Albert Elsen, the great scholar on the sculpture of Auguste Rodin, had just been contacted by Raymond Nasher, a Dallas philanthropist and art collector, who wanted a catalog of monumental outdoor sculpture covering some 60 20th-century artists. “I’ve negotiated the deal,” Elsen said, once I reached his office. “We’ll divide the artists in half. I will write about the dead. You will write about the living. And you’ll have to conduct interviews. Cold-calling is fine. Here’s your ticket to New York.”
So I flew east to solicit meetings with some of the greatest sculptors of their generation: George Segal, Louise Nevelson, Carl Andre, George Sugarman, Ken Snelson, Joel Shapiro… nearly 25 in all. Mind you, at that time, I had never taken a course on modern art. The best I could do was to approach each artist with my tape recorder running and say naively, “Tell me about your art.” I feared being thrown out of their studios, but thankfully, every artist cordially and thoughtfully showed me their work and explained the challenges they confronted with each piece. So I learned about modern art through the eyes of the artists themselves. It was more valuable than any course I could have taken.
When I was a young child, we lived outside of Boston and, eventually, moved to Connecticut, where I went to school. I spent summers on Cape Cod and some time in New Hampshire, so I am, in essence, a New Englander. I was an only son with four younger sisters: two now live in Connecticut, one in Colorado, and one is a ward of the State of Massachusetts. She was born with cognitive impairments. I try to visit, but don’t get there enough. My father passed away in the early ‘90s, but my mother is active and vibrant, dividing her time between Connecticut and Florida. During my childhood, we weren’t museum-goers, but my mother often took me to movies and the theater, because my father wouldn’t go, so she surely was my earliest cultural inspiration.
Throughout college, I had no professional vision. But as an English literature major at Dartmouth, I had an opportunity to engage in foreign study, and spent a semester in France and my senior year at University College in London, taking in East-End theater, playing soccer on the UCL football club, and spending too much time at the Tottenham Hotspur football ground.
Upon graduation, Dartmouth provided me with a year-long scholarship to study in Italy, where I became familiar with masterworks of Italian art (not to mention professional soccer) and learned to speak the language. This, I hoped, would help get me into grad school. (My Italian experience would also pay off in a big way many years later in Florida, when I met my bride Tanya, who worked for six years in the U.S. Embassy in Rome, after she overheard me leading a museum tour for international dignitaries in Italian.)
Typically, graduate art programs accept students with degrees in the history of art. But by a year or so into my undergraduate work, I had taken only one art course, a seminar on Rome. Fortunately, having become curious about the cultural treasures I viewed during my semester in France, I chose subsequently to sit in on a number of art classes just to enjoy the slide lectures. By the end of my time at Dartmouth, I had taken enough courses to all but qualify for a major in the history of art, but had no such credentials on paper. Nevertheless, my unofficial course work, plus the extra year in Italy, proved just enough to get me accepted to the graduate art program at Williams College, a school known for having produced the so-called Williams Art Mafia. You see, an extraordinary number of museum directors have come from Williams. Mainly, I believe, because of its great tradition of teaching students how to look at art. The legendary, old-school professors there — Lane Faison, Whitney Stoddard, and others — taught looking at art much as coaches train athletes for sports. So I developed an ‘eye,’ prepared my mind, and then went on to Stanford for my doctoral work.
My mentor at Stanford was a tough customer. Al Elsen demanded precision, thoroughness, and standards far north of common expectations. He seemed never satisfied with my work, until the day I was rejected for a prestigious pre-doctoral fellowship. As I contemplated taking a year off for lack of funds, he sent me a letter of encouragement, stating that I had too much promise to quit, and enclosed a check from his personal research fund so that I could spend a semester of dissertation research in Europe. Eventually, I made it to the Smithsonian and completed a dissertation on modern public sculpture. Elsen was also one of the pioneers of art law, and the course I took at his insistence at Stanford Law School laid a foundation, unbeknownst to me at the time, for a museum career. But it was his demanding presence that toughened me up for the cultural arena, which can be far more combative than most people realize.
