Collector Profile on John H. Bryan

By Sam Isenstein and MK Meador

The news about corporate CEOs wielding power is rarely positive. Yet John H. Bryan made the news not due to scandal, but heroic efforts in support of  public works.  The City of Chicago owes John Bryan a debt of gratitude for saving the Millennium Park Project before its opening in 2004, among his other philanthropic involvements.

John H. Bryan, former CEO of Sara Lee, is a philanthropist and fund-raising figurehead in Chicago. There is no questioning his success in the business world, but lesser known are his contributions and support of Chicago arts and public works. Bryan is accountable for wrangling over $205 million in contributions towards Millennium Park, serving as the campaign chair for the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, magnanimous support for other aspects of the AIC, the Lyric Opera and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A proponent of the private sector supporting the arts, Bryan has made a point of practicing what he preaches. Born in Mississippi in 1936, Bryan graduated from Rhodes College and began working in the family business. Consolidated Foods purchased the company and eventually became the Sara Lee Corporation. Quickly rising through the ranks, Bryan became a member of the board of directors in 1974 and CEO in 1975. He was appointed Chairman of the Board in 1976, holding that position until his retirement in 2001. Accruing a wealth and contacts and experience in business, Bryan worked his way into a perfect position to support the arts.

A persuasive salesman and effective manager, Bryan is an uncannily effective fundraising manager. He gravitates towards projects that stir the imagination and evoke strong emotion, it’s a more effective way to accumulate donations and guarantee the project stays in the public eye. A skilled delegator, Bryan understands the need for benefactors to get involved in planning and execution but doesn’t follow suit – once the project is set to go and his obligations are taken care of, Bryan lets the infrastructure he set up take over. He appoints the right people and then moves to the background, removing his ego and moving on to his next project. While drawing criticism for his generous severance package from Sara Lee, the community at large is grateful for his enormous contributions to fine art and public works in Chicago. Millennium Park is one of the most important public areas in the city, and without Bryan it arguably wouldn’t have been completed. After the initial budget of $150 million was surpassed, Bryan was integral in raising the overflow cash from the private sector. His unwavering dedication to the arts and belief in their public accessibility have made Bryan one of the city’s most important members.

Among the lesser known of John Bryan’s investments include his purchase and restoration of the Crab Tree Farm in 1985. The estate houses his extensive American Arts & Crafts collection and pieces from the collection have been featured in museum exhibitions around the country. It sounds like an idyllic retreat, and according to the farm’s website “the farm buildings and most of the farmland [were sold] to Mr. and Mrs. John H. Bryan… Today Crab Tree Farm is home to cattle, horses, sheep, chickens, and turkeys. Crops have included hay, corn, and soybeans. The original Beman buildings have undergone extensive renovation and display collections of furniture and decorative arts from the American and English Arts and Crafts movement, as well as contemporary furniture.”

His farm alludes to his southern roots and in keeping with that charm, the man is highly quotable. During the fundraising process for Millennium Park he infamously remarked to a Tribune reporter that in order to raise the staggering amount of capital for project that “You wrap the civic cloak around the problem.”

For more information on Bryan’s work with Millennium Park read this article.

Click here more information on Crab Tree Farm.