Vertical plumes of water have served as a visual cue since 1974 outside Carnegie Museum of Art's Scaife Galleries in Oakland.
"If the fountain was on, the museum was open. If the fountain was off, the museum was closed, which is wonderful, if you speak fountain," said a smiling Lynn Zelevansky, the museum's Henry J. Heinz II director.
Since her arrival in 2009, this native New Yorker who grew up on the city's Upper West Side has spoken the bracing language of change. Her stamp is clear on everything from a show about Paul Thek that she curated to the purchases of a major Impressionist pastel by Pittsburgh native Mary Cassatt as well as a portfolio of 95 prints from the subversive Guerrilla Girls.
Focused and detail-oriented, she does not confine herself to art. She has tried to improve how the cafe staff serves food and insisted on more visible signage, including a banner hung in May upon the Oakland building's exterior that says "Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History." With the help of board members, she has worked to make the museum more inviting, an initiative that focuses mostly on technology but also includes renovating restrooms.
The big picture goal for Ms. Zelevansky, 66, of Point Breeze, has been to increase the art museum's visibility, offerings and to attract younger visitors.
"We needed to have a more active and sophisticated exhibition program and a richer contemporary art program," she said.
So she hired Sarah Minnaert, who worked with her at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to serve as director of exhibitions.
Ms. Zelevansky uses a monthly blog to communicate with museum members and has hosted a series of forums called "What Are Museums For?" In 2010, she published a slim volume called "Director's Choice," which highlights her favorite works from the museum's collections.
Not everyone likes change; Ms. Zelevansky irritated members of the museum's women's committee early in her tenure when she prohibited events with food and cocktails in the Hall of Architecture. Later, she relented and allowed drinks and hors d'oeuvres "as long as there is someone who can oversee set-up and intervene, if necessary."
What she wanted to avoid, she said, was catering staff slamming carts filled with chairs into the enormous architectural casts of monuments from around the world.
"You can't rope them off. I wouldn't want to. We would like to redo the entire hall at some point," Ms. Zelevansky said.
While her daily duties require running the museum, she continues to build her reputation as a curator. In 2011, she curated a Carnegie show with Elisabeth Sussman of the Whitney Museum about Paul Thek, the late contemporary artist.
While that show was on exhibit, the Carnegie also featured the work of Icelandic artist/musician Ragnar Kjartansson.
"The museum saw a rise in the percentage of 19- to 35-year-old visitors that was higher than the percentage of people in that demographic in the city," Ms. Zelevansky said proudly.
She recently traveled to Brazil to organize a show about Brazilian abstractionists, including Helio Oiticica, that will open in October 2016.
One way to increase admissions is to offer more chances to visit. This year, the museum began staying open seven days a week on Memorial Day instead of waiting until after July Fourth and will keep those hours through Labor Day. The doors are closed on Easter, July Fourth, Thanksgiving and Christmas but the museum is open on New Year's Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day and Veterans Day.
On a daily basis, staff members strive to be creative, and that resulted in a photographic exhibition called "Oh, Snap!" that asked museum visitors to respond to 13 pictures in the Carnegie collection by sending in their own images. All submissions were posted on the museum's website, and some of the public's pictures were printed and hung in The Forum Gallery.
William Hunt, a board member who recruited Ms. Zelevansky, liked the "Oh, Snap!" show.
"We can't be a passive museum anymore," said Mr. Hunt, who chaired the art museum board in 2006-11.
He is delighted with the museum's decision to rent a Lawrenceville apartment for the duration of the Carnegie International, which opens Oct. 5 and concludes in March 2014. Invitational events are held there regularly. The advantage of having the apartment, Mr. Hunt said, is "when the artists come to Pittsburgh, they will meet with local artists."
He realizes the museum must do more to engage visitors and said his recent visits to the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia and the Cleveland Museum of Art reinforced that conviction.
"The curators will have to interact" with the public, Mr. Hunt said.
