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.