The Art Institute of Chicago recently named Denise Gardner, 66, as its new board chief. She is the first Black woman to lead the Art Institute of Chicago’s museum board. It’s also believed that Gardner will be the first Black woman to hold the position at a major museum board in the United States.
“It’s hard to avoid the historical significance,” Gardner said to The New York Times. “That does add a sense of responsibility and pressure to succeed, and that’s fine with me. I like to exceed expectations.”
Gardner is a marketing executive and a longtime art collector. She has served 15 years as a trustee and held the position of vice-chair for five years. Gardner will take over the Institute’s school, and the museum after Robert M. Levy’s term ends in November.
As the new chairwoman, Gardner hopes to continue her mission to promote Black artists and provide art accessibility and education to underrepresented groups. Additionally, she’s on a committee called the Black Trustee Alliance of Art Museums, which advises museums on bringing in more Black trustees, curators, and artists.
“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. “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’s collection of art includes many Black and female artists, such as Frank Bowling, Nick Cave, and Carrie Mae Weems (who was the artist behind Michelle Obama’s official portrait in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery). She hopes her work at the museum will help people of colour know “the power and the contribution of their own people in the visual arts”.
The late Jetta Jones, the museum’s first Black female trustee, brought Gardner to the Art Institute as a volunteer almost 27 years ago. Gardner thinks that Jones would have been overjoyed at the museum’s progress to diversify the artists and staff board members.