In February, social media helped attract more than 2,000 people to the Hall of Architecture for an evening event called CAKEitecture, which featured free cake and ice cream. Staged to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Heinz Architectural Center, the competition paired local bakers with five architectural firms to design cakes in the shape of Fallingwater, East Liberty's Motor Square Garden, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, the Sydney Opera House and a modernist home in Holland.
Ms. Zelevansky and her staff know how to have fun, but thought-provoking events appeal to her intellectual side. Joy Borelli-Edwards, owner of BE Galleries in Lawrenceville, praised Ms. Zelevansky for moderating an appearance here by the Guerrilla Girls in March.
"She gives voice to the Guerrilla Girls, who are very anti-establishment, which is what we need," Ms. Borelli-Edwards said. "She was put in a very delicate position. One of the things the Guerrilla Girls said was that the art world is controlled by boards of directors. It's become more of a commoditization of the art world."
On a personal level, the gallery owner added, Ms. Zelevansky is approachable and has appeared at many local art events.
A major influence on Ms. Zelevansky was her late mother, whom she called "a grande dame in every way." A lover of literature, theater and shopping, Ruth Hurwitz often ordered dinner delivered.
"She came from a Jewish family of doctors, scientists and philosophers. Since my brother was designated to go into the family business, I guess I was designated to be the intellectual," Ms. Zelevansky said.
She was 17 when her mother died. Six months later, she met Paul Zelevansky and they were inseparable.
"I think it was Paul who taught me to think independently and unconventionally," she said.
The couple have been married for 45 years and have two grown daughters. Nora is a journalist and novelist; Claudia, trained as a theater director, works for an arts consulting firm. Both live in Brooklyn, N.Y.
With the Carnegie International opening in the fall, this may be Ms. Zelevansky's busiest year yet. The Carnegie International started in 1896, one year after the Venice Biennale, the world's first international showcase of contemporary art.
Like the World's Fairs, the Venice Biennale and Carnegie International exhibited art that could not be seen elsewhere. Even today, the art for both shows is chosen by curators, not gallery owners intent on selling. The exhibitions are primarily designed to educate the public.
In the century since such international exhibitions began, the hoopla that fuels the hyper-competitive global art market has made it harder for a regional museum like Pittsburgh's to distinguish itself. Showcases of contemporary and modern art are so widespread that a total of about 60 exhibitions are held regularly in Europe, North and South America, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Australia. Cities stage them to attract affluent, cultured tourists and art collectors, some of whom arrive on yachts or in private jets.
Art Basel, founded in 1970 by three gallery owners, is held in Basel, Switzerland, each June. Art Basel in Miami opened in 2001 and Art Basel in Hong Kong opened last May.
But the Carnegie International is the only contemporary art exhibition attached to a museum. Its founder, Andrew Carnegie, wanted to build the art museum's collection from the best of this global survey, held every two to three years.
When the Carnegie International opens on Oct. 5, museum visitors will see artwork that was purchased from past Internationals in the permanent collection galleries.
"I wanted to call out what was unique about us in this morass of exhibitions that exist today," Ms. Zelevansky said, adding that the reinstallation of older International artworks will serve as a visual history lesson for the local community.
Locals will also encounter Carnegie International artists in their own neighborhoods. In Homestead, photographer Zoe Strauss, who is interested in local labor history, will make portraits of 200 people from that community. Sitters will receive copies of those images, which will serve as their ticket to the International. Tobias Madison, an installation artist, will lead art workshops for elementary and junior high students in Wilkinsburg.
In April, the museum posted a video to announce the artists who will exhibit their work at the Carnegie International. The stars of the video were the Steel City Angels, a local dance troupe. Reaction to the video was mixed, Ms. Zelevansky said, adding that "some people felt it was demeaning to the city to have the Steel City Angels" represent its most important visual arts showcase.
The criticism does not appear to have ruffled her at all.
"This show is about mixing the global and the local, and the Steel City Angels are an example of Pittsburgh's vernacular culture. Every city has a vernacular culture. It's something we should be celebrating," Ms. Zelevansky said.
Marylynne Pitz: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1648. First Published July 14, 2013 4:00 AM