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Denise Gardner named Art Institute board chair; believed to be 1st Black woman leader on major U.S. museum board

Gardner, 66, currently serves as the vice chair of the Art Institute’s board.

Denise Gardner, 66, will be the first Black person and first woman chairperson of the governing body for the museum and the School of the Art Institute.
Lori Sapio/ Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute announced Tuesday that Chicago philanthropist and marketing executive Denise Gardner was elected chairperson of its board of trustees.

Gardner, 66, will be the first Black person and first woman chairperson of the governing body for the museum and the School of the Art Institute. She’s thought to be the country’s first Black woman chairperson of a major museum board, though she said she wishes there was better evidence to confirm that.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge the significance of [this] moment, and for me it means ... an extra sense of responsibility and pressure to do well,” Gardner told the Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday.

She will succeed Robert Levy as the leader of the governing body when his term ends in November. He will remain on the board, according to a news release from the Art Institute.

Gardner, who has a nearly-30 year relationship with the Art Institute, has served as a philanthropist and volunteer and spent 15 years as a trustee and five years in her current role as vice chair of the board.

An art collector, Gardner said she has many favorite pieces of art in the museum, but one of her favorites is the Two Disciples at the Tomb by Henry Ossawa Tanner, acquired by the Art Institute in 1906. She said she thinks about it each Easter.

“I just think about what it must have been like — [Tanner] was the descendant of slaves — to paint this massive masterpiece that the museum purchased in 1906,” Gardner said. “They never take it down; it’s there every day.”

As chairperson of the Art Institute’s board, Gardner will take on the challenge of navigating COVID-19, saying she admires Levy for his “steady hand throughout the whole pandemic,” through the closures of both the museum and the school and the impact on employees and staff.

Coming out of the pandemic, Gardner said, “It’s a time for innovation, renewal and thinking intentionally about making progress.” She said it’s heartening that the museum has begun to liven again.

Gardner said her other priorities in this role include working on diversity, inclusion, equity and access.

“I’m just really focused on ensuring people from all backgrounds, from all ages, from throughout the 77 neighborhoods in Chicago feel welcome at the museum, they feel valued, they feel that they belong there and that there’s something there for them to experience,” Gardner said.

Gardner has been an executive at multiple companies, serving as the president of Insights & Opportunities; cofounder of Namaste Laboratories; and vice president of Soft Sheen Products, founded by her husband’s parents. She has served on the boards of The Chicago Community Trust, Chicago Public Library and Chicago Humanities Festival. She currently sits on the boards of The Arts Club of Chicago and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation.

Gardner has put an emphasis on the success of Chicago’s youth by creating a need- and merit-based scholarship at the School of the Art Institute called the Denise and Gary Gardner Scholarship, officials said in the news release.

Art Institute of Chicago trustee Tom Pritzker, who led the nominating committee for the board, said in the release Gardner “emerged as the clear leader” during the search for a new chair.

“Her vision for the Art Institute reflects our commitment to an inclusive understanding of human creativity,” Pritzker said.

School of the Art Institute President Elissa Tenny, the first woman to head the school, said “This is really an important moment in our institution’s history.”

“For the first time in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s 155 years ... the vision for the future of art and design education will be shaped by a woman, which is quite phenomenal,” Tenny said. “Representation is important.”