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Mimi Gardner Gates: The quiet, scholarly member of the family

By Laurie Bennett

April 24, 2008 at 11:32am

Gates men are suckers for smart women.

Billionaire Bill Gates III is married to Melinda Gates, a former Microsoft exec with an M.B.A. from Duke University, who serves as co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

His father, Bill Gates Sr., a retired lawyer, lost his first wife, Mary, to cancer, in 1994. Mary Gates was a long-time regent of the University of Washington.

After two years as a widower, Gates Sr. married Mimi Gardner Neill, director of the Seattle Art Museum.

Mimi Gardner Gates is probably the least known member of the illustrious family, but she can certainly hold her own.

She is a Chinese art scholar with a doctorate in art history. Last year, she became a fellow of the Yale Corporation, the elite governing body of Yale University.

The hometown paper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, has called her a “populist elitist,” for her efforts to bring arts to the masses. Gardner Gates was the driving force behind Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park, and under her leadership, the Seattle Art Museum’s endowment has grown from $24.5 million to more than $100 million.

Family ties haven’t hurt fundraising efforts. The Gates Foundation gave $12 million to the museum in 2002, for development of the sculpture park. Other boosts from the foundation included a $10 million grant for the endowment, and $9 million in 2006 for the museum’s capital campaign.

Gates told the Post-Intelligencer that marriage was the last thing on her mind when she moved to Seattle in 1994. She was the divorced mother of an adult son, focused on her career and her two cats.

Then Bill Gates Sr. called. “When we were first seeing each other, we didn’t want people to know,” she said. “Anything the Gates family does is news. We didn’t want to be news.”

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