Stefan Edlis died Tuesday at the age of 94, according to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Major donors to the museum, Edlis and his wife, Gael Neeson, gave $10 million to name the MCA’s 300-seat theater, the Edlis Neeson Theater.
“Stefan, joined by his wife, Gael, loved how artists expand our thinking and perception of the world, and perhaps most of all, how artists test the limits,” MCA director Madeleine Grynsztejn said in a statement. “The MCA would not be what it is without Stefan and his boundless passion, curiosity, kindness and optimism,” Grynsztejn added.
Edlis and Neeson have been regular donors to WBEZ since 1996, according to Senior Vice President of Development Jennifer Bell. In 2010, WBEZ’s flagship talk studio was named “The Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson Foundation Talk Studio.” Edlis was born in Vienna in 1925 and emigrated to the U.S. in 1941 to escape the Nazis. According to the MCA obituary commissioned by Neeson, Edlis was obligated to register for the draft and was called to duty in 1943. After the war, Edlis began working with toolmakers.
Those early jobs in the tool industry eventually led him to found Apollo Plastics in Chicago in 1965. He began collecting art around that time and, in 1970, met Neeson. She “shared his passion for collecting contemporary art, both of them consistently preferring the provocative over the provincial,” according to the statement.
Edlis and Neeson also gave to the Art Institute of Chicago, donating a large collection of contemporary works that constituted the largest single contribution to the museum in its history: 44 major works from the mid-20th century to the present by artists including Jasper Johns, Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol.
James Rondeau, the director and president of the Art Institute, called that 2015 gift “transformative on so many levels.” With the gift, the couple joined “the pantheon of Chicago patrons who have ensured that the Art Institute can tell the story of modern art in depth, decade-by-decade, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century,” he said.
The MCA statement included an anecdote about Edlis’s motivation behind his unique and vast collection of art. He and Neeson bought a sculpture by the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan that depicts an eerily lifelike Adolph Hitler as a boy on his knees, hands crossed and eyes upward.
When asked in the documentary The Price of Everything, “What [is] it like as a Jewish collector to own the Cattelen?” he replied: “It’s a fair question. It’s also irrelevant. Because art is art.”
Carrie Shepherd is a news reporter for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @cshepherd.