Business Profile | Rena Tamayo-Calabrese

June 2015 View more

Rena Calabrese, CEO of Naper Settlement, for Naperville Magazine

Naperville resident Rena Tamayo-Calabrese prepares to celebrate her one-year anniversary as the second permanent president and CEO of Naper Settlement. The award-winning museum attracts thousands of visitors throughout the year to its downtown Naperville location. Naperville Magazine talked with Tamayo-Calabrese about continuing the legacy of the museum and future expansion plans for Naperville’s living history museum.

Each year, nearly 130,000 people from around the world, including 35,000 Illinois school children, visit Naper Settlement to experience living history. How do you manage to keep things running smoothly?

Things run smoothly because we have absolutely phenomenal staff. The caliber of experience, expertise, devotion and most importantly passion is second to none! I’ve been very lucky to inherit such a great group of people and have recently brought on a few wonderfully talented individuals who are excited to be here and bring with them a fresh perspective. Together, we are a powerful force for the future of this organization. We understand the importance of maintaining a smooth operation and ensuring that things run on time, while searching for new ways to serve our visitors and stay relevant.

We are seeing our efforts show in the statistics. For example, attendance went up by about 8.9 percent in 2014. Fiscal Year 2014-2015 has been a banner year! This is the highest recorded visitor attendance in the history of the institution. Additionally, we saw a 67 percent increase in our general admission in the one month the splash pad in the Harvard Playscape was opened. We’ve also seen a 20 percent increase in the purchase of memberships during FY 2014.

Naper Settlement is open year-round and offers numerous special events. What is your favorite event?

That’s a difficult question; it’s like asking which child is your favorite. One of the many wonderful things about Naper Settlement is that many of the events seem to ring in the season. For example, nothing says summer better than Naper Nights; no Halloween is complete without All Hollows Eve, and our newest, Naper Lights, truly rings in the holidays. On the other hand, I love being in my office and hearing the footsteps and chatter of 30 to 100 school children coming for a field trip on any given day. Of course, hearing all the “wows,” “let’s do it agains” and “ahhhs” from our summer camp attendees is second to none. It’s a wonderful way of reminding me why we are here and all the good we do. But then again, who doesn’t love a wedding! Seeing the brides and grooms emerging from the chapel as they begin their new life together is amazing! And I’ve only scratched the surface. Now you can understand why I can’t choose.

Last fall, Naper Settlement announced plans for a new cornerstone building called Scott’s Block. Tell us about this project.

Scott’s Block will provide the desperately needed museum-quality indoor areas to “edutain” a growing and diverse population. The building is the recreation of a building that stood here for over 121 years and was the center of community life for most of its duration. However, let’s be clear, the Scott’s Block project is not about the building, it’s about the ability to provide a personal and experiential account of history.

Naper Settlement is so much more than a collection of buildings and artifacts. We are the stewards of history, and purveyors of culture and the keepers of the collective memory of a community. In many ways, our small city is emblematic of our nation’s development over time. Our story abuts up against the American story, and while many other communities share in this American identity, we stand apart because we have had the presence of mind to preserve the artifacts and stories for nearly 200 years. This allows us to share remarkable stories. That’s important because when it comes to experiencing the journey of the American union through the lens of one community, it’s all about the stories. Scott’s Block is the vehicle through which we can showcase these stories. It will allow us to provide state of the art exhibits that educate, inspire, and share the legacy of those that shaped the 20th and 21st Centuries.

The stories are to the community what your memories are to you. They represent the institutional memory, and therefore identity, of a quintessential American community. Without an appropriate environment to share our community’s memories, they are as good as gone. Imagine if you had to let go of your own memories. Who would you be then? The moment we stop telling our collective story is the moment we forget who we are. Scott’s Block is a tool to bring those stories in perpetuity to the forefront.

Recently, Naper Settlement also announced its 25-year plan for the future. What can visitors expect to see in the years to come?

This is a very exciting time for Naper Settlement. As Naperville grows and establishes itself as an important destination city, we—the city’s museum—must be an economic engine and among its most important cultural amenities. Research has shown that people are more likely to move or visit a location that provides cultural amenities and educational opportunities. In the years to come, we will work to transform our museum into an immersive educational and cultural experience, representative of our past and current population and diverse ethnic and geographical makeup.

When picturing Naper Settlement  15 years from now, envision an interactive learning and experiential environment. Imagine a place where experiential exhibits are projecting personal stories, personal accounts of history—of we the people—into a vast diverse audience of revelers from all over the world. Think of a drop-down menu of activities that align with the interest of cross-generational users.

What motivates you to start your day?

Naper Settlement is my motivator. I love my job! I love the staff! It is work with purpose. The board has tasked me with a very important mission, keep and share the identity of our community/city and those qualities that set us apart as Americans breathing, living, and growing. Furthermore, get our current and future generations ready to be the We the People of their day by helping them understand that they stand on the successes and lessons learned of the people of another time, and that they look to the horizons that others have brought to light for them.

Invigorating…don’t you think?

Photo by Mike Hudson