Two months into his position as president of Carnegie Museums, John Wetenhall is sitting in his office surrounded by artworks: a cat portrait by Andy Warhol, a 19th-century still life of flowers in a ginger jar, and a small portion of the Natural History Museum's magnificent butterfly collection.
Above the mantel, in what was once the office of Andrew Carnegie himself, is a portrait of that great philanthropist who started it all in 1896 with the Carnegie Institute. That institute has since grown into the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, encompassing four museums -- Carnegie Museum of Art, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Carnegie Science Center and The Andy Warhol Museum.
Wetenhall is the ninth president to oversea these museums, and he's passionate about each and every one of them. Already, he has taken a hands-on approach to the daily operations of the $55- million organization, ranging from appointing Warhol curator Eric C. Shiner to be the new director of the Warhol earlier this month to giving the final word on a set of six coasters sold in the store at Carnegie Science Center.
"They spell Carnegie with the elements," says Wetenhall, pointing out the explanation on the back of each coaster, including Einsteinium, a synthetic element with the symbol "Es" and atomic number 99 named after Albert Einstein.
"It's made from a nuclear explosion," he says with wide-eyed excitement.
Excitement is the word when it comes to describing Wetenhall. He uses that word a lot.
"What's exciting to me, nowadays, particularly with the economic challenges museums are finding, and cultural institutions in general, we're finding an ever-increasing benefit to collaborating, finding partners and other museums, cultural institutions and other nonprofits," he says.
Collaboration is something Wetenhall knows a lot about. A dyed- in-the-wool museum director, Wetenhall, now in his early 50s, has more than 20 years of a museum career under his belt.
"His experience in museum management has already shown its value in the sense that I think there have been numerous 'best-practice' ideas that he has witnessed elsewhere that he has brought to our organization," says Bill Hunt, chairman of the board of the Carnegie Museum of Art and CEO of the Elmhurst Group. He was on the search committee that found Wetenhall.
"John has shown great leadership in the fact that, immediately, he stepped in and learned everything that he could about the organization before making changes," Hunt says. "That is always the right way to go about taking leadership in something that is as intricate and complicated as the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh."
Bill Bodine, director of Frick Art & Historical Center, was happy to welcome Wetenhall to town. His friend is a fellow member of "The Guilded Age Museum Group," a loose-knit group of museum directors of 10 legacy estate museums that meets twice a year.
"John is a very strong organizational person," Bodine says. "He thinks globally, and has great vision for institutional issues. I've always thought that John was a perfect choice for the Carnegie because of his organizational skills, plus the fact that he's an art person and understands museums, having come totally out of a museum background. …