THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO announced last week that Denise Gardner was elected chairperson of the Art Institute of Chicago Board of Trustees. She will be the first woman and first African American to chair the board, which serves as the governing body of both the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and the Art Institute of Chicago museum. She will also be one of the few Black people ever to chair the board of a major U.S. art museum. Her three-year term begins in November.

Gardner has been active with the Art Institute of Chicago since 1994, when she joined an initiative established by Black community leaders to promote racial diversity throughout the institution’s collections, exhibitions, programming, staffing, and audiences, a longstanding effort that continues today as the Leadership Advisory Committee (LAC).

 


The Art Institute of Chicago announced the election of Denise Gardner as chairperson of the board. She is the first woman and first African American to serve in the role. | Photo by Lori Sapio, Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

 

About a decade later, Gardner began serving on the Chicago museum’s board of trustees. She became a vice chair of the board five years ago. Now she’s spreading her influence inside and outside the museum even further.

The Black Trustee Alliance for Art Museums (BTA) is a recently formed group of prominent African Americans that serves on the boards of major art museums. The stated mission of the BTA is to “increase the inclusion of Black perspectives and narratives in North American art museums to make our institutions more equitable and excellent spaces of cultural engagement.”

Gardner is on BTA’s steering committee, which met for the first time last September. Focused on art museums across North America, the alliance envisions the kinds of changes LAC has prioritized for nearly three decades.

Denise Gardner will be the first woman and first African American board chair at the Art Institute of Chicago. She will also be one of the few Black people ever to chair the board of a major U.S. art museum.

In addition to her work with LAC and the Art Institute board, Gardner has been a generous patron to the school and museum. Endowed in 2015, the Denise and Gary Gardner Scholarship funds merit- and need-based scholarships for undergraduate students from Chicago, with a preference for students from the South Side. In 2018, the Gardners provided lead individual support for the presentation of “Charles White: A Retrospective” at the Art Institute.

A philanthropist, art collector, and veteran marketing executive, Gardner was president of Insights & Opportunities, a marketing and strategic planning firm; co-founder of beauty manufacturer Namaste Laboratories; and vice president of Soft Sheen Products.

News of Gardner becoming board chair at the Art Institute was announced on April 13. That evening, she spoke by phone with Culture Type and provided a few follow up responses by email. We discussed her historic appointment, her mentor Jetta Jones, artists on her radar, and her priorities when she takes over as chair this fall:

 


The Art Institute of Chicago. The Woman’s Board Grand Staircase. | Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

 

CULTURE TYPE: You have between now and November before you officially start as board chair. How are you thinking about the role and what is your process of preparing so you can hit the ground running?

DENISE GARDNER: I’m going to be meeting with the current chair (Robert M. Levy) this week to talk and to flesh out the transition a little better. I feel very fortunate because both the museum and the School of the Art Institute, have just refreshed their strategic plans. There are some pretty exciting things a foot.

I guess my focus is going to be on doing an assessment of the situation. Maybe doing some surveys. I spent a lot of time in marketing research, so I’m always up for ‘let’s take the temperature.’ Beyond that, I think it would be probably kind of amplifying their plans and progress and maybe accelerating them.

You mentioned that the school and museum had just refreshed their strategic plans. What specifically were you referring to in terms of exciting developments?

The institution’s plans focus on reimagining the future and leaning into its responsibility as a civic participant and a cultural space. There is an emphasis on creating more meaningful relationships with audiences, visitors, students, faculty, staff, and stakeholders. Important to me, plans include a recommitment to the principle set forth by one of the institution’s first and most long-standing chairs, Charles Hutchinson, who said “We have built an institution for the public, not the few.” He said this in the early 1900s. This truly resonates with me.

I came to the museum and remain involved with the institution because I want us to fulfill the mission of insuring that people of all ages and backgrounds, especially young people, feel they belong here, they are welcome here, and there is something here for them. At the school, the same principles apply to their guiding strategies—opportunities to nurture the next generation of artists and creative makers, particularly makers of color, while continuing to build a culture of belonging and support.

