President and CEO
Thursday, Oct 27, 2022
Navy Pier President and CEO Marilynn Gardner oversees the complex daily operations, programming, long-term visioning, and fiscal wellbeing of one of Chicago’s greatest recreational assets and the Midwest’s most visited destinations.
An enthusiastic ambassador and advocate for her native Chicago, Gardner has applied her passion for the ever-evolving landmark into a three-decade career in several leadership roles. She is recognized as the driving force behind its $400 million redevelopment. She was instrumental in adapting Navy Pier into a nongovernmental nonprofit and was appointed its first CEO in 2011 and has since overseen every facet of the Pier’s physical, programmatic, and organizational transformation with a focus on environmental and financial sustainability.
Gardner embraces Navy Pier’s moniker as “The People’s Pier” adhering to Daniel Burnham’s Plan for Chicago edict that the waterfront belongs to the people, a guidepost she’s used in reimaging the once-shuttered Pier as an urban oasis and a global destination that offers 200-250 free Arts, Culture and Engagement programs across all four seasons and welcomes 9 million guests annually from across the street and around the globe. Reimagining Navy Pier as a cultural hub for Chicago’s vibrant arts scene, Gardner spearheads Pierwide initiatives such as Chicago Live, a now annual performance festival that brings together more than 60 of the city’s most robust marquee names and emerging artists in a single event.
Bolstering Navy Pier’s role as an economic engine, Gardner encourages growth and evolution for the Pier and its 70 tenant businesses that collectively employ more than 3,000 people. She initiated a First Employer Program that included building an onsite classroom for Southside Occupational Academy. Her longtime vision for an on-Pier hotel was attained in 2021 with the opening of the Sable, part of the Curio Collection by Hilton, and major new attractions such as Illuminarium and Flyover Chicago are now under construction.
Gardner began her life’s work at Navy Pier in 1994 as Assistant Director of Public Relations, during the Pier’s initial redevelopment. She was promoted to Director of Public Relations, then Senior Director of Marketing and Communications and later Executive Director of Marketing and Communications, ultimately becoming General Manager while the Pier operated under the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority.
Gardner’s insights on nonprofit business, tourism, place-making, event management, and programming are often sought by other institutions, media outlets, and such organizations as YPO Gold, City Club of Chicago, Harvard Business School Alumni Organization, Global Cultural Districts Network, and Urban Land Institute. She serves as Vice Chair of Choose Chicago, Executive Committee member of the Chicago Sports Commission, member of the Regional Board of the American Ireland Fund, and second-generation board member of CURE Epilepsy, a cause close to her family’s heart. She remains committed to her alma mater university and high school, serving on the board of St. Ignatius College Prep, as chairman of its Mission and Academic Committee, and on the National Alumni Board of Marquette University, where she earned her B.A. in journalism. She’s a member of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, Economic Club of Chicago, the Magnificent Mile Association, and Executives’ Club of Chicago.
She was recognized as Chicago Skyline Executive of the Year (2017) by the Public Relations Society of America Chicago Chapter and Innovator of the Year (2018) by the Executive’s Club of Chicago. She was included in Crain’s Chicago Business’s Notable Women Executives Over 50 (2019), and Chicago Magazine’s 50 Most Powerful Women (2020). Her honors include the Clarion Award from the Association of Women in Business for her leadership in advancing Navy Pier’s Centennial Vision and the Alumni Business Leadership Award from St. Ignatius.
A resident of Chicago’s North Center neighborhood, Gardner and her husband Patrick are active and involved parents of college student Madeline and high school students Katherine and Patrick.