When he speaks Thursday at his last meeting with Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh trustees, president John Wetenhall will conclude his 17-month tenure by outlining a five-year strategic plan.
His exit, which follows the departure of two other senior managers, will likely fuel discussion about the parameters of the president's job. It joins a topic that cuts to the institution's essence: how the consortium of museums operates.
"We're in the process of reviewing all forms of governance. It's time," said Lee Foster, chair of the trustees.
So, like slices of holiday pie, tasks are piling up on the trustees' plates. Besides finding a new president, the board's leaders also are searching for a new natural history museum director and a new information technology director. Samuel Taylor and John Fogg, who filled those respective positions, left in September.
"When a staff sees this kind of leadership void, they lose their bearings. They don't know where they're going or who's in charge," said Anita Durel, a veteran museum consultant in Baltimore, who runs Durel Consulting Partners/Qm² with her husband, John.
Mr. Fogg left at a time when one of the museums' three main goals is to better communicate with its audiences through the technology of social media. The other major goals are to provide a superb visitor experience and to remain relevant.
"The fact that the I.T. person left is important because that's one of their priorities," Ms. Durel said. However, a $1 million grant for upgrading the museums' technology, awarded earlier this month to the museums by the Carnegie Corp. in New York, will likely make it easier to recruit someone for that job.
As for Mr. Wetenhall, some say he was hampered from the start. His predecessor, David Hillenbrand, served on the search committee that hired him. Mr. Hillenbrand is also on the 67-member Carnegie Institute board, which approves key financial and policy decisions. So, in a sense, Mr. Wetenhall reported to his predecessor.
"It is always best to make one's departure clean," Ms. Durel said. It is "very difficult to question past decisions or propose efficiencies through staff reorganization if the former architect is in the room."
Mr. Foster said Mr. Hillenbrand was on the search committee "because I thought he would be a great asset to our efforts, and he was." Mr. Foster also advocated for appointing Mr. Hillenbrand a life trustee. Asked if he had concerns that Mr. Hillenbrand's presence on the institute board might create an awkward situation for Mr. Wetenhall, Mr. Foster said, "None, because -- knowing David -- there was nothing to be concerned about."
Increased turnover at the top
In the museums' early years, change was far less frequent.
"For much of the 20th century, people remained as directors or president for decades," said Robert J. Gangewere, a retired, 30-year employee of the Carnegie and author of "Palace of Culture: Andrew Carnegie's Museums and Library in Pittsburgh."
Three of Andrew Carnegie's personal friends, one after the other, ran the cultural institution he founded. The third president, Samuel Harden Church, spent 29 years at his post before dying in 1943, a tenure that's almost unheard of today. Now, Mr. Gangewere added, "Turnover has become more common in the top management job."
One reason is that museum professionals are not always ready for the intricacies of the job, which is comparable to being a college president who has to satisfy many constituencies.
"Directors who have come up as curators or educators are really frustrated that they are not in the sandbox anymore," Ms. Durel said, calling the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh a complex organization. "It has many arms and legs. It has a series of boards. The more complex the institution, the more it resembles a governmental structure. You have to lobby not only the general public for their goodwill and for their support, but you also have to lobby these internal constituencies, whether it's the donors, the members, the directors. The person in charge is a politician. They have to be a relatively sophisticated one."
Turnover continued under Mr. Hillenbrand, a retired Bayer executive who was president of Carnegie Museums from 2005 to 2011. He returns on Jan. 7, 2013, as interim president. During his tenure, the top jobs at all four museums -- art, natural history, science and Andy Warhol -- changed hands.
Mr. Foster said in December 2010 that each of the museum directors left for specific reasons. Despite this year's turnover, the museums have experienced a 10 percent increase in visitors, he said. As of September, the total number of visitors to the four museums was 744,000 -- 70,000 more than last year over the same period. Betsy Momich, museums spokeswoman, attributes that increase to some especially popular exhibitions, such as one on Teenie Harris, the Pittsburgh Courier photographer who captured the lives of African-Americans in Pittsburgh.
In 2011, admissions made up nearly 11 percent of $41 million in annual revenue, while gifts and grants generated 30 percent of that total. Sales, facility rentals and fees generated 18 percent. Investment income from the $276 million endowment generated 26.5 percent while the RAD board's allocation contributed 5.11 percent.
Charting a smart course
A president's departure affords a chance to hire a leader with fresh ideas but also revives a perennial debate. What is the best way to govern four distinct museums? Should there be a strong central administration with all museum directors reporting to headquarters? Or, should the system be decentralized so that each museum is more financially autonomous? The latter choice would require some redistribution of revenue and cultural assets.
