Arts and Culture

Donald Lassere is leaving Louisville’s Muhammad Ali Center after nearly nine years as its president and CEO.

He’ll head to the Chicago History Museum, where he’s accepted a job as president and CEO.

This will be a homecoming for Lassere, who was born and raised in Chicago.

“With this pandemic, where you are literally facing death on a daily basis, it was important for me to prioritize my family,” he told WFPL. “So the opportunity to get to be much closer to them was extremely appealing.”

Not that saying goodbye to the Ali Center will be easy. 

The celebrated boxer and activist, known as “The Greatest,” was a “lifelong hero” to Lassere.

“To be a steward of his legacy was an opportunity of a lifetime,” he said. “Muhammad Ali was a man of peace, and he was a unifier. And I think the world really needs that right now.” 

During his tenure, Lassere expanded educational programming and elevated the museum’s profile. 

He’s particularly proud of launching the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards, which began in 2013 to recognize and encourage youth activism. 

“Those awards really demonstrate what young people can do to change the world,” he said.  

In 2019, Lassere helped establish the Ali Stingrays Swimmer Scholar Program, a partnership with the Trident Swimming Foundation, ESPN network and Central High School, Ali’s alma mater.

Chris Joyce

Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville.

Ali Center co-founder and vice chair Lonnie Ali, Muhammad Ali’s wife, said Lassere will be greatly missed.

“He navigated the Center through some of its most difficult periods; the passing and memorial of my husband, the recent civil unrest and protests for social justice and the ongoing devastation of a global pandemic… He will always be linked to the Center’s success and Muhammad’s legacy,” she said in a release.

Robert Croft, chairman of the Muhammad Ali Center board, said Lassere’s impact on the organization has been immense and reminds him of something Ali himself once said: “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses — behind the lines in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”  

“Donald’s most important efforts were on the things we don’t get to see and recognize every day,” Croft said in the release. “He has consistently focused sharply on the hard work, even if it was not the most visible because he knows that is what it takes to uplift those in our communities that need it most.”

The Muhammad Ali Center will soon launch a national search for Lassere’s successor and will select a temporary leader to run daily operations until a new CEO is in place.

Lassere said he’d like to have some input on the search process. And for whomever steps into the role, he has some advice.

“If they’re not from Louisville, make Louisville home,” Lassere said. “It’s important that you be of the community and for the community, because Muhammad loved Louisville, and that person, whoever that is, is going to have to love Louisville as well.”

The news of Lassere’s departure comes as other Louisville cultural institutions seek new leadership. Christen Boone is stepping down as president and CEO of philanthropic nonprofit Fund for the Arts in June, Stephen Reily is ending his tenure as director of the Speed Art Museum in March, and Louisville Ballet has renewed its search for an executive director, with Nichole Gantshar leaving the organization after less than a year.

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts Reporter.