“I came to the museum and remain involved with the institution because I want us to fulfill the mission of insuring that people of all ages and backgrounds, especially young people, feel they belong here, they are welcome here, and there is something here for them.”

Do you have a sense of what your priorities will be as chair of the board?

One of my first priorities will be to have conversations with staff, learn more about their perspectives and situations, and ultimately gain a better assessment of the issues and opportunities. A lot of work Is already underway on matters that are important to me and I want to make certain our teams have the resources they need to continue that work.

 


BISA BUTLER, “The Safety Patrol,” 2018. | © Bisa Butler, Cavigga Family Trust Fund

 

What’s going on with the Black Trustee Alliance? Will this appointment have an effect on your participation? Your election as board chair certainly speaks to the work, influence, and progress the alliance is looking to make throughout the museum sector. Can you talk about the connection there?

I’m not sure how everything could or would unfold, but in general I greatly enjoy the work of the Black Trustee Alliance. And I have to say that in our conversations and in some of the data that we have been able to look at as the BTN made its strategic plan, that’s really been helpful and informed my knowledge as far as what the Art Institute, what Chicago needs to do and what our situation is with respect to board diversity.

With respect to Black trustees, we’ve had Black trustees on the board for a very long time. In fact, one was my mentor and I think she was the first Black female trustee. She just passed away over the weekend. She was 95 and she was really the person that brought me to the Art Institute 27 years ago. Her name is Jetta Jones.

There’s been a long track record. We’ve always had, in the last several years, probably seven or eight Black trustees. That seemed like a lot at the time, but in the last year there’s been a lot of activity on the part of a lot of museums to increase their numbers. Thanks to the BTA data, I know now that Chicago, with respect to Black trustees, we’re probably just a little bit better than average. Nobody wants to be average. People like to be best in class.

Another reason why I was enthusiastic about taking on the job (as board chair) is that our nominating committee and our executive committee have been talking about pushing the needle further with respect to board diversity. We’ve been doing a lot of assessment and evaluation and interviews with stakeholders and have uncovered some opportunities. Everybody, across the board, has been super enthusiastic.

“With respect to Black trustees, we’ve had Black trustees on the board for a very long time. In fact, one was my mentor and I think she was the first Black female trustee… Her name is Jetta Jones.”

That’s encouraging.

If you take on an assignment, you want to know that you can do well in it. And so that was really encouraging to me. We started a lot of those kinds of conversations back in October and everybody has been extremely enthused and supportive. That was just another signal that this could work out. Let me try this.

You said seven or eight Black people on the board? Out of how many? How many people are on the board?

We have 67 trustees. We’re one of the larger boards, so that comes to 22 percent of our board members are people of color.

 


The Art Institute of Chicago. View of Modern Wing from Monroe Street. | Photo by Charles G. Young, Interactive Design Architects

 

Tell me about Jetta Jones, your connection with her and how she mentored you at the museum?

Jetta was a phenomenal person of the city (Chicago) and what I liked about Jetta is she was from Philadelphia. Her father had been a lawyer in Philadelphia in the Black community. He had gone to Yale, which was in and of itself remarkable. And then she went to Yale law school and fell in love with a doctor from Chicago named Jimmy Jones and they got married and she moved here.

What I admired about her and I try to model is she always was a person who could operate in a variety of settings. She was on the Art Institute board. She was on a lot of boards. She was one of the first African Americans on the women’s boards at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. She was also Harold Washington’s director of external affairs. She was on the Lawyers Committee for Harold Washington for Mayor. She was on the board of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Urban League.

Sounds like she kept busy in terms of cultural and community concerns.

She had that capacity and interest in keeping fully rooted in the community and having the progress of the community, always in front of her gaze, I guess you would say, or top of mind. I really relate to that. I lived on the South Side of Chicago for 43 years. My husband and his parents are lifelong Chicagoans and there are so many issues in the community that have to be dealt with and you know you have a responsibility.

She would probably be very excited and proud about you becoming board chair.

I know. I spoke to her daughter and we both said Jetta would be so thrilled. The other thing that was really significant about her and the reason that I came to the Art Institute is back in the mid-90s, they were awarded a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund grant. They gave grants to a cohort of 23 museums to diversify their audiences.

