Meet Stefan Edlis: Chicago Philanthropist Who Just Donated $400 million of Art

They might not publicize a foundation grantmaking program funneling out awards four cycles a year, but Stefan T. Edlis and Gael Neeson are definitely a pair of philanthropists to watch in the years to come. 

The Chicago couple recently donated 42 works of art valued at $400 million to the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s the largest gift the major museum has ever seen, and many of the works are by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jasper Johns.

So who exactly are Edlis and Neeson, and can Chicago organizations expect to see more major gifts from them this year?

Stefan Edlis is an Austrian immigrant who moved to America with his family at the age of 15. After serving in the navy and moving to Chicago in 1950, he started working at a shop that developed molding processes for new plastic compounds. He made his millions in the plastics manufacturing industry through the Apollo Plastics Corporation. Now well into his golden years, Edlis shifted his attention to art collecting.

“I didn't set out to be a collector, but in my early 20s, I saw this article in Fortune about Pablo Picasso, and I cut out all the images in it and put them on my wall,” Edlis explained in a Wall Street Journal interview a few years ago. “When I started buying art in the 1970s, my greatest school was actually the auction houses. Abstract expressionism was still the thing back then, but I preferred pop. Still do."

However, Edlis’ interest in art seems to be motivated, at least in part, by the tax incentives and the recognition.

Related: Bloomberg's Want to Avoid U.S. Taxes on $80 Million Warhol? Buy More Art

"I have donated works of art to museums for years, but have been frustrated by their lack of exposure," Edlis said. "The fact that the Art Institute proposed keeping the works on permanent view for fifty years in the Modern Wing was a totally convincing argument for gifting the collection to the museum.”

Edlis is now 89 years old and likely thinking about where he wants his favorite paintings to hang when he can’t enjoy them anymore. He has been adamant about keeping his collection on permanent display, not tucked away somewhere in storage. However, Edlis’ wife is just 71 years old, and although the couple has retained about 200 pieces of their art, Edlis reportedly didn’t want her to be burdened with the entire collection.

At the end of 2013, the Edlis-Neeson Foundation reported over $19 million in assets and over $2.2 million in total giving. However, awards made through the foundation tend to be much smaller than this eye-catching art gift, usually to the tune of $1,000 to $500,000 with occasional human services or social sciences support tossed into the art mix. However, art giving has always been top priority for Stefan Edlis.

These are some of the other organizations that Edlis and Neeson have supported in Chicago and their other favorite cities over the years:

  • Lyric Opera of Chicago
  • Chicago Opera Theater
  • Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
  • WBEZ radio station, Chicago
  • The Solti Foundation, Evanston
  • Aspen Music School, Festival, and Institute
  • Whitney Museum of American Art & Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City
  • Foundation for Contemporary Arts, New York City
  • Carnegie Museums, Pittsburgh
  • Democracy Alliance via Tides Foundation (2008)