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Photo: Tom Altany





Lee B. Foster II

Strong roots in the community are a big part of Lee Foster’s life. As chairman of L.B. Foster Company, a Pittsburgh-based manufacturer and distributor of rail and construction products, he’s carrying out a legacy left him by his grandfather, who founded the company more than a century ago. He’s also part of a family legacy at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, as a second-generation board member of the Museum of Natural History. And now, as vice chair of Carnegie Museums’ Board of Trustees and chair of the recently announced Building the Future campaign, he wants to make everyone in the region feel a sense of pride and ownership in their museums. “These tremendous resources are ultimately owned by all of us,” he notes, “and it’s our responsibility to support them.”

How did your scientific and cultural interests evolve?

I have a hobbyist’s interest in archaeology and an undergraduate degree in anthropology. I went to school at Cornell for three years, and lived in South America before finishing my last year at the University of Pittsburgh.

I visited various archaeological sites in Central and South America, spending the longest period of time in Colombia, where I worked on a project about the effects of mass media on indigenous populations. In my travels I became a collector of various things, notably pre-Colombian and Latin American art, and glass. My interest in pre-Colombian art flourished during my time there and expanded when I met my wife, Issie, who is Colombian. We go back from time to time.

What did Carnegie Museums mean to you as a child growing up in Pittsburgh?
My uncle, Mike Porter, was a board member, and my aunt, Adrienne Porter, was a member of the Women’s Committee and also volunteered in the gift shop. From third or fourth grade on I was a regular visitor. I grew up in Squirrel Hill, within bike-riding distance, and I used to spend countless days in the Museum of Natural History among the dinosaurs. They are etched into my brain.

What is it like being involved in the campaign effort to revamp the dinosaurs—an exhibit so near and dear to you?
It’s very exciting to me. The new exhibits will showcase the dinosaurs in engaging new ways—surrounded by flora and fauna that were contemporaneous with them, and posed in ways that are more scientifically accurate and that introduce a new element of interactivity.

Virtually everyone who grew up in Western Pennsylvania rode school buses to the old exhibit in ritual fashion and has a connection with the dinosaurs—it’s almost a kind of genetic memory. But this is exciting for everyone—not just Pittsburghers. I think the new Dinosaurs in Their World exhibit will be a huge economic driver as people from all over the world come to see it.

How do you think the continued growth of Carnegie Museums contributes to the progress of the region?
Certainly The Warhol has been a very important addition to Carnegie Museums and the region. Almost immediately, it became more than a museum, the work of an icon of modern contemporary art, but it’s part of a broader discourse—through its performing arts and exhibitions—that has become a catalyst for imaginative thinking in the region.

The Science Center is a phenomenal gift to the region, too. More than half a million people pass through there annually and it’s greatly enriching the science programs of the public schools. The Museum of Art continues to bring cutting-edge exhibitions to the region—Fierce Friends, Light, the International, to name a few—that continue to stimulate the imagination of not just those in the region but beyond. And the Museum of Natural History, through the truly magnanimous gift of Dick Simmons, will continue to accommodate blockbuster exhibits in the Special Exhibits Gallery, and of course deliver the much-anticipated reopening of Dinosaurs in Their World. All told, the museums haven’t rested on their laurels. They continue to recognize that they must constantly be innovative and engaging to serve the community.

Why is it critical that Carnegie Museums build its endowment through this campaign?
It is absolutely essential that the endowment grows for a variety of reasons. We need to provide flexibility in spending. The Oakland campus is more than 110 years old, and the maintenance of the buildings is very expensive. The Carnegie International, as another example, has brought tremendous prestige to the museum and to Pittsburgh, but every four years it puts a strain on the Museum of Art to make it possible. This is an area where an endowment can make a big difference, and each museum has such a need. In one form or another, additional needs arise, and it’s preferable and wise to have a healthy endowment because it takes the burden off of the annual fundraising effort, and it also decreases the volatility of the budgeting process.

What do you find most rewarding about your involvement in Pittsburgh’s cultural community?
It’s truly been a labor of love. And getting to know the people at the museums—the directors, the curators, and all of the staff—adds great value and richness to my life. I find the people there to be the brightest, the most stimulating, and the hardest-working people that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. And I’ve truly enjoyed the exposure to the four museums. I always try to get to meetings a few minutes early or stay a few minutes late, just to spend a little extra time walking around. I love exploring something new—that’s rewarding in and of itself.

Have you discovered anything surprising in your exploration?
The first time I visited Powdermill Nature Reserve, the Museum of Natural History’s research and educational facility in the Laurel Highlands, I spent a morning with Director Dave Smith and was blown away by what they do there. I think it’s somewhat of a hidden gem that a lot of people in this region just don’t appreciate. The campaign renovation project to expand Powdermill is itself very interesting because of the cutting-edge green technologies they’re using in its construction. One of the challenges is going to be to draw people there—not just people who live in the immediate area, but also people from around the region. It’s a very unique resource, and one that has a tremendous amount to contribute.

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