Key to the Carnegie: An unconventional choice will lead the museums

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The city’s vibrant cultural offerings were among the features that impressed Jo Ellen Parker as she contemplated moving from Virginia, where she has been president of Sweet Briar College since 2009. Now, sustaining Pittsburgh’s cultural life will be her key responsibility as she becomes president and chief executive officer of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.

The task before Ms. Parker is daunting, and museum trustees are convinced that her professional background, style and enthusiasm are just what the world-renowned museum system needs from its leader, the 10th in its history.

Ms. Parker, 59, is no stranger to Pennsylvania, where she graduated from Bryn Mawr College and earned her doctoral degree in English literature at the University of Pennsylvania. She was a faculty member at Swarthmore College and then at her alma mater, where she also was an administrator. Her more recent positions are relevant to the task of running the Carnegie Museum of Art and Natural History, the Carnegie Science Center and The Andy Warhol Museum.

Collaboration has been the watchword of her work at the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education, a nonprofit involving 150 liberal arts colleges; at the Great Lakes Colleges Association, a consortium of 12 institutions, and, most recently, at Sweet Briar, a women’s college.

As Ms. Parker smartly observed when she was appointed to lead the Carnegie, in this day and age, going it alone is not a feasible strategy for nonprofit organizations.

Although her background is not in museums, there are numerous parallels to running a university and the Carnegie system. Both have a unified board of directors to whom the president reports; both need a steady supply of new patrons coming through their doors; their finances and their physical plants require careful management; fund-raising is important to both. The list just scratches the surface.

Pittsburgh is eager to see what new ideas Ms. Parker will bring when she takes over the museum system on Aug. 18.

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