President & CEO
Tuesday, Oct 8, 2019
Marilynn Kelly Gardner is a visionary, strategist and passionate advocate for Chicago. As President and CEO of Navy Pier, Chicago’s mission-driven cultural district and one of the Midwest’s leading destinations, Gardner has built a strong reputation as one of the city’s most respected leaders.
Appointed to her current role in 2011, Gardner has been the driving force behind the transformation of 50 acres of premier waterfront space into a spectacular cultural district. Her stewardship has inspired nearly $380 million in investment Navy Pier’s current redevelopment through philanthropic and private capital. Since construction began in fall 2013, Gardner has overseen every facet of the effort – from architecture and development, to programming and fundraising. To Gardner, each endeavor is an essential part in positioning the Pier for its second century.
Gardner has spent more than two decades establishing Navy Pier as one of the top destinations in the Midwest, welcoming more than 9 million annual guests. To ensure the future vitality and growth of the “People’s Pier,” Gardner led efforts to secure several multi-million dollar gifts from prominent private and corporate donors. In 2014, a historic $20 million legacy gift was granted by the Polk family, the single largest private gift to Navy Pier. The funds are essential in revitalizing the Pier’s entrance, providing it with an inviting “green front door”, an interactive new fountain, and a magnificent performance lawn that will position the Pier as one of the most highly sought-after venues for enjoying arts and culture in Chicago. In 2015, under her leadership, Navy Pier secured a multi-year, multi-million gift from the Aon Corporation to underwrite the Pier’s summer firework series and Grand Ballroom, further reinforcing Navy Pier as a world-class programmatic destination. In 2018, the Pier unveiled the new People’s Energy Welcome Pavilion and Fifth Third Bank Family Pavilion; and broke ground on a 220-room hotel.
For most of her career, Gardner has been proudly telling the Navy Pier story to millions of guests and Chicagoans. She began her first role at the Pier in 1994 as the Assistant Director of Public Relations, during its first redevelopment effort, and has held a variety of positions over the years until leading the Pier’s transition to a nonprofit in 2011 and accepting the role of President & CEO. During her nearly 25-year tenure at Navy Pier, Gardner’s impact has been significant in the Pier’s continued growth and evolution.
Gardner has been a featured as a guest speaker at events hosted by the City Club of Chicago, YPO Gold, Harvard Business School Alumni Organization, Global Cultural Districts Network, Urban Land Institute and Choose Chicago. A lifelong Chicagoan, Gardner is a member of the Civic Committee, The Chicago Network, and Economic Club of Chicago. She is a member of the Regional Advisory Committee of the Ireland Funds - America, the Magnificent Mile Association and the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. She also serves on the board of CURE (Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy).
She attended St. Ignatius College Prep near the west side of Chicago, where she chairs the Jesuit Catholic Identity Committee of its Board of Directors. Gardner received her Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis. and currently volunteers her service as part of the university’s alumni mentorship program.
Gardner was honored with the Alumni Business Leadership Award from St. Ignatius in 2015 recognizing her many contributions to the Chicago Business community; and was recognized by Marquette University as the 2017 Communicator of the Year. She also was recipient of the 2017 Chicago Skyline Executive of the Year Award from the Public Relations Society of America Chicago Chapter; received a Clarion Award from the Association of Women in Business for her leadership in advancing Navy Pier’s Centennial Vision, and was named 2018 Innovator of the Year by the Executive’s Club of Chicago. She was included in Crain’s Chicago Business’ 2019 Notable Women Executives Over 50.