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Edith Gaines, Art Institute’s ‘third lion,’ dead at 94

Edith V. Gaines, who boosted travel and membership as programs director at the Art Institute of Chicago. | Provided photo

With her caftans, one-of-a-kind jewelry and throaty “Oh, hello darlings,” Edith Gaines might have been mistaken for an exotic version of a lady who lunches.

But she had a 30-year career at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she was affectionately referred to as the “Third Lion,” credited with developing a program, unveiled in 1983, that whisked arts aficionados to the homes of private collectors and museums around the globe.

“She launched the first-ever museum travel program, which has since been emulated around the country,” said James Allan, the museum’s director of planned giving and stewardship.

Mrs. Gaines died Aug. 28 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. She was 94.

The trips she pioneered helped boost museum membership and bring in donations, Allan said. Led by curators and academics, they explored such wonders as the art of ancient Greece and West Africa, the painters of France and the pyramids of Egypt. Traveling with her groups, Mrs. Gaines employed “steely insistence” as she’d confront hotel managers and others if luggage was late, rooms weren’t ready or the dining-room seating was poor, said her son, Jonathan Weiss.

“She would bring herself to her full 5-feet-2 height,” Weiss said, and announce, “I am a representative of the Art Institute of Chicago. This must be corrected immediately.”

The tours attracted “anyone who has a high level of curiosity,” Mrs. Gaines told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1992. “Some of the people have experience in the arts. Others go with their pores wide open to learn something new. “

“She made them so popular,” said Barbara Gaines, founder of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, who is related by marriage to Mrs. Gaines. “She was intuitively a teacher.”

Allan also credits her earlier efforts, which coincided with some blockbuster exhibitions, with helping the museum reach a key milestone in the 1970s: its first million-dollar-donation year.

Mrs. Gaines joined the Art Institute in 1972. She remained until turning 80 in 2002. A lifetime of organizing, intuition, schmoozing and crisp but fizzy exuberance helped prepare her to be the museum’s program director. During World War II, she’d worked for the New York Journal-American on the “Cholly Knickerbocker” gossip column.

“She often said how amazing it was for a young girl out of high school to be set loose on New York society,” her son said.

In Chicago, Mrs. Gaines would throw elegant dinner parties at her Gold Coast home, aglow with hot pinks and reds and whimsical artwork and vibrant textiles. “Between a Perle Mesta and an Auntie Mame” is how Suzanne McCullagh, the Art Institute’s retired chair and curator of prints and drawings, described her.

Ronne Hartfield recalled the time Mrs. Gaines helped her when she was invited to a party at the home of Pamela Harriman, who was U.S. ambassador to France, for an exhibit involving Gustave Caillebotte, who painted one of the jewels of the Art Institute — the umbrella-adorned “Paris Street; Rainy Day.” Hartfield, the Art Institute’s former executive director for museum education, showed Mrs. Gaines the outfit she selected for the bash at Harriman’s Paris home.

“I have the perfect jewelry for it!” Mrs. Gaines announced.

And she lent Hartfield an extravagant necklace studded with amethysts and matching earrings.

Hartfield said, “I wore them for the reception, and Mrs. Harriman stopped me in the receiving line and said, ‘Oh, my god, that necklace is amazing.’ ’’

Mrs. Gaines was born Edith Barkow in Bialystock, Poland. She was just 4 years old when her family immigrated to the United States in 1927, living outside Boston in Brookline, Mass., and in Brooklyn, N.Y.

She met and married Dr. Jack A. Weiss and returned with him to his hometown, Chicago. After giving birth to Jonathan’s older brother, Jeffrey, who had cerebral palsy and died in 1989, she founded a support group and raised funds for people with the disability. Mrs. Gaines worked as a program manager and director at WLS-TV. After she and Weiss divorced in the 1970s, she and her second husband, lawyer and real estate developer Theodore Gaines, operated Printer’s Row gallery at 725 S. Dearborn St.

Edith B. Gaines. | Provided photo
Edith B. Gaines. | Provided photo

“She always had a St. John outfit, beautifully tailored,” said Kathy Cottong, former director of the Arts Club of Chicago. “Jewelry, watches, bracelets, earrings, pins.”

“She gave new meaning to the word ‘accessorizing,’ ’’ said Greg Cameron, executive director of the Joffrey Ballet. “Even her penmanship was penmanship that doesn’t exist anymore.”

Mrs. Gaines seemed almost afraid of computers, though, once confiding to Cottong she occasionally found an out-of-the-way place to stash hers — the bathtub.

Even as her health failed, she continued to go to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Art Institute and Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

Services have been held.