The American Swedish Institute has hired its new president and CEO after a yearlong search. It's part homecoming and part new adventure for a woman with an extensive academic and design background.
Molly Steenson, 51, vice provost for faculty and an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University, will be ASI's next leader. She grew up in St. Paul, went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison when she was 17 and has only been back to the Twin Cities for family visits — until now.
She begins her new role July 24.
"I made my first visit to ASI when I was about 4, and I don't have deep memories from that time, but I remember feeling special about the visit," she said.
She holds a doctorate in architecture from Princeton University, speaks five languages (English, French, Italian, Dutch and German), worked as a professor in the UW-Madison journalism department and found her passion for design while teaching in Ivrea, Italy. Steenson, who is of Swedish and Nordic descent, speaks some Swedish, and says it's next on her list of languages to master.
She worked in San Francisco during the early days of the internet and was a visiting researcher at HUMLab in Umeȧ, Sweden. She is the author of the book "Architectural Intelligence: How Designers and Architects Created the Digital Landscape" (MIT Press) about the history of design, architecture and AI.
This is her first foray into the museum world, and Steenson will be the 14th person to lead the organization since its inception. It was founded in 1929 by Swedish-born newspaper publisher Swan Turnblad.
Longtime president and CEO Bruce Karstadt announced last April that he would be stepping down after 32 years. ASI worked with executive search firm Isaacson, Miller.
"We really felt like Molly was a good fit, being such an innovative thinker and bringing this incredible set of skills and expertise areas that's such a good match for where we think we want to go in the future," ASI board president Margaret Adamek said.
The board also was impressed with her background in design, her extensive international network and her doctorate in architecture.
"We also felt that was really going to be an asset to the preservation and upkeep of the mansion, and also the possibilities around programming because of her understanding of architectural history," Adamek said.
During Karstadt's tenure, he shifted museum audiences from diehard Swedes to a more diverse community that includes the surrounding Phillips neighborhood. In 2012, he opened the 34,000-square-foot building, the Nelson Cultural Center, and Nordic-inspired Fika Café. He also launched a multiyear plan to renovate ASI's original home, the Park Avenue mansion and carriage house.
Steenson will continue work to find resources to support that restoration through continuing the capital campaign. But first, she'll get to know ASI's campus and the surrounding neighborhood, which has a diverse population.
"The Somali population in Minneapolis has grown since I was there," Steenson said. "It was just beginning to be a locus for people from Somalia when I was leaving the Twin Cities, and now it has some 90,000 residents."
She also is curious about the political changes that have taken place in Sweden, toward a more populist party, and what ASI can do to interpret that.
"I don't know yet which direction that would take, but I think that anything that takes into account the fact that Sweden is a multicultural country that has people coming into it, and that is still very much of a story of migration," she said. "This is going to be absolutely important for future shows and future programming."
Steenson will be relocating to the Twin Cities with her husband, Simon King, and their 9-year-old rescue dog, Emoji.