A Generalist of Design: John Vanausdall looks back on more than 26 years leading the Eiteljorg
By Bryan Corbin, Storyteller magazine editor
President and CEO John Vanausdall will retire June 30 after more than 26 years at the Eiteljorg Museum.
Image courtesy of Casey Cronin Photography
John Vanausdall will be the first to tell you he is a generalist – enjoying many broad interests, able to carry on conversations with people about nearly any topic, and making his guests feel at ease.
This is a quality Vanausdall has brought to the table during his more than 26 years as president and CEO of the Eiteljorg Museum. Another is his interest in design — both the literal design of physical spaces where people interact, and the design of big ideas, goals and systems that allow the museum to thrive.
Vanausdall is completing his final months leading the Eiteljorg before his June 30 retirement. Leading a nonprofit organization of more than 50 employees and 250 volunteers with 61 involved board members and a multimillion-dollar annual budget means Vanausdall often is in the public spotlight, hosting museum events and representing the organization in the arts community and beyond. He currently is one of the longest-serving nonprofit leaders in Indianapolis.
Looking back on memorable milestones, he cited efforts he and others made once he became the Eiteljorg’s leader in 1996 to focus on inclusivity with diverse communities. The Eiteljorg worked with leaders of the Miami Nation of Indians of Indiana to create the art exhibition In the Presence of the Past: The Miami Indians of Indiana (1997-1998). “Even 25 years ago, we were tuned into the fact that you can’t present these living cultures without engaging them in the process of creating an exhibit,” he recalled.
A traveling exhibition the museum hosted, Americanos: Latino Life in the United States (2000), began a working relationship with local Latino communities that flourishes today. Other breakthrough exhibitions, Jewish Life in the American West (2004) and Red/Black: Related Through History (2011) — about the interwoven histories of African Americans and Native Americans — celebrated the diverse peoples of the American West. “It’s really the thing I’m most proud of,” he said of the museum’s ahead-of-the-curve focus on diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusivity.
John Vanausdall, left, with Ray Gonyea (Onondaga), former Eiteljorg curator of Native American art and culture, right, during Indian Market and Festival in the early 2000s at its prior location in Military Park.
Another priority from the day he arrived was building the Eiteljorg’s operating endowment, a significant step toward financial sustainability. He managed two major, multimillion-dollar capital/endowment campaigns: Eye on the Future that doubled the size of the building in 2005, and Project 2021 that completely revamped the museum’s galleries between 2018 and 2022. And, during his tenure, the museum’s art collections increased fivefold.
All are impressive accomplishments – especially for someone whose original career plan was not even in the museum field.
Interest in studying music — he played many instruments growing up — led John Vanausdall to Indiana University-Bloomington in the mid-1970s; but midway through college, he decided instead of music to focus on science, and trained to become a science teacher. A summer spent at IU’s geology field school in southeast Montana near Yellowstone also solidified his love of the dramatic landscapes and wildlife of the American West. As a new IU graduate in 1978, John was intrigued by a job opening for a physical science educator at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis; he applied and was hired. Instead of a school classroom, he now was designing interactive science exhibits and leading science demonstrations for museum audiences of all ages. “I was sort of the ‘Mr. Wizard’ of the Children’s Museum,” he said.
Developing technology for interactive exhibits throughout the museum in the 1980s, he soon became director of design and later director of exhibitions at the Children’s Museum, and worked on three building expansions. That museum progressively gave him expanding responsibilities; and becoming vice president for planning exposed him to other sides of nonprofit management such as strategic planning, financial management, serving as liaison to board committees and the art and science of fundraising. Through these experiences he developed a broad set of skills. Attending the Getty’s Museum Management Institute inspired Vanausdall to earn his MBA from IU’s Kelley School of Business, preparing him to find a museum directorship role.
A door opened in 1996 when Vanausdall was having lunch with architect Jonathan Hess, with whom he had developed and designed the Children’s Museum’s Cinedome theater. Hess, who also designed the Eiteljorg Museum building, asked if Vanausdall was applying for the open Eiteljorg president and CEO position. Not having a background in Western or Native American art, Vanausdall dismissed the suggestion. But a week later, Hess phoned and said, “I had a conversation with the board chairman of the Eiteljorg. I think you’re the kind of person they’re looking for.” He was; and not long after, Vanausdall was hired as the new leader of the Eiteljorg — a museum that still was relatively new, having opened only seven years earlier, in 1989.
