AIA Chicago names Jen Masengaarb as executive director, after Zurich Esposito’s controversial exit

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Jen Masengarb
Jen Masengarb

AIA Chicago has selected Jen Masengarb, a 20-year architecture veteran with deep Chicago ties, as its new executive director. Masengaarb takes the helm her predecessor, Zurich Esposito, left the job last year in a cloud of controversy.

The exact reasons the 4,000-architect AIA chapter decided to terminate Esposito is unclear, though Crain’s Chicago Business reports that he had been accused last June of workplace discrimination, bullying and harassment by AIA “employees past and present.”

Esposito hired a lawyer, and dozens of members rallied to have him reinstated. Things came to a head at a September chapter meeting, which voted 149 to 104 to reinstate him — but since there were 310 members “virtually” present, the reinstatement vote did not reach a majority, and the motion died.

Now AIA Chicago hopes to turn the page, saying in a statement that: “New leadership comes amid AIA Chicago’s efforts to develop a new strategic plan that will guide the
chapter for the next several years.”

Masengarb joins AIA Chicago after more than three years at the Danish Architecture Center in Copenhagen, where she was senior project leader for international visitors. She previously served in leadership roles for 18 years at the Chicago Architecture Center, including five years as the organization’s subject matter expert where she co-curated exhibitions, lectured, and wrote and edited publications.

She received a 2016 AIA Chicago Distinguished Service Award for her ongoing contributions to Chicago’s architecture community.

“Jen’s understanding of how to communicate to the broader public about architecture — as well as her servant leadership approach and strong ties to Chicago’s architectural community — makes her the perfect choice to be our executive director,” Jessica Figenholtz, president of the AIA Chicago Board of Directors, said in a statement. “She is also aligned with our thinking that there is a huge opportunity for architects to continue to make a critical difference in the world today.”

More than 175 individuals applied for the job.

“AIA Chicago’s process of selecting a new executive director involved extensive member insight, a highly experienced search consultant and a search committee empowered by the board to act independently and autonomously,” the statement said. “The committee was
representative of the chapter’s broad membership and of the entire profession – including such factors as gender, age, race, size of firm and area of focus.

“I’m thrilled to join AIA Chicago and embark on a new journey with this important organization in a city so meaningful to both architecture and to me personally,” Masengarb said. “I believe that good leaders listen first and act second. One of my first tasks will be a listening tour to fully understand our membership’s diverse needs. That will be particularly important as we work together to develop our new strategic plan and identify ways to support members’ professional growth and development.”

The statement says AIA Chicago will focus on equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives. As well, the chapter will emphasize community outreach and members providing an architect’s perspective to their work in the community and local government.

“Being an architectural ally for Chicago’s underserved communities, communicating effectively to the public about architecture, fostering connections with residents of all ages and backgrounds, and building and maintaining partnerships with other architectural organizations in the city will also be priorities under Masengarb,” the statement says.

“Architects are skilled problem solvers and creative facilitators,” Masengarb said. “They see their communities through a unique lens and hold a responsibility to be change agents, ensuring everyone has access to the fundamental right of good design.”

The  AIA Chicago statement says it “will also continue to take an aggressive stance regarding advocacy and promoting hope.”

“Chapter leaders are active in the national organization’s lobbying regarding climate change, notably on green building infrastructure. Additionally, a number of AIA Chicago members are partnering in INVEST South/West, an unprecedented community
improvement initiative, galvanizing the resources of multiple city departments, community organizations, corporate and philanthropic partners towards ten communities on Chicago’s South and West Sides.”

“The events of the past year have highlighted the profound impact that architecture has in shaping our everyday lives, the health of our communities and the health of our planet,” said John Syvertsen, who had served as AIA Chicago’s interim executive director. “Jen’s the right choice to lead AIA Chicago at this moment, not only because of her organizational and communication skills but because she can position our members to make a difference in our organization, our profession and our world.”

“Jen is an empathetic leader, educator, and collaborator interested in reinforcing a diverse pipeline of future architects and bridging generations in our profession,” said Matt Dumich, chair of the search committee and past-president. “She is a natural storyteller who will amplify the value and impacts of architects on people, communities, and the built environment.”

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