Photo Credit: Courtesy of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Denise Gardner Makes History as First Black Woman to Lead Art Institute of Chicago Board

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Denise Gardner has made history after The Art Institute of Chicago named her as the head of its advisory board.

“It’s an honor to accept this role,” Gardner said in a statement. “I look forward to working with the institution’s leadership and staff to fully realize our aspiration of ensuring that people of all ages from throughout the Chicagoland area and beyond, particularly children, see the Art Institute of Chicago as a place where they are welcome and truly belong.”

The art collector and longtime patron will be the first African American and the first woman to hold the position. It may also be the first time a Black woman was selected to lead the board of a major U.S. art museum.

“It’s hard to avoid the historical significance,” Gardner told The New York Times in an interview. “That does add a sense of responsibility and pressure to succeed, and that’s fine with me. I like to exceed expectations.”

Gardner, 66, has been linked to the Art Institute for nearly three decades. She served as a trustee for 15 years. More recently, she served as the vice chair of the board. The current board chair, Robert M. Levy, will remain on the board after Gardner assumes the position in November.

Gardner told the publication that she was first brought to the Art Institute as a volunteer almost 27 years ago by Jetta Jones. Jones was museum’s first Black female trustee. She 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.”

“Denise is at the vanguard of making art and design education more inclusive,” said School of the Art Institute of Chicago president Elissa Tenny. “She is a transformational leader, drawing the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and museum closer to those we serve, while expanding who is in that audience.”

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