In a historic move, the Art Institute of Chicago has named art collector and patron Denise Gardner as its next board chair. A longtime trustee of the museum, Gardner will be the first African American and the first woman to hold the position. Her election may mark the first time a Black woman was elected to lead the board of a major U.S. art museum.
“It’s an honor to accept this role,” Gardner said in a statement. “I look forward to working with the institution’s leadership and staff to fully realize our aspiration of ensuring that people of all ages from throughout the Chicagoland area and beyond, particularly children, see the Art Institute of Chicago as a place where they are welcome and truly belong.”
Gardner, 66, has been involved with the Art Institute for nearly 30 years, including a 15-year tenure as a trustee and five years in her current role as vice chair of the board. Robert M. Levy, the current board chair, will remain on the board after Gardner assumes the position in November.
A Chicago native and Northwestern business school graduate, Gardner founded the beauty products company Namaste Laboratories with her husband Gary in the 1990s. They sold the company the following decade, and have since turned their attention to collecting and philanthropy. Their collection of more than 130 works focuses on modern and contemporary Black artists, with works by Henry Ossawa Tanner, Carrie Mae Weems, Sam Gilliam, Ed Clark, Amy Sherald, Nick Cave, and Elizabeth Catlett.
Gardner has similarly advocated for under-represented artists from her position at the Art Institute. She was the lead sponsor of the 2018 Charles White retrospective and has funded acquisitions to the museum’s drawing and modern and contemporary art departments over the years.
“Denise is at the vanguard of making art and design education more inclusive,” said School of the Art Institute of Chicago president Elissa Tenny. “She is a transformational leader, drawing the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and museum closer to those we serve, while expanding who is in that audience