One of his friends and mentors over the years was Mel Perelman, a senior Eli Lilly & Company executive and longtime Eiteljorg Board member. As philanthropists, Mel (who died in 2021) and his wife Joan have supported many local arts organizations including the Eiteljorg; and as art collectors, they have been especially generous in gifting remarkable works to the museum.
“Mel was one of the kindest and biggest-hearted people I’ve ever known. But he was an exacting sort of person: Details mattered. Professionalism mattered. Ethics mattered,” Vanausdall recalled, noting how Perelman exemplified those qualities that Vanausdall sought to bring.
Since the Eiteljorg, like other art museums, relies on donations of beautiful artworks as well as financial gifts, Vanausdall has worked diligently on donor stewardship. Persuading collectors of noteworthy art to donate their valuable collections can take 10 years of conversations and cultivating relationships. His persistence led in part to the Gund family (of NBA Cleveland Cavaliers fame) making their loan of Western artworks to the Eiteljorg a permanent gift; to Helen Cox Kersting (a noted collector) gifting Southwest cultural arts; and to Kenneth “Bud” Adams (owner of the NFL Tennessee Titans) bequeathing his valuable Native and Western art collection to the museum.
“For any major gift, it takes time to build that relationship. Part of it is the donor developing a sense of trust that the institution is doing good work, that it’s managed well, that the CEO is genuine — and it just takes a while to get there,” Vanausdall said.
“John’s track record of developing a diverse donor base and securing collections from far and wide underscore his greatest assets as a leader. He has that rare ability to engage with people on a personal level and develop sound and deep relationships, as well as the patience to stay with that process long enough for it to bear fruit and result in new long-term friends for the Eiteljorg,” said Chris Katterjohn, a director and former board chair who joined the board shortly after Vanausdall started as president. “Plus, John’s work ethic and willingness to put in long hours are second to none.”
Inspiration by design
Away from the museum, John Vanausdall, 66, is known to colleagues as a Renaissance man for his eclectic mix of interests. His love of design has included home remodeling projects that started with plans he plotted out on ever-present sketchbooks of grid paper – projects he built through his related interest in woodworking. He enjoys “creative cooking” — dishes inspired by TV chef cooking shows, great meals in wonderful restaurants and cookbooks, but without following a rigid recipe. Instead he prefers to adapt and create to make the dish his own. He also enjoys tennis, photography, travel, hiking and music.
“My personal nature to be interested in lots of things probably feeds into that notion: Generalists are good leaders,” he said. “I think if I were overly interested in one thing, then I might not tend to delegate to those who are the experts . . . . When you become a CEO or a senior executive, you’re no longer doing the work; your job is to motivate others do the work and support them.”
In retirement, John and his partner, Carrie, plan to travel the world, and he plans to spend time with his four grandchildren in Arizona. “I’ve always thought I’ll do well in retirement, because I have so many hobbies that have kind of been put on hold,” he said.
The John Vanausdall file
IU Bloomington:Bachelor’s degree in education, 1978
Attended the Museum Management Institute program, Berkley, Ca., 1989
IU Kelley School of Business: MBA, 1996
Children’s Museum of Indianapolis:18 years in the creative and management areas, 1978-1996
Eiteljorg Museum: 26+ years as President and CEO, 1996-2023
Two adult daughters, Emily and Hannah; four grandchildren; his partner, Carrie, and her two sons, William and George
As a musician, John Vanausdall played guitar and other instruments and, growing up, performed in bands and choirs.
His top musical influences: James Taylor and the Beatles, especially George Harrison.
Image courtesy of Casey Cronin Photography
CELEBRATION TO HONOR JOHN VANAUSDALL
May 13, 2023
Join us May 13 from 5:30 to 10 p.m. for a special fundraising dinner to honor John Vanausdall on his retirement and support the Eiteljorg Museum to continue his legacy. For details, including reservations and registration cost,
contact Jennifer Hiatt at email@example.com or 317.275.1360.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Storyteller magazine.