The longtime art collector and marketing executive Denise Gardner will become the chairwoman of the Art Institute of Chicago in November, perhaps the country’s first Black woman to hold that position on a major museum board.
“It’s hard to avoid the historical significance,” Gardner said in a telephone interview on Monday. “That does add a sense of responsibility and pressure to succeed, and that’s fine with me. I like to exceed expectations.”
Gardner, 66, will succeed Robert M. Levy — whose term ends in November — at the helm of the Institute’s school as well as the museum.
Having served for 15 years as a trustee and for five in her current role as vice chair, Gardner has championed Black artists as well as art accessibility and education for underrepresented audiences. “The work is still unfinished,” Gardner said. “In this role, I can help the museum accelerate its progress.”
The appointment comes at a time when cultural institutions are seeking to diversify their staffs, boards and programming. Gardner is also on the steering committee of the Black Trustee Alliance for Art Museums, established last fall to help museums bring on more Black trustees, artists and curators.
“A leader with her credentials is exactly what we need right now to take us into the future,” James Rondeau, the museum’s director, said in a phone interview on Monday. Given the Art Institute’s ongoing commitment to diversity, he added, “The experiences and the perspectives that she brings as a Black woman who is so connected to the city of Chicago will only be an asset.”
Gardner — together with her husband, Gary — was the lead individual sponsor of the museum’s 2018 exhibition, “Charles White: A Retrospective,” which traveled to the Museum of Modern of Art. (The Gardners own 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 surged since her official portrait of Michelle Obama, which hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.
“I want people of color to know the history and the power and the contribution of their own people in the visual arts,” Gardner said. “That’s not something I enjoyed in my education as a young person. I remember as an adult when I learned about Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence and I was almost a little angry — why didn’t I know about these artists?”
Gardner was president of Insights & Opportunities, a marketing and strategic planning firm, and a co-founder of Namaste Laboratories, a beauty manufacturer.
She previously served on the boards of the Chicago Community Trust, Chicago Public Library and Chicago Humanities Festival, and holds positions 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 as a volunteer almost 27 years ago by Jetta Jones, the museum’s first Black female trustee, who died last weekend at 95. “I hope she knows what’s happening and I think she would have been overjoyed,” Gardner said. “This job could have been hers.”