There’s a new face on the scene at the DuSable Museum of African American History but not a stranger to the Hyde Park-Kenwood community—Perri Irmer. She has assumed the reigns as the fourth President and CEO of one of the country’s largest museum of African American History. Dr. Margaret T. Burroughs and Charles G. Burroughs founded the DuSable in 1957 to preserve African American history and be a center for thought leadership. The museum has experienced some shifts in its leadership in recent years as the board of trustees have had to deal with financial woes and shared input of the facility with the Chicago Park District.
The latest concerns have been rumors of the museum’s neighbor, the University of Chicago possible interest in DuSable. It’s no secret that U of C has a considerable amount of community investment including a great deal of real estate that stretches into neighboring communities—Washington Park, Englewood and Woodlawn. More importantly the DuSable’s soon to be neighbor—The Obama Library will bring traffic in numbers never before experienced by the museum, could be a motivating factor for such an interest. Concerns from a community advisory board committee have challenged DuSable’s board of trustees in maintaining independence from the reach of U of C.
A graduate of Illinois Institute of Technology Irmer earned her Bachelor of Architecture degree and later her juris doctor (J.D.) from the University of Chicago Law School. Irmer said she is very focused on maintaining the museum’s independence. She made it a point to mention that her mom, a retired Chicago Public School teacher and retired real estate broker along with her father, a local businessman raised her in their Hyde Park home.
“My roots are very deep in the community. I’ve always been involved in the community and a champion of minority owned business,” she said. “We are of the community. My family’s business was actually the Lux Hall Laboratories. We created the Creme of Nature shampoo and French perm hair product company.”
Chicago was once considered the Black ‘Metropolis’ with the South Side of Chicago being a central hub of Black owned businesses flourishing and nurturing talent in all fields of industry, commerce and the arts. The decline of those companies that have made a global impact have either folded, sold out or are currently struggling in the shadows of their legacy. Many critics fear DuSable Museum could be its next victim on losing control of its precious collections. Irmer is determined to maintain the museum’s mission but also broadening its base. “We all have a love for the DuSable Museum and we have a vested interest and a series of common goals for the museum and its success. Maintaining its independence as a cultural specific institution, a real jewel in Chicago and nationally for the African American population in general,” Irmer said. “The preservation of Margaret Burroughs mission and the expansion of that vision to fit the current time, I think it’s the utmost importance.”
Having worked on the design side at prestigious architectural firms, as an attorney with a concentration in construction law in both the private and governmental practice, as a private sector real estate executive and a public official for the City of Chicago—she is more than qualified to handle her new role as President and CEO at the DuSable Museum.
“I’m really looking forward to meeting and collaborating with members of the community and various civic, cultural, educational groups. I’m also looking to create collaboration with other institutions – partnerships that would allow us to leverage resources for education, finance and culture. All of these are what the DuSable Museum needs. We can do that, certainly without giving up independence over our institution.”
For seven years, Irmer was the CEO of the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority (ISFA), the government owner and operator of U.S. Cellular Field. Her responsibility was managing the ballpark’s annual budget of over $40 million and administered over $100 million in capital repairs and construction. Since her departure in 2011, she has worked as a consultant serving as president of her own company, Intellectual Resource Management Group, Inc.
Her experience in both the private and public sector has prepared her to take on the economic challenges that not only DuSable Museum is currently enduring but other museums are faced with under the Illinois state budget constraints.
“We’re all suffering the impact of the stalemate in Springfield. Fortunately, we don’t only depend upon government funding. We receive funding from the Chicago Park District. Also there’s monies being held up in Springfield,” still Irmer remains optimistic. “I’m hoping there’s a resolution soon. I’m going to be making a very big push for private and corporate donors. I think when you look at the buying power of Black Americans – over a trillion dollars. It’s incumbent upon us to knock on these doors and say to these Fortune 100-500 companies and tell them, ‘You’re reaping the benefits of African American buying power and we would appreciate your support of this African American institution in Chicago.” She said.
In the tradition of her previous predecessors, experience and the passion for the community was never a problem—each executive brought their own unique relatedness. There is no question that Irmer has long and various antennas that will assist the DuSable’s brand. She has previously served on the board of directors of Choose Chicago, currently serves on numerous civic and charitable boards including the Alumni Board of Trustees ITT, World Chicago and a Trustee of the Catholic Theological Union.
As a mother of three daughters—20, 30 and 33 years old, Irmer understands the voice of the next generation is vital in order to bring a new level of ideas to the museum. “I know that young people want to be involved and have an impactful role in policy, educational and civic participation. One of my top priorities is to encourage further involvement of a youth board at the DuSable. It is incumbent upon us as African Americans to make sure we have a deep bench on all sorts of levels.”