George M. Irwin, industrialist, philanthropist, founding member of the Illinois Arts Council, 1976. Quincy Area Historic Photo Collection, courtesy of the Quincy Public Library (

In November of last year, George M. Irwin passed away at the age of 99 in his hometown of Quincy, Illinois. An arts leader of towering importance in the state, Irwin founded the very first community arts council in the United States in Quincy in 1947, then went on to launch the Illinois Arts Council in 1963 and co-found the national advocacy organization Americans for the Arts. A tireless advocate for music, historic preservation, and art museums, he was also an avid collector of contemporary art, particularly artists here in the state of Illinois. 

Though a graduate of the University of Michigan, Irwin was deeply devoted to Krannert Art Museum. An exhibition of his collection at KAM in 1980 under the directorship of Muriel Christison led to a long series of gifts to KAM, starting in 1982 and running through 2019. These works are primarily prints and drawings, including internationally recognized artists such as Sol Le Witt, Alex Katz, Joyce Kozloff, and Lee Bontecou. 

But it was Irwin’s expansive and forward-looking collecting, particularly works by women, indigenous, and Black artists, that transformed the holdings here, including works by Barbara Jones-Hogu, Andy Tsinnajinnie, and Richard Hunt that have recently been on view. His devotion to the art of Chicago was legendary, and KAM’s outstanding holdings of the Hairy Who and Chicago Imagists owe a great deal to Irwin’s gifts, including works by Ed Paschke, Ray Yoshida, Karl Wirsum, Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Barbara Rossi, and Christina Ramberg—among many others. 

We celebrate George Irwin’s advocacy for the arts and remain grateful for his long commitment to Krannert Art Museum.


Author: Jon M. Seydl, Museum Director (Jan 2021)