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New CEO of Botanic Garden tapped

Thursday, April 05, 2007
Pioneer Press
by .T. MORAND Staff Writer

When she was a young girl, Sophia Siskel of Evanston used to wander the halls and rooms of the Field Museum while her mother researched African art and architecture.
Her father frequently took her to the Art Institute.
The seed for preserving valuable objects was planted then and is in full bloom today since being named president and chief executive officer of the Chicago Botanic Garden.
William J. Hagenah, chairman of the board of directors for the Botanic Garden, announced the board's unanimous decision Monday. He said Siskel's experience in the museum world, her educational background, her interest in conservation and her interpersonal skills made her the perfect candidate out of a beginning pool of more than 100 applicants.
As president and CEO, Siskel, 38, will direct the operation of the 385-acre Botanic Garden with its 23 display gardens and $27.3 million budget starting Aug. 15, when current president and CEO Barbara Whitney Carr steps down after 12 years.
Siskel has been vice president of visitor operations at the Botanic Garden since 2006. She oversaw all public programing, including fairs, exhibitions, and interpretations. As vice president of visitor operations, she also dealt with parking and security.
Prior to coming to the Botanic Garden, she was vice president of exhibitions and education for The Field Museum and curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art. She also coordinated the 1995 Claude Monet retrospective at the Art Institute and she directed exhibitions at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers.
She holds several degrees in areas relevant to her new position, including a bachelors in art history and economics from Wellesley College in Massachusetts; a masters in art history from the University of Chicago; and a masters of business administration in accounting and finance from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
Her museum experience was especially appealing since the Botanic Garden is considered a museum by garden officials.
"It's a museum with a living collection," Hagenah said. "Academically she's extremely well qualified. She brings quite a background in arts, and equally as important is a good sense for business."
One of the challenges she'll have to deal with is expanding educational programs, including developing a Ph.D. in plant biology with Northwestern University, he said. Currently, the Botanic Garden offers a program to earn a master's degree in that area from Northwestern, as well as a masters in landscape architecture from Illinois Institute of Technology.
"In order to do that, we'll have to expand our facilities in the next three to four years, which will be the focus of fund-raising," Hagenah said.
Siskel, who lives in Evanston with her husband John and two sons, said she is looking forward to the challenge.
"We have one of the world's leading plant science programs," she said.
Another of her goals is to oversee the removal of invasive plant species, such as buckthorn and garlic mustard, from the 100-acre Mary McDonald Woods and restore it to its natural condition, giving visitors a sense of what the native woodland was like.
"I'd like to reinforce the interaction between people and plants," she said.
In addition to serving as a member of art organizations, the Economic Club of Chicago and the Harris Center of Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago, she's also a long-standing member of the Chicago Botanic Garden.
Siskel said she's thrilled to be able to marry a lifelong love of gardening with museum and business experience together in her new role.
It makes sense since she's been maintaining a perennial garden since she was child. She even taught her second-grade class how to plant bulbs when she was a student at Francis Parker School in Chicago.
The bulb garden at the Botanic Garden is her favorite area today because it's blooming, but that will change, she said.
"It changes with the seasons," she said. "On any given day the place is completely different from the day before."


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