Clay Center appoints new leader

Al Najjar
Al Najjar
Al Najjar will become the new president and CEO of the Clay Center in March. His appointment to the position was approved by the Clay Center board of directors on Thursday.
Charleston Daily Mail/Craig Cunningham 12/04/14

By Matt Murphy, Staff Writer

December 4, 2014

With nearly three decades of museum experience under his belt, the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences’ new president and chief executive officer said he’s looking forward to managing a facility that combines all of his passions under one roof.

Al Najjar, 55, will begin his new position March 1, beginning a month-long transition period as the Clay Center’s current president, Judy Wellington, prepares to retire March 31.

The Clay Center board of directors finalized Najjar’s employment at a meeting Thursday. His appointment followed a nationwide search.

The board was attracted to Najjar because of his rare experience managing facilities similar to the Clay Center, Clay Center spokeswoman LeAnn Cain said.

He also is a performing violinist and a self-described “science geek.”

“What really fascinated me is it will combine all my passions,” he said of the Clay Center job. “When the opportunity came, it was almost too good to be true.”

Najjar is president and CEO of the Glazer Children’s Museum, a 53,000-square-foot facility in Tampa, Fla., that opened in 2010. He took the job in 2007 and oversaw the construction and opening of the facility.

His first job was program director at Science North in Sudbury, Ontario, from 1987 to 1997. After that, Najjar worked at the Sci-Port Discovery Center in Shreveport, La. He was that museum’s vice president of sales and operations from 1998 to 2003 and later was president and CEO.

Najjar is originally from Baghdad, Iraq. He went to college in Canada, which he said gave him a way out of escalating violence around the time of the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.

“I escaped,” he said. “I had to move away.”

Najjar graduated from the University of Ottawa in 1986 with a bachelor of science degree in physics and mathematics. He followed that degree with a Master of Science in physics the next year.

But the physics degree wouldn’t play out as Najjar might have planned. While in grad school, he took a job at a local museum, sparking his love for those facilities.

When he was first contacted about the Clay Center job, Najjar said he wasn’t familiar with West Virginia and he hasn’t had the opportunity to explore Charleston during his three trips to the city for the interview process.

“We kept him pretty busy,” Cain said.

However, his wife and son, a third-grader, were able to accompany him on one trip, and Charleston Convention and Visitors’ Bureau President Alisa Bailey (also a Clay Center board member) showed Najjar’s wife around town.

“I realize I’m moving into a place that really means something for this community,” he said.

Najjar added both he and his wife are active people and enjoy the outdoors. He said he’s missed being close to hiking and wilderness areas in Florida, and plans to take advantage of what the Mountain State has to offer.

Najjar said he’s excited to get started at the Clay Center and said he’s had a great experience so far working with the board and the facility staff.

“The Clay Center is doing an amazing job,” he said. “There are some great things going on here.”

“I can’t tell you how evident it strikes you ... you can’t escape the love, the passion the community has for this place.”

Najjar said he hopes to expand the Clay Center’s relationship with schools both locally and statewide. He said he’d like the Clay Center to play a significant role in science education for students.

While Najjar’s management experience can be shown through his resume, he said he often looks to museum patrons as an indicator of how the institute is performing.

“At the end of the day, it’s about the laughter and enjoyment you see,” he said. “To me, that’s always been sort of the benchmark.”

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