What year was that?

It was in 1994. It was a five-year grant and you had to select an underrepresented audience. And the Art Institute had just had McKinsey do a pro bono study for them of who their ideal underrepresented audiences were. And one of them was the African American visitor. Jetta and the head of museum education, who was also an African American woman at the time, a woman named Ronne Hartfield, helped the Art Institute get the grant.

Then, as part of the grant, they formed an African American advisory committee. We were called the LAC, the Leadership Advisory Committee. I came on to be the marketing contributor, the marketing member of that committee. She invited me to join that committee. And that committee still exists.

 


CHARLES WHITE, “Harvest Talk,” 1953 (charcoal, Wolff’s carbon drawing pencil, and graphite, with stumping and erasing on ivory wood pulp laminate board, 26 × 39 1/16 inches). | © 1953 The Charles White Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago. Restricted gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert S. Hartman

 

And that was your introduction to the museum?

Yeah, that was my introduction to the museum.

You said the education director at the time was an African American woman, too?

Ronne Hartfield. She was another incredible woman, a role model. That’s one thing that we’ve been lucky with in Chicago. We have had people like them at the table from early on in the history of the museum. And they just really set the standard.

I want to talk about art and artists. You provided lead sponsorship for the Charles White (1918-1979) retrospective at the museum. Why was that exhibition in particular important to you and your husband? Can you talk about the significance of White and the show?

I believe Charles White is the most important Chicago-born artist of the 20th Century. Chicago was his home and his talent was nurtured here at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the South Side Community Art Center.

We wanted the city, especially our younger people, to know who he was and appreciate the power of his talents. He was an extraordinary painter, printmaker, and draftsman, of course. His subject matter and themes are even more relevant today and we wanted the world to experience his remarkable legacy.

He would have been 100 years old the year the show opened (2018). Chicago needed to welcome him back home and celebrate his heavenly 100th birthday. I’ve been moved to tears of joy twice at the museum in my 27 years here. The opening night of his exhibition was one of those occasions.

“I believe Charles White is the most important Chicago-born artist of the 20th Century… I’ve been moved to tears of joy twice at the museum in my 27 years here. The opening night of his exhibition was one of those occasions.”

Are there any other exhibitions of African American art in the pipeline, anything coming up?

There are quite a few. Right now, what’s on view is “Bisa Butler: Portraits,” which is a phenomenal show. That’s one, and then in June we’re going to have The Obama Portraits that are touring. We’re super excited about that. Then we also have a great Richard Hunt show (“Scholar’s Rock or Stone of Hope or Love of Bronze”). He’s a Chicago-based sculptor.

 


Installation view “Richard Hunt: Scholar’s Rock or Stone of Hope or Love of Bronze,” Art Institute of Chicago, 2020-2021. | Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

 

That’s up right now, right?

Yes. We’ve extended that to September. What we’re planning to do with that is his birthday’s in September. So we’ll kind of have a finale celebration in conjunction with his birthday. That’s the plan. There is a really great photography show coming up with Kenyan photographer Mimi Cherono Ng’ok (“Closer to the Earth: Closer to My Own Body”). That opens in June also. Then next year we’re doing a show of Igshaan Adams’s work, and there are others. That’s kind of been what’s been on my checklist of things I don’t want to miss.

What about your personal collection? Have you been collecting any new artists or going in any new directions?

I haven’t gone in any particular new directions. Let’s see. I know I’ve bought a few things over the pandemic. Caroline Kent. I purchased a work on paper and a painting of hers. She’s a wonderful Chicago-based artist. Casey Kaplan just started representing her. (Igshaan Adams is also represented by Casey Kaplan.)

And then let’s see. Oh, Dawoud Bey. Oh my God. How could I forget about that? I’ve had him in my collection for a little while, several different photographs, but I just acquired one of his large-scale photographs from the series he did on the Underground Railroad.

Okay. Nice. The new work.

