Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh names Jo Ellen Parker new president, CEO

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Jo Ellen Parker, the first woman to serve as president and chief executive officer of Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, said the city was a big reason she’s leaving Virginia, where she is president of Sweet Briar College.

“Frankly, one of the many attractions of this position was the chance to come to Pittsburgh,” the 59-year-old said Tuesday shortly before she was hired at a meeting of Carnegie Institute trustees.

The city’s vibrant cultural offerings, diverse neighborhoods, large urban parks and wide variety of restaurants impressed her and her husband, Richard G. Manasa, a native of Detroit.

College president to lead Carnegie Museums

Jo Ellen Parker has been chosen to lead the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. (Video by Nate Guidry; 4/30/2014)

As president of Sweet Briar College since 2009, Ms. Parker has run a private, liberal arts school for women with 687 full-time students and an annual operating budget of $34.8 million in the central Virginia town of Sweet Briar.

She succeeds David Hillenbrand and will start her new duties on Aug. 18. The position’s salary, according to the museum’s IRS financial records from 2010, was $362,934. The Carnegie complex includes four museums: the Museum of Art and Museum of Natural History, both in Oakland, and the Carnegie Science Center and The Andy Warhol Museum, both on the North Side.

Bill Hunt, a Carnegie Museums life trustee and president of The Elmhurst Group, led the 10-member search committee that chose Ms. Parker.

“Everywhere she has gone, she has created new initiatives. She’s very proactive. I think she is going to lead in a fiscally sound manner. I think she’ll be a very strong fundraiser. She has very strong communication skills,” Mr. Hunt said.

In a letter to all Carnegie trustees and museum board members, Carnegie board president Lee B. Foster praised Ms. Parker’s accomplishments and qualifications as the organization’s new leader.

“We couldn’t be more excited to welcome Jo Ellen to Carnegie Museums and to Pittsburgh, and we know she is eager to meet you,” Mr. Foster said. “I think you’ll be struck, as we have been, that she is both presidential and down-to-earth, commanding a room with her presence but also personable one-on-one and eager to engage with and hear from all members of her team.”

Ms. Parker said fostering collaboration is one of her strengths.

“I’ve been part of collaborations that extended from five institutions to 12 to 150,” she said. “For non-profits in this day and age, going it alone is really not a feasible strategy.”

From September 2004 through June 2009, Ms. Parker was executive director of the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education. The nonprofit, an initiative of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, helps nearly 150 liberal arts colleges advance undergraduate education in the digital age.

From 1996 through 2004, Ms. Parker was president of the Great Lakes Colleges Association, which fosters collaboration among 12 private liberal arts schools in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. She promoted pedagogical innovation, and led an initiative to explore new models in international education.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Ms. Parker and her colleagues believed that public discourse “was underinformed and inflammatory.” With colleagues at the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education, she brought together faculty from colleges and universities. Together, they created a website with audio, video and text to inform students about Islam and the Arabic world.

“We had that in use on more than 40 campuses within a few weeks of Sept. 11,” Ms. Parker said.

Though she lives in Virginia, she has spent the largest portion of her life in Pennsylvania. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature at Bryn Mawr, taught literature at Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore and earned a doctorate in that subject at the University of Pennsylvania in 1987.

“I love to read novels. I found that what I loved more than anything else was reading prose fiction and talking about it with other students. So I followed my bliss into a Ph.D. in English literature.”

She said some of her happiest memories are connected to art and museums. She grew up and attended high school in Olathe, Kansas, 40 miles west of Kansas City. It is home to the Nelson-Atkins Museum, where her mother was a docent.

When she lived in Philadelphia, she showed her young son, John, suits of medieval armor at the Franklin Institute. While living in Ann Arbor, Mich., she and her husband visited local art galleries regularly and bought a Buddhist sculpture. On a recent visit to Phoenix, Ariz., they saw a Dale Chihuly glass exhibit and toured Havana art galleries during a visit to Cuba in January.

Marylynne Pitz: or 412-263-1648. First Published April 29, 2014 5:44 PM

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