Wetenhall's tenure as Carnegie Museums president wasn't smooth sailing
October 17, 2012 8:15 AM
By Marylynne Pitz Post-Gazette Staff
Last summer, Carnegie museum board members hired a Collier company to assess the performance of John Wetenhall after he had spent just a little more than a year as president of Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.
Their unfavorable responses in that assessment were nearly unanimous, according to sources inside and outside the museum.
On Tuesday, Lee Foster, who leads the museums' main board, announced that Mr. Wetenhall will leave at the end of the year. Interim leadership will be provided by David Hillenbrand, a retired Bayer AG executive who ran the organization between 2005 and 2011.
"We would have preferred that this be a longer tenure. I don't think anybody is happy with this," said Mr. Foster, who presided over the search that led to Mr. Wetenhall's selection.
News of his departure comes less than a month after Samuel Taylor resigned as director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, after serving 41/2 years. Within days of Mr. Taylor's leaving, John Fogg, director of technology, left that post.
The exit or announced departures of three key members of senior management have rattled the foundation of a 117-year-old institution that is second only to the Smithsonian in the breadth of its collections. The system, which had annual expenses of $51 million in 2010, includes the Museums of Art and Natural History, The Andy Warhol Museum and Carnegie Science Center.
Mr. Wetenhall plans to return to Florida at the end of the year.
"It's my aspiration to return to directing art museums," he said during a telephone interview Tuesday. He came to Pittsburgh after serving as executive director of The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla., and as interim director of the Miami Art Museum.
"I've been really very busy and engaged with our museum trustees, directors and boards working on our strategic plan, which I'm very pleased with," he said about the five-year plan that he plans to present to the 60-member museum board in November. "I think from this effort our museums have developed their own strategic plans that are, in my judgment, very well aligned to help aim our museums toward a successful future."
Armed with degrees from Dartmouth, Stanford and Vanderbilt, Mr. Wetenhall looked great on paper when he arrived here in March 2011.
But his local debut, at a dinner held at the home of longtime museum supporter Edith "Toto" Fisher and her husband, Jim, was a tad awkward, sources said. After Mrs. Fisher gave an enthusiastic welcome to Mr. Wetenhall and his wife, dinner guest Elsie Hillman urged him to speak. Initially, Mr. Wetenhall asked his wife, Tanya, to address the group, a move that was seen as bush league.
"There were a number of speeches made, including myself. I spoke, and my wife did, but that's really a separate matter," Mr. Wetenhall said, declining to discuss that gathering.
He also got off on the wrong foot with some colleagues by wearing jeans and tennis shoes to the office on one particular Friday.
Mr. Wetenhall had difficulty leading his staff, due partly to his frequent absences, according to sources. Some questioned his need to attend art shows in Europe when several curators were already on the road to obtain works for the Carnegie International plus a decorative arts show that opened last weekend.
Mr. Wetenhall often traveled to Washington, D.C., because he serves on the Association of American Museums board. He visited Orlando, Fla., where he is advising the General Services Administration on the art for a new federal courthouse being built there.
Mr. Wetenhall said his most recent trip was a gathering hosted by the Carnegie Corporation of New York for people who lead institutions founded by Andrew Carnegie. The meeting was held at the Peace Palace at the Hague in the Netherlands.
"As far as John being absent, I can't speak to that. I've had no trouble getting him," Mr. Foster said, adding that he spends a lot of time at the museum. "Does the job require travel? Yes."
One local arts leader concluded that Mr. Wetenhall's tenure would be brief after meeting him for the first time.
"There was a lack of self-awareness, a lack of inquisitiveness about this new place he found himself in. He would talk, but he wasn't really listening," the individual said.
Mr. Wetenhall said he has no regrets.
"It's been a wonderful opportunity to work with an engaged staff, a very supportive board and an enthusiastic community."
About nine months ago, Mr. Foster suggested to executive committee members of the main Carnegie board that 360-degree assessments be done of all senior management staff to develop their managerial skills. It hired Development Dimensions International to conduct the assessment.
"This was a development tool and nothing more than that," Mr. Foster said.
Board members, Mr. Foster said, have decided to let some time pass before searching for new leadership.
"David [Hillenbrand] has agreed to step in until a successor is found. The museums are in good shape. There is a coincidence of people leaving. I tend to view that as an opportunity, an opportunity to bring people in to further the museum's mission. We are going to step back for a moment. We're not going to rush in to another search."
Ann Metzger and Ron Baillie, co-directors of the Carnegie Science Center, are serving on a task force to recommend a new leader for the natural history museum.
While attendance for the whole system is up more than 70,000 visitors, or 10 percent, this year from this time last year, the organization realizes it has to adapt to a rapidly changing world.
The key issues for Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, Mr. Foster said, are relevance, technology and assuring an outstanding experience for visitors.
"Museums need to be welcoming. They need to be destinations. We need to be relevant to what our audience is seeking. ... Modern museums are going to have to change the way we present both in terms of the timeliness and the manner in which we do it," Mr. Foster said.
Technology, he added, will be the means to tie those efforts together.