Denise and Gary Gardner
In 2021, Denise Gardner made history when she was elected to be the chairman of the board of trustees of the Art Institute of Chicago, making her the first Black woman in the United States to lead a major museum’s board. But she and her husband Gary have been actively collecting art for over a decade.
The Gardners focus their attention on supporting artists from the African diaspora. While their holdings include the works of major historical figures like Norman Lewis, Jack Whitten, Elizabeth Catlett, and Charles White, they have intentionally focused on purchasing the work of living artists. Among the artists represented in the collection are Kerry James Marshall, Charles Gaines, Frank Bowling, Rashid Johnson, Firelei Baez, Sanford Biggers, Genevieve Gaignard, Bethany Collins, Candida Alvarez, Lorna Simpson, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Samuel Levi Jones, Dawoud Bey, Leonardo Drew, Carrie Mae Weems, and Igshaan Adams, who had a major survey at the Art Institute in 2022.
Weems’s work is of particular importance to their collection, as a few years ago they faced a lack of wall space to accommodate a particularly large work by the artist. Gary had the idea to gut the lower level of their house and build a gallery-like, white cube space for contemporary art, which required several weeks of earth excavation to lower the floor by 20 inches.
“We view collecting as a dynamic process, and we enjoy all its aspects: researching artists, viewing the work, meeting the artists and learning about their practice, hearing from galleries and curators about the work, considering which work fits best with our collection, and most of all, living with the work at home,” the Gardners told ARTnews in an email interview.
Beyond collecting, the Gardners are passionate about ensuring that works by artists from the diaspora are shared and appreciated by the broader public, particularly young people. They have supported numerous exhibitions at various museums in the Midwest, particularly at the Art Institute of Chicago. Their dedication to access and equity in the arts has extended to college access for under-represented students, which they support through the Denise and Gary Gardner Scholarship Fund at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
“The issue that persists in our minds the most, however, might be the issue of how we continue to ensure that world-class artists from a wide variety of geographies and identities are recognized and included in the canon of art history,” they said. “Similarly, a corollary issue is how we ensure that more audiences and communities will know, appreciate, and be inspired by art.”
On the business front, Gary enjoyed a long career starting and building beauty and personal care companies. He and Denise cofounded a former market leader in the ethnic HBA field, and he was president of another family-owned market leader in the 1990s where Denise led their marketing team. More recently, Denise has been president of a marketing consulting firm and Gary supports other entrepreneurs through his private equity firm.