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Lewis Manilow dies, helped found Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art

Lewis Manilow, who helped found Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, cut a dashing figure around Chicago. | Sun-Times files

Lewis “Lew” Manilow, a prominent Chicago developer, arts patron and Democratic fund-raiser who helped found the Museum of Contemporary Art, has died.

Mr. Manilow, 90, died Tuesday at his Gold Coast home, according to his wife Susan Manilow. He’d had Alzheimer’s disease for a decade.

A celebrated collector of contemporary art, he was a major benefactor of Chicago cultural institutions and Democrats including former Presidents Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

“His enthusiasm and support stretched far beyond politics — he loved Chicago, his art collection, going to the theater and being a philanthropist who helped so many others share his passion for the arts,” said Clinton, who in 2000 gave him the National Medal of Arts, honoring him with others including Barbra Streisand, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Chuck Close.

“Lew was just one of those people whom it was a joy to know,” Obama said Tuesday. “He was a great friend to me and Michelle, an outstanding citizen of Chicago and someone who set a good example everywhere he went.”

Lewis Manilow at the National Medal of Arts award ceremony Dec. 20, 2000. | C-SPAN

Mayor Rahm Emanuel called him “a driving force behind Chicago cultural anchors including the Goodman Theatre and Museum of Contemporary Art, a generous philanthropist and dear friend.

Artist Ed Paschke (left) discussed his painting ‘Memorial’ with Susan and Lewis Manilow at a reception to announce a fall benefit for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. | Sun-Times files

“Lew challenged me to think fresh and new, read great books and question conventional wisdom,” Emanuel said.

Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for The New Yorker, said Mr. Manilow and his wife were “brilliant collectors.”

“I’ve been an art critic for 50 years, during which time I haven’t had a general fondness for rich collectors,” Schjeldahl said, but he added, “Some people really should have money because of the way they spend it. They were in the top tier of collectors who both followed and influenced the taste of the time.”

James Rondeau, president of the Art Institute, where Mr. Manilow was a life trustee, said: “Together with his wife Susan, they formed one of the most important art collections in Chicago, a collection with a truly international reputation. He had a remarkable eye matched only by insatiable curiosity and infectious enthusiasm. He made a huge mark on our museum and on our city.”

Mr. Manilow was president of the Museum of Contemporary Art from 1976 to 1981.

“His extraordinary passion, intelligence and dedication influenced not only the MCA and the visual arts,” museum director Madeleine Grynsztejn said, “but also the theater scene and downtown Chicago.”

“I don’t know where the Goodman would be if not for Lew Manilow,” said Roche Schulfer, the theater’s executive director. In the early 1980s, “He had a vision for the North Loop theater district that included relocating the Goodman from [behind] the Art Institute and ultimately the renovation of the Oriental and [Cadillac] Palace.”

More than half a century ago, Lewis Manilow (right) worked with Second City co-founder Bernie Sahlins to create the Studebaker Theater’s resident company. | Sun-Times files

“He was an absolute believer in the power of the creative spirit and the power of art,” Susan Manilow said.

Born Irvin Inger in Toledo, Ohio, he spent a year in an orphanage before being adopted. In his 80s, Mr. Manilow was able to trace his roots and reunite with his biological brother Jack Shore, living just blocks from him in Chicago.

After Senn High School and the University of Chicago, Mr. Manilow earned a law degree at Harvard University, then worked as a Cook County prosecutor, assisting on kidnapping and prison-escape cases involving Prohibition gangster Roger Touhy.

Lew Manilow sold a Jeff Koons sculpture of “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” at auction for $5.6 million.

Mr. Manilow worked with his father Nathan Manilow — who helped develop Park Forest — to develop University Park. And he created the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park at Governors State University in the south suburb, donating works by Mark di Suvero, Bruce Nauman, Martin Puryear and Tony Tasset.

In 2001, he sold a porcelain sculpture of Jeff Koons’ “Michael Jackson and Bubbles” at a Sotheby’s New York auction for $5.6 million.

And “one of his great claims to fame was he was on Nixon’s enemies list,” Susan Manilow said.

It was a second and happy marriage for them both, she said. “We met at a PTA meeting at [Francis] Parker School,” she said. “We had kids in the same class forever.”

Lewis Manilow. | Sun-Times archives

Married since 1973, “it was just fun, exciting, a loving partnership,” she said.

The Manilows threw parties with people from politics, the arts and academia. Still, “My dad was the smartest guy in any room,” said his son David, who said he’ll remember his lessons to challenge assumptions and give without any expectation of getting anything back.

Mr. Manilow’s sister Betty Ann Singer died before him. “His sister sadly became schizophrenic, and Lew, he really cared for her for 30 years in the most devoted way,” his wife said.

He adored his dogs, including a shar-pei, two golden retrievers and a German shepherd. He named his boat at Martha’s Vineyard after 15th-century Flemish engraver Hendrik Goltzius.

Mr. Manilow is also survived by his children John and Karen, stepsons John and Edwin Eisendrath, chief executive officer of the Chicago Sun-Times, and 15 grandchildren.

A private graveside service will be held Friday. A celebration of Mr. Manilow’s life is planned Jan. 15 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

“He loved that place a lot,” his wife said.

In his memory, his family suggested people visit a museum.

Lewis Manilow. | Sun-Times files

VIDEO: Lewis Manilow on video talking about the Museum of Contemporary Art

Contributing: Lynn Sweet