Art Institute names Denise Gardner new board chair, believed to be first Black woman chair at major art museum

The Art Institute of Chicago on Tuesday elected Chicago philanthropist and art collector Denise Gardner as its next board chair, beginning in November.

A 15-year trustee of the museum, Gardner will be the first African-American and first woman leader of the governing body for the museum and the School of the Art Institute. It is believed that she will be the first Black woman to head the board of a major U.S. art museum, although such demographics are hard to come by.

“I knew I was the first at the Art Institute. I didn’t know I was the first in the nation. Wow,” said the beauty products entrepreneur, 66. “I feel a little extra pressure to succeed. But I don’t have a problem with that. I welcome that. And I enjoy exceeding people’s expectations.”

Among her priorities, she said, are making sure the institutions are as accessible as possible. “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,” she said.

“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.”

Gardner has been a vice chair on the board for the past five years and was a clear choice as his successor, said Robert M. Levy, the current board chair.

“She’s been so active with the museum and the school for many years so we knew how good she was, and how committed to who we are,” said Levy. “She has exactly the right resume, which is business experience, involvement with the school, substantial involvement with the museum and art. She and her husband, Gary, are noted collectors.”

The decision, he said, “was straightforward.”

A Northwestern MBA and a marketer in the corporate world, Gardner founded the beauty products company Namaste Laboratories with her husband in the 1990s and they sold it in the following decade, she said.

She has led the couple’s significant art collecting, particularly of Black women artists. They were lead individual sponsors of the museum’s 2018 Charles White retrospective.

She will take the steering role at the encyclopedic art museum and leading art college at a pivotal moment in their history. The Art Institute has trimmed staff amid significant revenue hits during the past, pandemic year and has heard public calls from staff to do better on questions of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Meanwhile, pre-pandemic, it had been developing an ambitious new plan for the future, one that included bringing in a European architecture firm to help it reimagine the museum’s sprawling physical space and even how it might adapt its mission to contemporary culture.

What will be possible going forward will depend in large measure on how the institution and people generally come out of the pandemic, acknowledged Levy, who will stay on the board. How soon will people feel comfortable enough in crowds to return revenue to previous levels? Will the role of an art museum change?

But in Gardner, institution leaders said they believe the museum has found a guiding hand suited to the moment.

“I am absolutely thrilled with this appointment,” said Elissa Tenny, president of the school. “I think Denise is really a transformational force.”

“This is really an important moment. I’m particularly excited for our students, particularly our women students and our students of color.”

James Rondeau, the Art Institute’s president and director, remembered going to see artists in their studios with Gardner when he was a curator in modern and contemporary art, visiting such up-and-comers as Jennifer Packer and Mark Bradford.

“She is someone who has always brought the curators into dialogue with Black makers that have been of interest to her. And often she’s ahead of the pack,” said Rondeau.

Now the museum is as well. In addition to Gardner as the incoming chair, the Art Institute currently has 20 % Black board members and 24 % of members are of color, Rondeau said.

“We understand her credentials to be really independent of her race or her gender, right? But we do understand the importance of this moment,” Rondeau said. “We’ve never had a woman leader, we’ve never had a leader of color. So we first understand that the experiences and the perspectives that she brings as a Black woman — especially as a Black woman so connected to our city — is only an additional set of assets as we focus on how we continue to deliver, and be held accountable to deliver, on our mission.”

Gardner, he added, has “really emerged as a national leader in the space of talking about the diversity and diversification of art museum boards.”

Coming out of last summer’s social justice upheaval following the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, Gardner and 11 other African-American art museum board members formed the Black Trustee Alliance for Art Museums.

The group sees Black leadership as a path to diversification throughout the institutions, from staff to programming, said Gardner, and it is in the process of hiring an executive director and trying to expand its ranks by identifying other Black museum trustees.

It was a percolating issue even before last summer. In 2019 the American Alliance of Museums, whose membership includes art museums, launched a national initiative to push diversity and inclusion on museum boards.

This followed a 2017 AAM industrywide survey that found just 3 % of museums had a Black board chair, almost half had all-white boards, and 9 in 10 museum board members were white.

Gaby Sulzberger, a Metropolitan Museum of Art board member and one of Gardner’s fellow founding members of the Black Trustee Alliance, said in an email she did not know of any Black women who have chaired major art museum boards.

Not being able to be certain is part of why they are looking to gather the data, Gardner said, noting that it should be “something that’s readily accessible to state, with confidence, ‘Oh, you are the first African-American female to chair a (major) art museum board.’”

Now, though, “I don’t know, because the data’s not there.”

Working with Gardner on such issues has been “awesome,” said Victoria Rogers, a younger-generation leader who grew up in Chicago and now lives in New York and is a Brooklyn Museum trustee.

“She’s a great collaborator and has been an important voice in helping us shape what this could be,” said Rogers, who chairs the group. “I’ve been inspired by her commitment to supporting artists and also cultural institutions for a while.”

For her part, Gardner was quick to praise women who have served on boards before her, particularly Jetta Jones, the Art Institute’s first Black woman trustee. Serving from 1995 to 2006, Jones, who died Friday in Los Angeles at age 95, brought Gardner into contact and then deep involvement with the museum, she said.

“I learned so much from watching her, watching how she managed progress and change at the board level at the Art Institute,” said Gardner. “And so I think about her and people like her. She certainly could have been chair.”

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Angelia S. Rico

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