Black and Powerful: Denise Gardner

Gardner said she wants Chicago museum to be 'here for the public, not the few'

ByLeah Hope and Colin Evans WLS logo
Tuesday, November 16, 2021
Black and Powerful: Denise Gardner
Denise Gardner is the first Black person and woman chairperson of the Board of Trustees for the Art Institute of Chicago.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- It was announced in April of 2021 that Denise Gardner was elected the new chairperson of the Board of Trustees for the Art Institute of Chicago. In November, she assumed her new role, becoming the first Black person and woman chairperson for the museum and the School of the Art Institute.

"Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would be in this position," said Gardner.

In her first television interview since taking on her historic role, Gardner spoke with ABC7's Leah Hope for episode 13 of the streaming series "Black & Powerful."

"You would never give me a paint brush; I wouldn't know what to do with it," Gardner said. But she is an avid art collector, a love she credits to her husband. "For date nights, a lot of the times, we'd (go) to the Art Institute."

SEE MORE: Black & Powerful: ABC7 presents series exclusively streaming on connected TV apps,

Gardner described herself as a history buff, and said her love of research and history deepened her love of art. "The stories behind the art... that really appealed to me," Gardner said. "I realized there were a whole set of artists I never heard about growing up: Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and then here in Chicago Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett. And I felt, what a shame it was I didn't really know those artists."

That led to Gardner's work of ensuring the legacies of Black artists was shared with generations to come.

According to the Art Institute, Gardner has a nearly 30-year relationship with the Art Institute as a volunteer and philanthropic leader, which included 15 years as a trustee and five years as vice chair of the board.

Gardner said as chairperson of the Art Institute's Board, she hopes to make all Chicagoans feel connected to one of the oldest and largest art museums in the country.

"We're here for the public, not the few. We're here so people from all 77 neighborhoods of Chicago can come here, feel comfortable here and feel like there's something here for them," Gardner said.