Yeah, the new work. That really resonated with me because I’m originally from Northern Ohio, so he was in my backyard and I learned some things about the history of that region that I did not know before I had a conversation with him. The work is just so stunning and on such a grand scale. I think that’s the last work I’ve taken on.

I love to hear that you learned so much about where you are from, from his research and his photography. It’s really gratifying when you can get new knowledge from artists and their work.

It really is. And he’s such a student of history and humanity, and he likes to share. That’s the other thing I love about Dawoud Bey.

“We’ve extended [the Richard Hunt exhibition] to September. What we’re planning to do with that is his birthday’s in September. So we’ll kind of have a finale celebration in conjunction with his birthday. That’s the plan.”

 


MIMI CHERONO NG’OK, “Still from Untitled (It took a love closer to the earth, closer to my own body, to stop my tears …),” 2020 (16mm film transferred to 4k video, silent; 29:54 min). | © Mimi Cherono Ng’ok, Commissioned by the Art Institute of Chicago

 

Do you have anything else you want to tell me about this announcement? How you feel about being elected chair, its significance.

One thing that’s very important to me, one of my guiding principles since my involvement began at the museum, is to make sure that people from all backgrounds and all ages feel welcome, feel like they belong there and that there’s something there for them.

At the end of the day that’s really what I’d like to see, especially with younger people, too. I’m eager to make sure, especially after the pandemic wanes, that we really lean into engaging and having meaningful relationships with young people and students and that they know their history. That’s the other thing. When I grew up, Black history did not include visual art Black history. And that’s a shame.

You learned Black history, but nothing about artists and Black art history?

I grew up in the 60s and 70s, I remember seeing images of what I didn’t know at the time was a Jacob Lawrence painting or a Romare Bearden painting or an Aaron Douglas, but I didn’t know anything about them. I didn’t know their names. And I love history and the idea that these guys and women like Alma Thomas were doing what they were doing in the time they were doing it, it’s a miracle. On top of that, they were extraordinarily creative. Super innovative to the point of really being disruptive in the art of art history, when you think about it. I want to make sure that the next generation knows that history and they know who they are. That’s super important to me.

“I remember seeing images of what I didn’t know at the time was a Jacob Lawrence painting or a Romare Bearden painting or an Aaron Douglas, but I didn’t know anything about them. I didn’t know their names. I want to make sure that the next generation knows that history…”

Well, thank you so much for your time. During our conversation I could hear the alerts from all the texts you’ve been receiving. You’ll probably be up all night responding.

We need happy news and I feel like this isn’t just my appointment. I feel like, as I mentioned some of the women earlier, I stand on the shoulders of other people. It’s fine with me that everybody is excited with me and hopefully… you know what I keep texting everybody back is “Okay. So you’re going to be on this journey with me. Right?” CT

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

FIND MORE about the Art Institute of Chicago’s Leadership Advisory Committee and the Denise and Gary Gardner Scholarship at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

FIND MORE Edward E. Greene at MFA Boston and Monroe E. Harris Jr. at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond are the first African American presidents of their respective museum boards

 


The Art Institute of Chicago. Michigan Avenue Entrance. Shown, EDWARD KEMEYS, “Lions,” (bronze with Green patina). Gift of Mrs. Henry Field, 1898.1a-b. The Art Institute of Chicago. (The lions are the registered trademarks of the Art Institute of Chicago). | Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

 

BOOKSHELF
“Charles White: A Retrospective” documents the artist’s long-awaited traveling exhibition (2018-19) and includes a preface by artist Kerry James Marshall, and contributions by exhibition curators Sarah Kelly Oehler, Esther Adler, and Ilene Susan Fort, as well as Kellie Jones,Mark Pascale, and Deborah Willis. “The Obama Portraits,” explores in-depth the making of the portraits of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama by artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively. A fully illustrated volume, “Bisa Butler: Portraits” accompanies the artist’s first solo museum exhibition and serves “as a primary resource that both introduces Butler’s work and establishes a scholarly foundation for future research.”

 

DISCLOSURE: Denise Gardner is among the generous supporters who have made donations to Culture Type. Contributions do not influence or dictate editorial coverage and content.

 

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