She knows that the success of any project hinges on its smallest parts. Whether you’re seeking a memento at the Museum Shop or taking a break in one of our cafés, you’re sure to encounter a thoughtful touch that Heather has implemented or championed. She manages to be both exacting and comprehensive in all she does, from designing new products you’ll find in the shop to organizing the installation of an industrial-size dishwasher. I have the great pleasure of working closely with her as part of the museum’s Engagement team, and I am so excited to share this conversation with you.
Brittany: Why don’t you start by describing your role here at the museum?
Heather: Happy to. I oversee the museum’s shops as well as our online store, which includes product development and buying. I also manage the dining experience: the Modern Café, the Market, and of course the Member Bar. Amenities like these can really help round out a visit, making it easy to spend a full day at the museum.
Brittany: Right. We’ve worked together for a few years now and know each other pretty well, but I don’t think I know much about your connection to art.
Heather: Art has always been part of my life, but it wasn’t until I started working here that everything seemed to fully come together in terms of my background, interests, and my job.
My mother was an artist, a curator, and also a business owner. Growing up, my sister and I would spend evenings doing our homework in the printing studio or at her gallery in south Florida. We were exposed to so many amazing artists and mediums in a really raw environment, where people were actively developing their talents. It was really inspiring. I learned so much watching my mother find her own voice through her art. She always liked to push herself. She taught me the importance of patience, perseverance, problem solving, courage, self-confidence, humility—all things I try to practice every day, at work and elsewhere.
Brittany: So you have a tremendous appreciation for art and followed that path! Though your role is squarely in operations.
Heather: It is. That’s where my talents are, and I’m so glad they led me here.
Brittany: What were some of your earliest aspirations?
Heather: Growing up, I was a very active kid and interested in a variety of things. I played soccer throughout high school and was always fascinated by aviation and space. When I entered college I was looking to pursue a degree in aerospace engineering—
Brittany: Wow. That seems so far away from what you ended up doing!
Heather: Yeah. Turns out I really thrived in my business classes. So I graduated with a business marketing degree instead.
Brittany: And your husband is a pilot, right?
Heather: Yes. There’s probably something to that! We’ve been together for over 16 years. I get to live vicariously through him and continue learning about the aviation industry, which is ever changing. Actually there’s a painting here that always makes me think of him, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Sky above Clouds IV.
Brittany: It’s such a beautiful painting.
Heather: The colors in particular are just breathtaking. It reminds me of his passion for the skies. I like to look at it before anyone else is in the galleries. It helps me feel close to him when he’s away on a trip. O’Keeffe was also one of my mother’s favorite artists, so the work really resonates with me. It’s a constant inspiration.
Brittany: Tell me a bit about what you did before arriving at the Art Institute.
Heather: For most of my career, I held roles linked to business consulting and hotel management. Prior to working here, I’d been in a regional position for a larger hotelier, where I was responsible for openings and acquisitions in major metropolitan markets. Driving hospitality was critical to the company’s success—guest experience was always a top priority.
For years, both my husband and I had traveled weekly for work, and I was looking for an opportunity that would continue to challenge me but would let me enjoy Chicago more. And this role gave me that while making art part of my working life.
Brittany: You mentioned your hospitality background, and that, I think, really comes through in your work here. You make a point of spending a lot of time in the shop and our dining spaces, greeting people as they enter, answering their questions, making sure they’re taken care of.
Heather: It’s so nice to see people from all over the world—and also the people you see again and again—and make sure everyone feels truly welcome. I love it.
Brittany: The vast majority of what you do, though, is behind the scenes, and I want to get into some of that. You and I collaborate often—a lot of your work is informed by the data analytics my Revenue and Planning team reports on, for instance. A few years ago we worked on a massive inventory project for the shop—
Heather: Massive is right! Your team really drilled into the data.
Brittany: We did! We took a close look at the full assortment of products available and the kinds of things our guests were purchasing. Of course every visitor is different. I have a friend for example, and whenever she visits a museum she buys a postcard, at least one or two, and that’s her token. It’s the way she remembers those experiences.
Heather: Yes. And I think similarly, it became clear to us through your research that there was a real need for more Art Institute–specific items, the sort of things you can’t get anywhere else. What’s uniquely us, uniquely Chicago? So we began a yearslong effort to clear out older inventory, which allowed us to begin developing new products associated directly with the museum and the artworks in our collection.
Brittany: Like our plush lion, right?
Heather: Yes! During the holidays we also had a plush wreath available as an add-on, which was so popular it sold out. It’s the cutest thing—and such an iconic image of the holidays in Chicago.
Brittany: The plush lion has been a huge hit so far. Especially among our colleagues!
Heather: Seriously! I’ve even heard some pets have it, which is pretty funny. We’ve also developed a brand-new suite of products featuring illustrations of the museum by local artist Morgan Ramberg. That’s a project you and I undertook specifically, in collaboration with our colleagues in Experience Design. Members might see them in an email or two, and they can purchase them on a mug or a magnet to remind them of their experiences here.
Brittany: And we can’t forget to talk about dining—it’s been such a focus of your work these last two years.
Heather: Totally. As I’m sure members are aware, we recently reimagined our dining experience. And in the process we had the opportunity to consider everything anew, from the partners we work with to the way we use our spaces. This included opening the Member Bar upstairs in the Modern Wing at Terzo Piano, where we’re working to create a truly elevated experience for members. We’ve added cocktails to the menu, including a really wonderful martini. That’s in addition to the coffee and tea members can always enjoy there for free. And we have two other dining spaces, as I mentioned, that are open to all visitors: the Modern Café and the Market, where we offer the greatest variety of dining options in a casual setting.
Brittany: What can visitors look forward to there?
Heather: Lately Levy and Boka Restaurant Group, who partner with us on day-to-day operations, has been working on an updated menu featuring seasonal dishes as well as perennial favorites. So keep an eye out for that!
Heather: We’ll also continue to offer options from Chicago’s top eateries on a rotating basis. Chicago is a town known for its innovative food scene, and it’s been fun sharing what the city does best with locals and visitors from out of town.
And I should say, you were so helpful and meticulous when we were working out these contracts, Brittany. I was so glad to have you as a partner during that time.
Brittany: Yeah, well, talk about the world working in funny ways. My master’s thesis for grad school was about food service in art museums, and it was uncanny, and so great, to get to put those findings to work. We carefully evaluated our options in collaboration with the many departments across the museum that were involved and strove to make decisions that would be both fiscally smart and support the best possible guest experience. And to be honest, we’re still working toward that goal. It’s ongoing.
Heather: Exactly. Thankfully you and I, and Amy Allen, who heads up the larger Engagement team, really thrive on change—it’s the mechanism by which we can continue to innovate and improve, in big ways and small ones. So there’s lots to look forward to as we look toward spring break.
Brittany: I can’t wait.
Heather: It’s always wonderful seeing visitors come with their families and friends, enjoying the museum and making new memories. I love being part of making their experience here a joyful one.
—Heather Reinholtz, executive director, Retail and Dining, and Brittany Miller, executive director, Revenue and Planning