Carnegie Museums’ new female leader’s charisma, collaboration trumpeted |
Art & Museums

Carnegie Museums’ new female leader’s charisma, collaboration trumpeted

Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Jo Ellen Parker, the new president of Carnegie Museums, poses for a portrait at the museum in Oakland on Tuesday, April 29, 2014.

For the first time in its nearly 120-year history, the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh will have a woman at the helm.

Jo Ellen Parker, 59, will become the 10th president of the institution, officials announced on Tuesday.

“I think that we are very lucky to live in a place and time where we increasingly understand as a society that qualities of leadership and intellect and character are distributed across all genders,” said Parker, who has a doctorate in English literature from the University of Pennsylvania.

Parker’s distinction occurs as female leaders are needed in cultural arenas, experts say. A study released in March by the Association of Art Museum Directors shows just 24 percent of museums with budgets of $15 million or larger are led by women.

Lee Foster, chair of the Carnegie Museums board of trustees, said gender did not play into the 10-member search committee’s criteria, but when a decision was made, it established an “aha moment.”

“For some reason, museums are not choosing women to lead,” Foster said. “It’s neat to think we may be doing some trendsetting.”

For a year, the committee sought candidates who could lead with a collaborative style, Foster said, given the size and scope of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.

Each of the museums — Carnegie Museum of Art, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Carnegie Science Center and The Andy Warhol Museum — has a board. With a combined operating budget of about $66 million, the museums reach more than 1.28 million people annually through exhibitions, educational programs, outreach activities and special events.

Parker, the president of Sweet Briar College, a liberal arts institution for women in central Virginia, possesses charisma that sent her to the top of the list, Foster said.

“She can walk into a room and command authority, then also speak to you as if yours if the most important voice in the room,” Foster said.

Parker will take the job on Aug. 18, succeeding David Hillenbrand, who returned to the post in 2013. His initial successor, John Wetenhall, spent less than two years in the position. Hillenbrand will retire.

Betsy Momich, director of corporate communications for Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, said Parker’s salary will be comparable to those of recent past presidents. Wetenhall made about $346,000 a year, according to the organization’s IRS Form 990 for 2012.

The position presents immediate challenges.

As a whole, the Carnegie Museums ended fiscal 2013 with a surplus of about $100,000. The value of its endowment and long-term investments stands at $313 million. But the Carnegie Museum of Natural History runs an annual operating deficit of about $1.3 million.

Parker said a solution requires thinking “creatively about what kind of value a natural history museum can and should be bringing to a community at this point in time.

“A strong answer to that question will go a long way toward helping us develop a business model and a revenue model that will sustain that wonderful collection and that wonderful staff,” she said.

Foster called the Museum of Natural History a “top priority.”

“There’s been a great deal of work already, and now, we will wait for Jo Ellen to put her imprint on a final solution of what will ultimately occur there,” Foster said.

Attracting younger audiences to the museums, which compete with technological distractions, will take what Parkers calls “digital sophistication.”

“There’s nothing that can replace standing under that dinosaur skeleton,” Parker said. “No animation, no simulation can replace that sense of awe that you get from standing there in the presence of that. Things like animation simulations, databases, illustrations, ubiquitous computing apps — they can sure do a lot to inspire people to want to come stand under that skeleton, especially young people.”

Parker was a faculty member and academic affairs and student life administrator for her alma mater, Bryn Mawr College. She was executive director of the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education, and was president of the Great Lakes Colleges Association, a consortium of 12 liberal arts colleges.

She sees the transition from higher education to museum leadership as natural.

“There’s a core harmony between the mission of museums and the mission of higher education organizations,” Parker said. “Museums are where the liberal arts and the public meet. As a liberal educator, for my whole career, I think that’s extraordinarily exciting.”

Peggy Morrison Outon, founding executive director of the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University, had met Parker at a college-related function. She said Parker’s background in liberal education will be “a wonderful asset to the museums and the larger community.”

“It’s quite interesting a woman who is a champion of high-level liberal education for women has been chosen,” Outon said. “It seems completely appropriate. She is an intellect and a scholar and sees the great importance of women’s leadership.”

Outon views Parker’s appointment as encouraging.

“I think the zeitgeist is seeing the winds of change move toward supporting women’s aspirations in many ways,” Outon said. “Businesses and institutions that include women in leadership positions made better business decisions. There is a growing awareness that women make a very real and positive contribution to society.”

Paul Rice, chairman of the Sweet Briar College board of directors, called Parker a “fantastic leader.” He cited her formulation of the college’s strategic plan, which administrators have been implementing for several years, among her most impressive accomplishments as president. He anticipates naming her successor before she comes to Pittsburgh.

“The board and others close to her in this community all recognize what a great opportunity this is for her,” Rice said.

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or [email protected].

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