Mary Carr Lee: Championing for the Chazen

“Every time I walk in this place I feel like dancing!” exclaimed Mary Carr Lee (49), the new assistant director for external affairs at the University of Wisconsin’s Chazen Museum of Art. Just a month into her new position, Carr Lee still brims with excitement.

“Friends ask me, ‘what do you know about art?’ and I answer, ‘not much,'” she admitted — “yet!” But that is precisely the point. When The Chazen Museum created this new position, they didn’t need an artist or art historian, they needed a relationship-builder. And that is a skill Carr Lee has been honing for years.

Carr Lee, a native of Montfort, Wis., comes to The Chazen following ten years as director of community relations for Meriter Hospital and Health Services, where building relationships with leaders in the corporate, social service and health care

arenas was her forte. Rarely was there an event that Carr Lee did not attend as Meriter’s representative.

Carr Lee graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Broadcast Journalism and Communications in 1981, then went immediately into her field. To those who knew her, this was no surprise, she said, for she had always been fascinated by television news. She worked as a television reporter in Des Moines, then a news anchor in Madison (WISC-TV), Lexington, Ky. and finally Oklahoma City, where she hosted a statewide medical show called “Health Matters,” an experience that fueled in her a sincere interest in health care.

In 1991, following a divorce, she returned to Madison with her toddler-son and landed the “perfect job,” as the director of video news releases and a university relations specialist for UW Hospital and Clinics. For eight years, Carr Lee prepared and distributed videos showcasing UW physicians, patients and procedures, managed the video crew and was responsible for the annual budget. She would often be found in operating rooms videotaping surgical procedures, or interacting with patients and doctors. She also hosted”Picture of Health,” a UW Health cable TV program.

So serious was her interest in the health field that she decided to pursue a related masters degree. She enrolled at the Robert M. LaFollette Institute of Public Affairs and for three years, Carr Lee, a single mom, attended grad school, worked at the UW, and raised her son. “It was tough,” she recounted, “but it was also one of the most fun periods of my life.”

In 1995, Carr Lee graduated with a Public Policy and Administration degree with a certificate in Programs in Health Management. That degree led her to the Meriter role in 1998.

The University’s Chazen Museum is preparing to more than double in size with an adjoining $43 million addition scheduled to break ground in April. Coinciding with the expansion is a renewed effort to invite the public in to what museum Director M. Russell Panczenko calls, “the University’s living room.”

Carr Lee will be an integral part of that outreach. Her primary responsibilities will include transforming the new museum into an event center, working with and attracting volunteers, promoting corporate and donor relations, and increasing membership.

In addition, she’s busy learning everything she can about the art world. On a brief tour of the museum, Carr Lee confidently pointed out historical pieces by John Steuart Curry and other renowned painters. She explained that typically, only four percent of all the art the museum owns is on display — something that will change when the addition opens in 2011.

“You can’t predict the future or future opportunities,” she said, ruminating on her career. “But wherever you go, there you are,” she said, quoting from the book by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Carr Lee believes The Chazen is exactly where she was meant to be.