Long-time art collector and marketing director Denise Gardner will become chairman of the Art Institute of Chicago in November, possibly the first black woman in the country to hold that position on a major museum board.
“It’s hard to avoid historical significance,” Gardner said in a telephone interview on Monday. “That increases the sense of responsibility and the pressure to succeed, and that’s good for me. I like to exceed expectations. “
Gardner, 66, will succeed Robert M. Levy, whose term ends in November. He heads the institute’s school as well as the museum.
Gardner served as a trustee for 15 years and in her current role as vice chairman for five years, advocating for black artists as well as the accessibility and education of art to underrepresented audiences. “The work is still ongoing,” said Gardner. “In this role, I can help the museum accelerate its progress.”
The appointment comes at a time when cultural institutions are trying to diversify their staff, boards and programs. Gardner is also a member of the Steering Committee of the Black Trustee Alliance for Art Museums, which was founded last fall to help museums attract more black trustees, artists and curators.
“An executive with their credentials is exactly what we need now to guide us into the future,” said James Rondeau, the museum’s director, in a telephone interview on Monday. Given the Art Institute’s continued commitment to diversity, he added, “The experiences and perspectives she brings as a black woman so connected to the city of Chicago will only be beneficial.”
Gardner, along with her husband Gary, was the main sponsor of the museum’s 2018 exhibition, Charles White: A Retrospective, which traveled to the Museum of Modern of Art. (The Gardners have three white works on paper.)
Her collection focuses on black and female artists, including Frank Bowling, Nick Cave, and Carrie Mae Weems. She was an early buyer of Amy Sherald, whose popularity has grown dramatically since her official portrait of Michelle Obama hanging in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.
“I want people of color to know the history, power and contribution of their own people in the visual arts,” Gardner said. “I didn’t like that in my apprenticeship as a young person. I remember as an adult when I found out about Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence and was almost a little angry – why didn’t I know anything about these artists? “
Gardner was the president of Insights & Opportunities, a marketing and strategy planning firm, and a co-founder of Namaste Laboratories, a beauty manufacturer.
She was previously a board member of the Chicago Community Trust, the Chicago Public Library, and the Chicago Humanities Festival. She served on the boards of the Arts Club of Chicago and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, which supports conservation and small arts organizations.
Gardner said she was brought to the Art Institute almost 27 years ago as a volunteer by Jetta Jones, the museum’s first black trustee who died last weekend at the age of 95. Said Gardner. “This job could have been hers.”