The job market was tight in the late 1980s. The best opportunities existed outside of academic circles, so after teaching for a short while, I began my career as a curator of European and American art in Alabama — a long way from the center of the art world. As it happened, the Birmingham Museum of Art was planning an expansion and renovation, so I got to work with the architect, Edward Larrabee Barnes, who also designed the Carnegie Museum of Art, and gained insight into museum design and, in time, institutional transformation. After six years, that experience led me to the Cheekwood Museum in Nashville, which had plans for a new building designed by Graham Gund, around which we developed a 20-year plan for the landscaped estate. Simultaneously, however, momentum was building for a downtown art museum. I recommended to the board that we suspend our expansion and instead raise funds for the rest of our master plan, which included converting old horse stables into a small contemporary art center, and creating a woodland sculpture trail, to eventually include work by James Turrell, Siah Armijani, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Eric Orr, Ulrich Rückriem, and other masters. Well, we fulfilled that 20-year vision in only four years. In the process, however, I had planned myself right out of the major new museum. But the trustees appreciated their success and the fundraising chairman, Monroe Carell, told me, “If you ever need a favor, come to us.”
Around that time, an old friend of mine, Mike Saint, told me how he was radically improving his corporate consulting business by applying the lessons he was learning in business school. He said, “You know, John, museum directors with doctorates are a dime a dozen, but how many have an MBA, too?” I couldn’t name one. So I called on Mr. Carell at his corporate office and said “Remember that favor you offered?” True to his word, he took up a collection and sent me to Vanderbilt to get my MBA. That credential later got me noticed for major museum jobs. Eventually, it was my training in strategic planning, managerial accounting, and change management that prepared me for the large-scale renovation, expansion, and institutional transformation that I was privileged to oversee at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota. This all seems serendipitous, meandering past my initial aim of a career in university teaching. But so often the life we plan is molded by opportunities, challenges — and the unforeseen. Adaptation shapes our lives.
The Carnegie Museums are a cultural treasure. I am excited for the opportunity to help preserve and enhance such wonderful assets for the people of Pittsburgh. Like most museums during these times of financial constriction, we have struggled to operate at the levels to which our patrons have become accustomed. But we are developing plans to mount new exhibitions and expand educational programming on exciting topics of vital interest: energy and the environment, health and nutrition, life-long learning, and the fascinating history of the Carnegie itself. We are re-examining the visitor’s experience in our galleries and across our auxiliary services. We are asking how we can be more compellingly relevant to our community and a more effective draw for regional tourism. Our task is to pivot from somewhat inward-looking concerns to become a more outward-looking organization, seeking collaborations within our museum system and with partners here in Pittsburgh and beyond. ‘Carnegie’ is an established brand of tradition and excellence. Our staff is first-rate. We have much to build upon.
People sometimes argue that nonprofits should run more like businesses, assuming that the mission of a museum somehow competes with its financial solvency. In my judgment, nothing could be further from the truth. Museums basically do three things: collect, exhibit, and offer programs — all supported by scholarship and research. The mission must dance with the financial model — ideally with grace and harmony — and the mission should lead. As the mission goes, so goes the financial status of the institution.
Audiences of the future, however, will differ from audiences of the past. Older generations were raised on books; younger generations, on digital screens. The pace is not the same, nor are our social boundaries, which are ever more international and the people around us ever more diverse. One of the core components of our strategic plan surely will be a technological initiative that re-examines the interpretation of our collections, our presence on the World Wide Web, our use of operational technology for collection management, HR, ticketing and the like. This will involve not only hardware and computer programs, but a rethinking of how our curators, educators, and other museum professionals interface with the digital world. In essence, we are looking at a holistic reworking of the traditional museum model.
We have great resources here in Pittsburgh; wonderful universities, including Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, one of the finest technology centers in the world. We have industries, large and small, that are engaged with technology all the time. We understand that we will not be able to buy in-house the talent, knowledge and equipment necessary to become leaders in technology for museums. However, if we can create partnerships to leverage our community assets, we have the potential to assume a leadership role in the years to come. That’s a major challenge of my job.
I think that most people, regardless of political affiliation, agree that we must support the education of children. Museums — indeed cultural institutions overall — are vital to encouraging creativity. We trade in inspiration, exciting children to want to learn more about the magnificence of science and the wonders of art. We also know for a fact that technology, industry and commerce are changing more rapidly than ever in the history of our planet. The pace of change is growing exponentially, and no one knows for sure what technology will exist 10 years from now. Therefore, one can argue that the most vital skill for young people today is not merely the knowledge of facts, but the creativity to adapt and problem-solve for conditions that we cannot possibly foresee. The old educational model of learning by rote — facts and figures, taking tests — may not be providing the intellectual flexibility that our children today will later need to compete in the global marketplace. It may be more important than ever that the creative attributes of the arts be brought more into the core of our educational systems and not treated as an expendable appendage in the education budget, because the perceived marginal expense of a museum experience may, in time, hold a key to our future success.