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Denise Gardner Becomes Art Institute of Chicago’s Board Chief, Making History As First Black Woman To Lead A Major Museum Board

Denise Gardner Becomes Art Institute of Chicago’s Board Chief, Making History As First Black Woman To Lead A Major Museum Board

She's championing Black artists!

Denise Gardner was just named the Art Institute of Chicago’s board chief, making history as the first Black woman to lead a major museum board, The New York Times reports. 

Gardner got her start as an Art Institute volunteer nearly 30 years ago by Jetta Jones, the museum’s first Black female trustee who recently passed at 95. She became an art collector, focusing on Black and women artists like Frank Bowling, Nick Cave, and Carrie Mae Weems. Gardner was also an early collector of Amy Sherald, the official portrait artist of Forever First Lady Michelle Obama, whose work hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. 

Her appointment as the new Art Institute of Chicago’s board chief is a full-circle moment for Gardner, who hopes her mentor Jetta Jones would be proud.

“I hope she knows what’s happening, and I think she would have been overjoyed. This job could have been hers,” she said.

An advocate for Black artists, art access, and education for underrepresented audiences, Gardner has served for 15 years as a trustee in her current role as vice-chair for the last five years. She was formerly the president of Insights & Opportunities, a strategic marketing firm, and co-founded Namaste Laboratories, a beauty manufacturer. She has also served on the boards of the Chicago Public Library and Chicago Humanities Festival. And is on the steering committee of the Black Trustee Alliance for Art museums, which was recently established last year to bring on more Black trustees, artists, and curators.

“I want people of color to know the history and the power and the contribution of their own people in the visual arts. 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 told The Times.

James Rondeau, the museum’s director, spoke about Gardner’s appointment, saying, “A leader with her credentials is exactly what we need right now to take us into the future. 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 understands the significance of her new position and is excited to lead the Art Institute of Chicago forward. 

“It’s hard to avoid the historical significance. That does add a sense of responsibility and pressure to succeed, and that’s fine with me. I like to exceed expectations...The work is still unfinished. In this role, I can help the museum accelerate its progress,” said Gardner.

Congratulations, Denise! You're making the world more beautiful.

Photo Courtesy of The New York Times