New president calls Levine Museum a ‘trailblazer’

Kathryn Hill
Kathryn Hill

Kathryn Hill, who has spent 30 years in a variety of museum positions including chief operating officer of History Colorado in Denver, was named Wednesday as the new leader of the Levine Museum of the New South.

Hill, who lives in Denver and most recently worked as a consultant in the museum sector with Philadelphia-based Schultz & Williams, has also held leadership positions at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Hill succeeds Emily Zimmern, who led the Levine from 1995 until her retirement in November, building it into a nationally respected institution known for unflinchingly provocative exhibitions on the touchy issues of culture, class and race.

During Zimmern’s 20-year tenure, the Levine grew from a fledgling “museum without walls” to a leading center of historical scholarship in the Southeast based on East Seventh Street. Its focus is the development of the region in the post-Civil War era.

“Emily has created a legacy that is just astonishing,” Hill said, “and a little intimidating.”

Hill said she has long been aware of the Levine because of its reputation.

“Most people in the museum field have heard of it because of the Levine’s tradition as a leader,” she said. “It has really blazed a trail in the areas of civic engagement and starting conversations about difficult issues.”

One strength of the Levine, she said, was its emphasis on interpretative storytelling rather than acquiring artifacts.

“That’s unusual – history museums collect stuff and the Levine has not done that. It’s a strength of this institution.”

Hill, 59, said she has a strong background in museum management, but never felt she was ready to become a CEO until late in her career when she’d gained experience in raising money and building connections into the community.

At the Levine, she said, her main challenge will be in helping determine how the museum can be relevant to the region and engage visitors in the 21st century.

Standout candidate

Liz Simmons, incoming Levine board chair and a member of the committee that did a year-long search for Zimmern’s successor, said Hill was the standout among all the candidates interviewed.

“She has such broad experience with some of the best museums in the country,” Simmons said, “and understands how to grow audience and exhibition development.”

Though this will be Hill’s first appointment as a full-time museum president and chief operating officer, she has deep administrative and fundraising experience, Simmons said.

“Kathryn’s depth of experience at some of the finest institutions in the country will help advance Levine Museum and our commitment to being a constructive partner in the Charlotte region,” Andrew Plepler, the museum’s board chair, said in a statement.

Hill, who starts Aug. 29, will be paid $150,000 annually, what Simmons said was “very competitive” with peer institutions in the Charlotte area. Former president Zimmern accepted about $110,000 in compensation, which was about half that of CEOs at the city’s other major museums.

Financial stability

Like its peers, the Levine is only now rebounding from the financial squeeze brought on by the recession, which forced cost-cutting and reductions in staff.

In its most recent 990 tax filing with the Internal Revenue Service, the Levine reported a 3 percent increase in revenue driven by sales and rising admissions. A $120,700 deficit reported in the most recent IRS filing reflects investment in upcoming exhibitions that it expects to recoup later, the museum says.

In the last three fiscal years, the Levine has finished with an operating surplus. It has an annual budget of $2.3 million and an endowment of $5.8 million

About 48,000 people visited the Levine in the last fiscal year and about 10,000 students are served through museum programs and exhibit tours.

Museum experiences

Before moving to Denver, Hill helped open Imagine It! The Children’s Museum of Atlanta, working in planning, exhibit design, fund-raising and personnel and served as the museum’s interim CEO.

In Denver, she oversaw construction of the $142 million History Colorado Center in 2012 and supervised efforts to build new exhibitions and audience development. During her tenure, History Colorado raised more than $25 million and doubled its attendance and membership.

At the Holocaust Museum, Hill ran the visitor services department and was part of the management team in charge of front-line operations.

For 15 years, Hill served as an independent consultant, supporting projects at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, the Newseum in Arlington, Va.; Port Discovery in Baltimore; the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York and others. She served on teams for other cultural centers including the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, the Exploratorium in San Francisco, the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, the Hershey Museum in Hershey, Pa., and the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

Mark Washburn: 704-358-5007, @WashburnChObs

Kathryn Hill

Age: 59

Raised: Ann Arbor, Mich.

Family: Husband, David Sett, an attorney for the U.S. Department of Transportation; two grown sons; two cats named Blue and Peanut.

Education: Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts where she majored in political science; completed graduate courses in theater at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and was a Gates Family Foundation Fellow at Harvard University in a leadership program for government officials.

First impression: “I was struck by Charlotte’s friendliness. I felt like I was walking into a hug.”