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Carnegie director Lynn Zelevansky works on her balancing act

| Sunday, Jan. 23, 2011

Earlier this month, after the Andy Warhol Museum, the Mattress Factory and Wood Street Galleries all announced they would showcase the controversial "Fire in My Belly" video by artist David Wojnarowicz (1954-92), Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky defended the decision in her "Inside the Museum" series of informal monthly e-messages.

"Critics of the video not only ignore the desperate circumstances to which Wojnarowicz was responding, but they also deny the long tradition of images of the crucified Christ in extremis, from European Renaissance art to works found in rural Mexican churches," she wrote at web.cmoa.org/director regarding the artist who died of AIDS,

At issue was the image of ants crawling on a crucifix at the opening of the video, which was denounced by the Catholic League and pulled from the Smithsonian exhibit "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" a month earlier, resulting in a firestorm of protest.

With the backing of a fine art pedigree -- she formerly served as the curator of contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and as curator in the department of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York -- Zelevansky certainly has earned the right to render an opinion. And having spent the past year and a half as the newly appointed Henry J. Heinz II director of the Carnegie Museum of Art, she is most certainly in the position to weigh in on all things local.

Zelevansky, who started at the Carnegie on Aug. 1, 2009, says the timing of the controversy is "oddly serendipitous." That's because during the past six years she has been working with colleagues at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, to produce the groundbreaking exhibit "Paul Thek: Diver, A Retrospective."

Like Wojnarowicz, Thek (1933-88) was a controversial artist who died of AIDS. And, like Wojnarowicz, "a lot of his imagery comes out of Catholicism," Zelevansky says.

The exhibit, which opened at the Whitney in late October, is coming to the Carnegie on Feb. 5. And right now Zelevansky is busy overseeing its installation. That's an unusual job for the director of a museum. But then again, Zelevansky is no ordinary director.

Having been an artist, art critic and curator, Zelevansky brings a substantial amount of experience to her job and a lot of passion, especially for this new exhibit.

"He's got two different sides to him," Zelevansky says of Thek. "He's got a really lyrical side, and he's got this really tough, sort of body-oriented base side."

The work, which at times references the human body in grotesque fashion, can be difficult. But rather than focusing solely on the work, Zelevansky is more concerned about fleshing out a larger picture of who the artist was.

"The thing that has always interested me is to change the historical narrative, shift it a bit, enlarge it a bit. That's really what I've tried to do with my work. So, that's what I tried to do with this guy who was kind of forgotten. Although there were a lot of artists who remembered him."

Working as curator, Zelevansky says, "It's not something a director can do all the time."

According to Bill Hunt, chairman of the board of the Carnegie Museum of Art, Zelevansky is a real "Renaissance person" who has "great knowledge" in contemporary art, decorative art, photography, and art education, "and she had a strategic plan for the museum going in."

"That's important, because the job is not just about putting on exhibitions," says Hunt, who was on the selection committee that chose her. "It's about publishing, education and being much more holistic as a director.

"Being a museum director is a difficult job. You have to balance a lot of different constituencies. Each department within the museum has its own constituencies when it comes to different forms of art. You have the education department; you have fundraising. You have to balance an ever-tightening budget because of the nature of the economy. And I think Lynn knew that."

Zelevansky replaced former director Richard Armstrong, who had worked at the museum since 1992 as curator and ran it as director from 1996 until 2009. His leaving to become director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in Manhattan came as something of a surprise, particularly after directors Bill DeWalt of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and Joanna Haas of the Carnegie Science Center resigned during the previous two years.

"One of the things that makes great institutions is transition," Hunt says. "Lynn is not Richard Armstrong, and Richard Armstrong is not Lynn Zelevansky. They are very different, and, yet, they've both been terrific and great assets over time. Having been chair now for both directors, it's been wonderful seeing things change, and it's been a very interesting process.

"She definitely wants to get out into the community," Hunt says of Zelevansky. "I mean, she really doesn't want this museum to just be something that is only for people who like art. She wants to expand that and reach people who not only don't know about it, but once they get there, they become enthused about what's going on at the Carnegie Museum of Art. That's very important."

Since Zelevansky began, she has undertaken several new initiatives, including the monthly "Inside the Museum" missives.

One of her initial projects, "In the Moment Workshop," was launched in December. The program works with Alzheimer's caregivers, health care professionals and arts organizations to make art accessible to people living with dementia.

She has turned her attention to promoting the ACCESS EBT card admission program, which, since its inception in 2007, allows individuals on government assistance -- including foster children and their caregivers, and low-income, elderly, or disabled people -- to come to the museum for just $1.

In 2007, before the program was widely marketed, only 171 visitors participated in the program. But, since Zelevansky took the reins, participation has steadily risen, and it is now estimated that 11,000 people in 2010 benefited from the discount.

And then there is the Culture Club, which encourages young professionals to visit the museum on Thursday night, once a month, for cocktails and conversation with curators.

Louise Lippincott, the museum's curator of fine arts, says that Zelevansky likes to use the words "change" and "transparency" around the office a lot.

"It's about making things more visible," Lippincott says. "How we work, who we are, what we do -- and we are seeing that in a lot of the public programs that she does. But that also shows up in the way that she runs the museum, and that has been very good for us."

Having worked as a curator at the museum for 20 years, Lippincott says that Zelevansky is "much more engaged in curatorial activities" than the previous director.

"When Richard became director he really pulled back from a lot of the daily curatorial operations and concentrated on the big projects, like the International," Lippincott says. "And Lynn is much more involved in a lot of activities and plays a very active role in management."

So far, Zelevansky has proved that interacting with the public is very much a part of her "strategic plan."

"I think museums in general do a huge amount of outreach into the community that people don't know about," she says. "I really want us to be on the forefront of the museum world, here and abroad. And I want to support the curators in doing important shows that break ground for the field. But I also want to make sure that we are as inclusive as we can possibly be at the same time. So, it's a question of a balance of those things."

Recently, the museum and its outreach efforts have come to the attention of the Association of Art Museum Directors as being a "model" of how museums can more progressively interact with its audience and the community at large.

"I have a lot of ideas. I have a lot of questions about where museums are going and how we are going to manage ourselves," Zelevansky says. "I want us to be on the forefront of all of these kinds of discussions.

"This is a transitional moment for culture in general. New things need to be designed, and, hopefully, we can put our stamp on some of it. We have to be geared to respond to that. And the whole question of how we do that is really an interesting question."

As for living in Pittsburgh after living in two very big cities, both literally and culturally, Zelevansky says, "I actually really like Pittsburgh. And I feel that there is a kind of flexibility that you have being in a place that isn't a New York or L.A. that we can use to our benefit."

This is not the first time she has moved here. She first came to Pittsburgh in the fall of 1965, when she attended Carnegie Tech as a graphic-design major. She spent two years here, then followed her soon to be husband, Paul Zelevansky, back to New York City, where she grew up.

"Both my husband and I felt that we had somehow integrated the culture of Pittsburgh into our memories, that we knew it in some way," she says. "Even if we didn't know the specifics, we understood what the city was like."

The couple lives in Shadyside.

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