Chevy Humphrey, the newly appointed president and CEO of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, told two very on-point stories about her career path.
When Humphrey was interviewing for her first job at the Arizona Science Center, the leading science museum in Phoenix, Sheila Grinell, the then-CEO, asked Humphrey where she saw herself in five years.
“I said, ‘Respectfully, your job,’” Humphrey recalled replying. And with Grinell’s mentorship, she would make it there, almost on schedule.
But years before that, in her first work trip for ASC, she and Grinell visited the MSI.
“I walked into the lobby and walked into the galleries,” she recalled in a phone interview earlier this week, “and I looked around and I told my then CEO, who was my boss, I said, ‘I’m going to work here one day.’ And she laughed and said, ‘You’ve got to get your job done here, and then, maybe.’ But, yeah, I knew I was going to be here one day.”
Getting to the massive temple to popular science on the South Side took a little bit longer than ascending to the top post at Arizona Science Center, but with an MSI board vote Wednesday morning, it is assured.
Humphrey, a 56-year-old Houston native will take the reins at MSI Jan. 11 becoming the museum’s first Black and first woman chief executive. The posting follows more than 20 years at ASM, the last 15 of them as president and CEO, where she oversaw attendance and budget increases while leading major fundraising drives and remaking key parts of the museum to incorporate a necessary “’wow’ factor,” she told local reporters.
“I’m very excited,” Humphrey said over the phone. “What’s really exciting is to continue the work, on a larger platform, of impacting communities and kids and families and getting out there in the communities, providing those needed programs for science education. I love to see when kids have that ‘a-ha moment’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, what’s next?’ And they can see their possibilities for their next goal or a career path.”
She said she has no immediate agenda beyond going on a “listening tour.”
“I think my only plan for the moment is to learn everything there is to learn about Chicago, to listen to the community, to our visitors, to our team at MSI, to our board,” said Humphrey.
In hiring a museum professional, the museum follows a different path than the last time it picked a CEO.
Humphrey will replace David Mosena, the one-time Swiss Army Knife executive in Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration, who’ll leave at year’s end after more than 23 years and who announced his planned retirement early this year.
When he took over in the fall of 1997, Mosena was “one of the most well regarded trouble-shooters on Mayor Richard Daley’s team,” the Tribune wrote at the time.
To take the MSI job, Mosena left a role as president of the Chicago Transit Authority. He had previously served as city aviation commissioner, the mayor’s chief of staff and planning commissioner, but he called leading the MSI “the honor of a lifetime.”
In a statement, Mosena called Humphrey, “Far and away the best leader I have ever met in the science museum field. We’ve been trading ideas for years and we both share a strong belief that museums are, above all, educational institutions with infinite power to engage young minds and expose them to the miracles of science. Chicago is very lucky to have her.”
The trustees’ search committee looking for Mosena’s successor conducted a truly international quest, said Michelle Collins, who led the board’s search.
Her group was impressed not only by what Humphrey accomplished at Arizona, but by the fact that she had worked in many departments there before becoming president, Collins said. Her leadership in museum associations also stood our, as did her commitment to education.
Before the Arizona Science Museum, which she joined in 1998, Humphrey worked in fundraising for the Phoenix Symphony and the University of Houston and the University of Texas at Austin. Her degrees and a prospective degree are all in business: undergraduate from the University of Phoenix, an MBA from Northeastern University, and a doctorate in business that she expects to complete this year at Grand Canyon University.
“We grew to, you know, really adore her through the process, and that’s been very fun,” Collins said. “She is just an incredibly energetic, enthusiastic person. She loves the science field. She really loves growing and running an organization. The MSI is obviously a large organization and she’ll have a lot to do here.”
The museum has many updated permanent exhibits ready to greet Humphrey, but in its 14 acres of floor space, the sprawling institution at 57th Street and the lakefront in Hyde Park also has quite a few that could use modernizing or replacement.
It also has a new name coming. In the fall of 2019, the museum in a blockbuster deal landed its largest-ever gift, $125 million from Chicago billionaire Kenneth C. Griffin in exchange for adding Griffin to the MSI’s official name.
“There is no specific time frame for this yet,” an MSI spokeswoman said Monday, and the letterhead on the press release announcing Humphrey’s hire still read just plain “Museum of Science and Industry.”
The museum was Chicago’s second most popular in 2018, with 1.56 million visitors, just behind the Art Institute of Chicago. But in 2019, it dipped almost 11 percent to 1.388 million guests, behind both the Art Institute and the Field Museum of Natural History.
And 2020, of course, is a year where the COVID-19 pandemic means virtually all statistics are set aside, and the one that will really count is just how much money has been lost. At the end of May, after being closed for more than two months, the museum laid off 84 of 358 permanent staff, said others would face pay cuts and furloughs and predicted a $20 million shortfall for the year.
Assessing how severe the financial setbacks wind up being and what will need to be done about it will be, Humphrey said, one of her first duties on the job.
Asked whether more layoffs or budget cuts might be in the offing, she said, “I can’t say until I really understand the financials and really look at the business. I can tell you in and out about Arizona, but I really want to understand more. But I also want to talk to the team, because the team is very important and they have insights as well.”
©2020 the Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.