Marilynn Kelly Gardner is a visionary, strategist and passionate advocate for Chicago. As President and CEO of Navy Pier, one of the Midwest’s top-attended cultural destinations and leading mission-driven institutions, Gardner continues to build on her reputation as one of the region’s most respected leaders.
Appointed to her current role in 2011, Gardner has been the driving force behind transforming the Pier’s 50 acres of premier waterfront space into the multifaceted cultural destination it is today. Her stewardship has inspired nearly $380 million of philanthropic and private capital investment in Navy Pier’s current redevelopment. Since construction began in fall 2013, Gardner has overseen every aspect of the effort—from design and redevelopment to programming and fundraising. For Gardner, impactful endeavors—like programmatic partnerships, the Community Rides program, and the Pier’s first employer initiative, to name just a few—are essential to positioning the Pier in its second century.
Gardner has spent the better part of two decades establishing Navy Pier as one of the top-attended destinations in the Midwest, typically welcoming nearly 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, Navy Pier received a historic $20 million legacy gift from the Polk family through their Foundation, the Pier’s single largest private gift. These funds were essential to revitalizing the Pier’s entrance, now Polk Bros Park, complete with an interactive fountain and two performance lawns making the Pier one of the most highly sought-after venues for 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 establishing Navy Pier as a world-class programmatic destination. In 2018, two further multi-year partnerships enabled construction of the People’s Energy Welcome Pavilion and a revitalization of the Fifth Third Bank Family Pavilion. The Sable, a 220-room boutique hotel, will welcome its first guests in fall 2020.
Throughout her career, Gardner has proudly told the Navy Pier story to millions of Chicagoans and guests. She began at the Pier during its first redevelopment effort in 1994 as the Assistant Director of Public Relations. She subsequently held a variety of positions before leading the Pier’s transition to a nonprofit in 2011 and accepting the role of President and CEO, becoming the first female leader of Navy Pier. Due to her more than 25-year tenure at Navy Pier, Gardner’s distinct vision is apparent in all facets of the Pier’s continued growth and evolution.
Gardner has been 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 shares her experience as 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).
Gardner attended St. Ignatius College Prep on the near west side of Chicago, where she now chairs the Mission and Academics Committee as a member of its Board of Directors. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis., and currently serves on its National Alumni Board of Directors and as a longstanding valued mentor in the university’s alumni mentorship program.
In 2015, St. Ignatius recognized Gardner’s many contributions to the Chicago business community with the Alumni Business Leadership Award, the first to be awarded to a woman leader. She also received Marquette University’s ‘Communicator of the Year’ award in 2017. That same year, the Public Relations Society of America’s Chicago Chapter recognized her as the 2017 Chicago Skyline Executive of the Year. She is also the recipient of the Clarion Award from the Association of Women in Business, which recognized her extraordinary leadership in advancing Navy Pier’s Centennial Vision. The Executive’s Club of Chicago named her their 2018 Innovator of the Year, and Crain’s Chicago Business included her in their 2019 list of Notable Women Executives Over 50. Most recently, Chicago Magazine recognized Gardner as twenty-ninth among list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Chicago in May of 2020.