Museums and More: How an Art World Power Couple Does Their Giving

The art institute of Chicago. Photo: MaxyM/shutterstock

The art institute of Chicago. Photo: MaxyM/shutterstock

Stefan T. Edlis and Gael Neeson made big waves in 2015 with a donation of artworks worth $400 million to the Art Institute of Chicago. They were No. 4 on Forbes’ list of top givers that year, with donations totaling $513 million, and they’ve appeared on ArtNews’ “Top 200 Art Collectors” list many times. The couple also appeared in a HBO documentary that aired this fall, called The Price of Everything, which analyzes the art market and its skyrocketing prices.

Edlis, a retired plastics manufacturer, is now in his 90s and Neeson is in her 70s. The couple are active philanthropists, giving nearly $7 million through their foundation in 2017, up almost a million from the previous year.

Where has the money been going?

As you might expect, support for the arts tops their agenda. But funds also flow for several liberal nonprofits and a few senior and end-of-life-care organizations.

The New Museum in New York City has been a favored institution, receiving more than $2.6 million in both years; Neeson is a trustee there. According to the museum, the couple supports artist commissions and in 2017, Edlis-Neeson artistic director Massimiliano Gioni co-curated a Kahlil Joseph exhibition as well as a 40th anniversary event called, “Who’s Afraid of the New Now? 40 Artists in Dialogue to Celebrate the New Museum’s Anniversary.”

Chicago-area organizations the couple has assisted include the Chicago Opera Theater, Lyric Opera, and Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA). Edlis is an MCA trustee. The couple spends a good deal of time in Aspen, and have repeatedly donated to the Aspen Art Museum, Music Festival, and Santa Fe Ballet.

National, Illinois, and Colorado public radio are also longtime Edlis-Neeson grantees. WBEZ, Chicago’s public radio affiliate, broadcasts some of its programming from the Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson Foundation Talk Studio.

The couple’s progressive political leanings are pretty easy to glean from their foundation’s tax forms, which show multi-year support for the American Civil Liberties Union, Democracy Now, Planned Parenthood, and People for the American Way. The couple is also backing some local human service nonprofits including mentoring programs and community centers.

Another notable giving trend is support for organizations providing services for senior independence, hospice care, and end-of-life freedom of choice. These include Seniors Independent; Hospice of the Valley in Colorado; Pathfinders, which supports chronically ill patients and families; and Death With Dignity, a nonprofit that works to expand “the freedom of all qualified terminally ill Americans to make their own end-of-life decisions, including how they die” and promotes related laws.

It will be interesting to see how the couple’s funding and material gifts play out in the years to come. As we’ve written, Edlis wants to avoid leaving responsibility for the entirety of the remaining 200-piece art collection to Neeson, which was one reason for the massive 2015 donation to the Art Institute of Chicago. He also wanted to make sure the art they’d collected would be seen, and not hidden away. In a press release at the time, he explained:

I have donated works of art to museums for years, but have been frustrated by their lack of exposure. The fact that the Art Institute proposed keeping the works on permanent view for 50 years in the Modern Wing was a totally convincing argument for gifting the collection to the museum. Gael and I are delighted that these works of art will be in the Art Institute’s long-term plans.