Other questions include how big is the available pie of revenue and what's a fair formula for slicing it? After the Carnegie Science Center and The Andy Warhol Museum opened in the 1990s, the same amount of money had to be divided among four museums instead of just two.
The science center generates revenue by hosting birthday parties, sleepovers and through admissions to its exhibitions and IMAX movies. The Warhol attracts income by lending its collection, mounting exhibitions and sending them all over the world. Some argue that by creating these new revenue streams, the North Shore museums are more nimble than their older cousins in Oakland. The art museum originates and travels art exhibitions. The natural history museum mounts exhibits, but its main focus is research.
Maintaining a campus of 40 buildings is expensive. In its application for funding in 2013 from the Regional Asset Board, the museum consortium requested $3.59 million for 24 projects. The upgrades include $350,000 worth of exterior repairs to the museum of natural history and making the Hall of Architecture balcony handicapped accessible, a $450,000 project. Windows need to be replaced at The Andy Warhol Museum at a cost of $450,000 while the Carnegie Science Center needs a new roof, estimated to cost $175,000.
Each museum has its own unique operating model, Mr. Foster said, a factor considered when budgets are determined. The natural history museum's deficit, he said, has ranged from $1 million to $1.5 million. "At the moment, the museum of natural history is taking an additional draw," or allotment of money, from the $276 million endowment, Mr. Foster said, adding that the funds pay research scientists' salaries.
"If the museum of natural history decides to use that to fund their scientific research, that's fine as long as they can ultimately balance their budget," Mr. Foster said. "The purpose of the endowment has always been to support the museums."
Since 2007, Mr. Foster said, "Any additional funding needed beyond the approved endowment draw of 5.5 percent [annually] has come from our normal cash flow with the intention of those funds being repaid over several years."
Neither the science center nor the Warhol museum would have been created if the endowment had not been used to help finance those projects, Mr. Foster said.
"Different museums have different needs at different times," he said. "There are specific endowments restricted to each museum plus the general allocation that comes from the draw" on a $276 million endowment, 88 percent of which is restricted.
Museums spokeswoman Betsy Momich said this year, the four museums will draw a total of $13.5 million from the endowment.
Currently, members of the 67-member Carnegie Institute board oversee the museums' finances. While that large group meets four times a year, power is concentrated in the board's 11-member executive committee, which meets monthly to discuss issues in greater detail and set policy. Led by Mr. Foster, the executive committee includes leaders of each museum's board (see sidebar).
Each of the four museums has a board of directors but they are strictly advisory. The boards overlap slightly because the leader of each museum board also is a voting member of the Carnegie Institute board.
Under this setup, each museum director lobbies for funding, sponsors, exhibitions and visitors amid fierce competition, a dynamic that can create tension and hinder collaborations among the four museums. This competitive arrangement has dogged all the successors of Robert C. Wilburn, who established the Carnegie Science Center and The Andy Warhol Museum during his nine-year presidency, which ended in 1992.
Now a consultant based in Reston, Va., Mr. Wilburn said in a telephone interview that he found the museums' governance structure to be workable.
"I think the structure at the Carnegie is better than the structure that exists at most universities. Members of the overall board are on the advisory boards. You have that natural coordination that is built into the system. You have to have both the coordination and the control. Balancing those is a question of management," Mr. Wilburn said.
Fixing the 'disconnect'?
Charlie Humphrey, who succeeded in merging Pittsburgh Filmmakers with the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and has a successful track record of fixing troubled arts organizations, believes that Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh would be a nimbler organization and easier to govern if its boards were streamlined.
When he served on The Andy Warhol Museum's board, Mr. Humphrey saw a disconnect between "the actual board out of Oakland and the advisory board of the Warhol. On one hand, there was a kind of expectation that the Warhol board would behave in the same way that an actual board would -- contribute money, engage in strategic planning and assess the executive director and how well they were doing in their job. The truth of the matter is that budgets were approved in Oakland, personnel decisions were made in Oakland and financial reviews were all performed out of Oakland."
The result, Mr. Humphrey said, is that people serving on the advisory museum boards aren't engaged in "true governance. I find it kind of frustrating to be told what's going on as opposed to participating." The board meetings, he added, "become infomercials. You sit there and drink your Coca-Cola, eat your lunch salad and then you go home. You have zero influence."
He believes the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh should decentralize governance and allow each museum's board to make the major decisions that affect its finances and personnel.
While the museum system is unlikely to go that far, an observation from the Carnegie's chairman points in a similar direction: The ultimate goal for the museums, said Mr. Foster, "is for each to achieve self-sustaining operations, and this goal is inherent in our current strategic plan."
Marylynne Pitz: email@example.com or 412-263-1648. First Published November 25, 2012 5:00 AM