O’Casey’s play Purple Dust. However, his wife told Bob Goldsborough of the Chicago Tribune that he quickly realized that theater production was not his path.
Upon returning to Chicago, Manilow worked as assistant state attorney for Cook County. He also launched a small theater company, which set the precedent for much of his life’s work, a balance of business and beauty. If he could not work in the arts, he would find a way to support them. Later on, he worked in private practices, where he fought for his father’s real estate ventures, like building the Park Forest suburb, and advanced his career as both a lawyer and a real estate developer. Combining his skills and interests, Manilow first pitched the idea to revitalize the North Loop neighborhood and improve its nightlife, in what is now known as the Chicago Theater district.