Behind the scenes with the Cincinnati Museum Center CEO Elizabeth Pierce
By Liz Engel
Elizabeth Pierce celebrated 10 years at the Cincinnati Museum Center in October. But November is the month circled in red on the calendar.
That’s the end date for a $212 million renovation project at Union Terminal, home to CMC’s history museums, children’s museum and Omnimax theater. A project that’s encompassed most of her 10 years here, the last three as the organization’s top administrator. Its conclusion means Pierce will likely have one less thing on her plate. But, she insists, the work is far from over.
“We’re just at the beginning,” she says. “I know people are excited, because they say, ‘You’re going to be finished with the construction.’ No, no, no. This is a very long, multi-step process.”
Pierce, named CMC’s president and CEO in 2015, took the reins at arguably the most interesting time in the organization’s nearly 30-year history. Months before her promotion, Hamilton County voters had approved Issue 8; a five-year, 0.25 percent sales tax levy that would fund a bulk of Union Terminal’s renovation and rehabilitation, following years of water damage and deterioration. Pierce went from “chief worker bee” in that effort to the top administrator responsible for leading the charge when work started in July 2016.
Navigating a construction project as complicated as this is no easy feat, but for Pierce, it seems par for the course. There’s no typical day here. On this particular afternoon, for example, there’s an American Heart Association Go Red luncheon. Earlier, there were logistics surrounding a dinosaur event at Rhinegeist; emails about the budget for this year and next.
“The days are always fun and insanely stimulating. Exhausting comes to mind, too,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a lot of moving parts. There’s conversations about exhibit content development, fundraising campaign activities and leveraging partnerships in the community, while putting out fires. It’s running a day-to-day business operation, and there’s the planning for the future that everybody does, but layered on top of that, we have the construction and everything that goes along with it. The financials, the tax credits and the historic preservation requirements.
“We have a very complicated activity that’s happening here. The focus is to fix the building so we can thrive inside for the next 100 years,” she says. “We’re marching through.”
For those who know Pierce, perhaps it’s no surprise she landed here. She’s been a lover of museums for as long as she can remember. Growing up in Mansfield, Ohio, a city of 46,000 situated between Cleveland and Columbus, her childhood was peppered with visits to cultural sites all around. Her father, a physician and a history buff, and her mother, a nurse, take full credit for that.
“Family weekend adventures were often spent exploring historical sites around Ohio,” Pierce says. “And family vacations meant a stop at a Civil War battlefield along the way. There were lots of conversation at the dinner table around science, and history, and how things fit together in the world…that led to a passion for history and a passion for how it’s interpreted and shared.”
She attended Miami University, where she received her bachelor of arts in history. As a junior, she studied abroad at Miami’s European Center in Luxembourg, and nabbed an internship at the Florence Nightingale Museum in London. She spent time traveling, visiting museums in Berlin, Paris and Prague, and realized she wanted to focus on museums as a career.
For graduate school, she studied museum administration at George Washington University. She bolstered her resume with stints at the Holocaust Museum, in the photo achieves department; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in public programming; and the National Endowment for the Arts, where she helped with event management and strategic projects.
Craving a return to the Midwest, she methodically made her way to Chicago, where she met her husband, Brad, and worked in fundraising for the Chicago Children’s Museum.
When the couple moved to Cincinnati in 1999, she switched gears. Pierce joined the team at Dan Pinger Public Relations and worked in strategic communications—at one point, the Cincinnati Museum Center, was a client. Her relationship with CMC grew deeper through regular visits to Union Terminal with her two young sons, now 17 and 15, while a stay-at-home mom.
She joined the Children’s Museum advisory board as a volunteer leader in 2004, and chaired the group until 2007—when Doug McDonald, the man she would succeed at the helm just eight years later, urged her to join the staff full time. She was hired as the museum’s vice president of communications and marketing that October.
When McDonald retired in 2015, Pierce, now the organization’s chief operating officer, was the obvious choice.
“I think it was serendipitous in some ways,” she says. “…More often than not, you see people go from museum to museum, so it’s somewhat unique that I’ve been able to have this career path within one organization. But I was fortunate enough to have collected different experiences before I got to Cincinnati that gave me some versatility.”
That’s helpful, especially now that sights are set on the future. The Cincinnati Museum Center has 3 million objects in its collection—Pierce wants to grow that number. Many of the items are stored at the Geier Research Center on Gest Street, but space is limited.
The renovation did not address the museum’s permanent exhibits—both in the Cincinnati History Museum and the Museum of Natural History & Science—and Pierce wants a refresh there, too. But it will take time, and money.
“We are working on a private fundraising campaign that will help us bring those galleries back to life,” she says. “We anticipate being able to open a few of those in November, but new exhibits will open permanently in the museums over the course of the next several years. As we bring new and different experiences online, that’s going to give me a great deal of joy.”
But November looms large. It will be a time to celebrate: to step back and reflect on the magnitude of this effort, taking a building like Union Terminal apart and putting it back together. For Pierce, one less thing to oversee in her atypical day-to-day.
“It feels tremendously empowering to be able to move this vision forward and deliver this project to the community,” she says. “People should be excited as we go through this process over the next several years.
“This is not just a place you bring your kids—we also want it to be a destination for adults who are curious and interested in the world, or for young people moving to town, looking for an outing here and there. That’s why it’s important to have content that is useful to people throughout their entire lifetime.”