Photo: Joshua Franzos
The new president of Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh admits he wasn’t an obvious choice when he was accepted into the master’s program in art history at Williams College, a training ground for many of the country’s top museum directors. “Their graduate program has a history of taking chances on unconventional students,” he notes, “and I definitely qualified.” In his youth, John Wetenhall had neither frequented museums nor felt a strong connection to art. A New England native, ice hockey and soccer were more to his liking. But after choosing English literature as his undergraduate major at Dartmouth College, Wetenhall’s future would come into sharp focus during a semester in Bourges, France, and a senior year in London. A post-graduate grant then sent him to Italy for a year, where he learned language and art in Siena, Rome, Florence, and Venice. “I took full advantage of those opportunities to tour Europe’s great cathedrals, museums, and other cultural attractions,” he says, “such that I completed my college days with an unofficial major in the history of art.”
Wetenhall made his new-found passion official by earning master’s and doctorate degrees in art history at Stanford University. After a Smithsonian Fellowship and another year teaching at the University of Minnesota, he headed south for his first full-time museum position as curator at the Birmingham Museum of Art. While at his next post as director of Nashville’s Cheekwood Museum of Art, he again chose an unconventional path by earning an M.B.A. at Vanderbilt University, something he says has been invaluable in balancing the managerial, cultural, and aesthetic challenges of heading a museum, especially his role as director of the sprawling Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida. Today the high-energy museum man on a mission—who, by the way, still loves his sports—is thrilled to be at Carnegie Museums. “Our work here,” he says, “is all about giving the public, especially young people, the same kind of thoughtful opportunity for questioning and discovery that I was blessed to experience in the cathedrals of Europe.”
What inspired you most in Europe?
First, it was the architecture. Anyone who enters those awe-inspiring cathedrals has to ask big questions: How could people of the Middle Ages construct such complex, sublime structures? What were the sources of their monumental visions? What passions and beliefs led them to invest their treasures to build such long-standing edifices when the homes in which they lived rarely survived a generation? But it was more than buildings. The same magnificence can exist in a two-by-two-foot canvas painted by a great master. The emotions of all humanity are available to see within gold picture frames on the walls of museums. I sought to learn more.
What makes you so passionate about museums?
People confront the extraordinary in museums—be it art, or natural specimens, displays that demonstrate scientific principles, or even plants in a botanical garden and animals in the zoo. These are places to witness the variety and richness of nature and the brilliant cultures that humanity has created. And the objects are real. There is something magical about that.
Many people learn visually or experientially. So while facts may be aptly embodied in the pages of a book, the passion for wanting to learn them can oftentimes be unlocked by a genuine experience of confronting a cultural treasure or a wonder of nature. These experiences physically draw you in, ignite your curiosity, and drive you to learn. They can be transformational for a child.
Has anything stood out during your first few months at Carnegie Museums?
There is such a high level of professional expertise and academic understanding among the staff of all four museums. And they are welcoming and collegial to an extent sometimes not found in more competitive environments. We have an organization where collaboration can take hold in an even more meaningful way because the right people are here. We also have remarkably dedicated trustees and museum board members and volunteers who provide vital support through their time, knowledge, and personal resources. And people in Pittsburgh love the Carnegie Museums. That devotion—the dedication and ownership of the community—provides motivation for us all.
Do you find that dedication unusual?
Yes. Many communities have museums, but in Pittsburgh it’s ‘our museums.’ There’s an enormous difference. The challenge for us is to present this shared passion more publicly to people around the country and around the world to export the Carnegie brand as synonymous with Pittsburgh—as something that makes a quality of life that has become recognized as being among the best in North America.
Is that why your wife wanted to move here?
Yes! My bride Tanya informed me that if I flubbed in my interviews, there would be severe domestic difficulties. I’m kidding—but not by much.
You have a practice of spending a day each month working on the front line. Why is that important to you?
I’ve been doing “Undercover Boss” for many years, and I love it! [Although, unlike the TV show, his identity isn’t a secret to staff.] It’s so helpful to learn how visitors experience our museums and to understand how each professional area contributes to our common success. At the end of each job I come away with an enormous respect for the effort, dedication, and skill of the workers with whom I spend my day. Yes, I’ve fixed mechanical equipment, cleaned toilets, and stood guard duty, but what I’ve really done is discover firsthand how loyal, friendly, and professional the people who make up our Carnegie Museums truly are.
What are your goals for Carnegie Museums?
First, I’d like to work with our employees, trustees, board members, and community leaders to create a long-term plan that will leverage the collective potential of our four Carnegie Museums—in displaying their collections, building their audiences, mounting compelling exhibitions, broadening our public educational programs, and providing more services that make everyone feel that this is truly their institution.
Second, I believe that Carnegie Museums should be a gold standard for museums around the world. I want to work with our professional staff to see that we are globally recognized for the important work we do—by the museum profession, the foundation community, government officials, and leaders in the arts and sciences. Carnegie Museums and Pittsburgh together should mean excellence.