A new Dawn at the museum

April 16, 2014 

After overseeing high-visibility projects all over the county, Dawn McDivitt is ready for a new challenge.

Want to explore the Dawn McDivitt map of Los Angeles?

Here’s an itinerary, just for starters:

A gleaming architectural gem (Disney Hall), an international symbol of great music (the Hollywood Bowl shell), a splashy Civic Center hot spot (Grand Park), a state-of-the-art medical facility (LAC+USC Medical Center), an imposing lockup on the outskirts of downtown (Twin Towers Jail), even a tarry pond right beside Wilshire Boulevard, complete with prehistoric mammoth figures (the La Brea Tar Pits lake bed.)

Over more than two decades, McDivitt has managed projects to build, rebuild or revamp all of those, along with numerous other L.A. County facilities ranging from fire stations to swimming pools. It’s an extensive body of work that has served untold tens of thousands of residents and visitors from every walk of life.

While her pivotal role in bringing all those projects to fruition may be little known to the general public, around the county Hall of Administration, McDivitt is something of a capital projects rock star, with her exuberant laugh, infectious enthusiasm (a favorite adjective: “fabulous!”) and widely-respected ability to get things done.

But, after helping guide the course of more than $2 billion in projects as a manager in the Chief Executive Office, the 56-year-old McDivitt is about to notch a new destination on her professional map: the county’s venerable Natural History Museum.

On May 1, she becomes the museum’s chief deputy director, serving as its No. 2 executive under president and director Jane Pisano.

“She has worked on so many major cultural projects in the county. She really understands and values public-private partnerships and getting things done,” Pisano said. “She is going to be such a great fit here.”

In addition to the main museum in Exposition Park, McDivitt in her new position also will oversee the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits and the William S. Hart Ranch and Museum in Newhall.

“For me, it’s a time for something new, and moving outside of the comfort zone,” McDivitt said on a recent sunny afternoon as she left her 7th floor office to walk through one of her signature accomplishments, Grand Park.  “Especially when you stop and realize you’ve been in a place for 20 years.”

The attraction—and the challenge—will be learning to lead a new team in a new environment with a lot of new responsibilities, from human resources to technology, along with more familiar duties like overseeing projects.

“I’m looking forward to learning…I always thrive on knowledge, anyway. I think if you continue to learn, you continue to expand as a person,” McDivitt said. Plus, she added: “I think it’s going to be a really cool environment to work down there because I absolutely love history.”

Like many Angelenos, McDivitt has early memories of going to the Natural History Museum and the Page as a child. And in her professional capacity, she got the chance to oversee a challenging project on the Page/Tar Pits grounds in 2011 when it turned out that the lake was seeping oil and gas into storm drains when it overflowed.

She supervised the CEO’s staff in managing the effort to install a new underground water purification system and connect the tar pits lake to the city sewers beneath Wilshire Boulevard.

Fix-it operations are nothing new to McDivitt.

“It’s kind of like that little Dutch boy with his fingers in the dike,” she joked. “There are times that I just want to pull my finger out and see what happens!”

She’s kept trouble at bay countless times, perhaps most prominently when glare from the new Disney Hall was found to be reflecting into nearby condominiums and onto the street. The solution: Workers with hand orbitals sanded down part of the surface.

Then there was the discovery of human remains during construction of LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes. After expert consultation, the bodies and artifacts were reburied in a special memorial garden at the site.

Even Grand Park needed some emergency trouble-shooting after its inaugural event—a big participatory dance-fest—reduced the Performance Lawn to a “mud pit.” (A new underground drainage system is now in place to prevent a repeat performance.)

McDivitt said she has learned how to listen first and let solutions emerge from dialogue.

“Staying calm is a really good challenge to me since I’m Irish,” she said. “So I tend to want to react and solve a problem right off the bat, and think of a solution before I actually listen to everything. My sisters tend to say to me, ‘OK, I’m calling to talk to you and I only want you to listen. Don’t solve the problem. I want you to listen.’ “

McDivitt said she is leaving behind a “great team” to carry on the capital project work, including upcoming phases of the Grand Avenue Project. (A Frank Gehry-designed development to be built across from his acclaimed Disney Hall is expected to come before the Board of Supervisors later this month, before McDivitt departs.)

But she’ll be taking with her something rare and precious: the opportunity to watch in delight as her work took on a life of its own.

“Look how much it’s being used,” she said as she strolled through Grand Park, children frolicking in the fountain and grownups lingering over lattes at café tables. “This is fabulous! That just feels so exhilarating—especially when you’re in the public sector.”

Among McDivitt's accomplishments: guiding construction of Disney Hall and fixing its glare.

Posted 4/16/14

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