Charting fresh waters: New aquarium director impressed by ‘tight ship’
Several hours before interviewing for a job as executive director of the Great Lakes Aquarium, Joe Montisano quietly bought a ticket and discretely explored the Duluth facility incognito to get a sense of the place before anyone knew of his arriv...
Several hours before interviewing for a job as executive director of the Great Lakes Aquarium, Joe Montisano quietly bought a ticket and discretely explored the Duluth facility incognito to get a sense of the place before anyone knew of his arrival.
Montisano said he was struck by the quality and condition of its exhibits.
“I go to a lot of science centers, museums, aquariums zoos and things like that, and this is one of the few I’ve ever walked through where every single thing worked,” he said.
“That’s just hard to do, because kids are tough on stuff, and you have mechanical things that can fail,” Montisano said.
In addition to the exhibits, Montisano said he was impressed by the aquarium’s staff.
“I got treated well. I had a great guest experience that was so pleasurable,” he said.
Montisano was sold on the operation, calling it “a tight ship.” He landed the job and started work at the aquarium last week.
In other past assignments, he has had to operate his way out of a financial hole, but Montisano said he welcomes the opportunity to lead a facility that’s already on relatively firm footing.
“This is the first place I’ve been asked to manage that did not have an immediate crisis looming. The aquarium is on such a good plane and such a good trajectory. It has been doing so well over the last few years. It has just been ramping up and up, so I’m excited to take it from there to the next level, whatever that next level is,” he said.
Montisano succeeds Jack LaVoy, a 70-year-old former businessman and lawmaker who recently retired from his post as the aquarium’s director after engineering a nearly a decadelong turnaround of the once-struggling facility.
Montisano, age 55, said he aspires to follow a similar path and eventually equal his predecessor’s length of tenure, guiding the aquarium until his own retirement.
The aquarium remains the most popular admission-charging attraction in Duluth, drawing more than 144,000 visitors last year - the most since 2002, when it was still an almost-new facility.
Montisano said he hopes to build on that momentum.
“I can’t praise Jack enough, because I know I have giant shoes to fill. But the team he left me with is stellar. … They impress me more and more every day, even though I’ve only been here five days now,” he said with a chuckle.
For the past few years, Montisano has served as executive director of the Coastal Humane Society in Brunswick, Maine. Before that job, he spent more than 25 years working with animals on exhibit. He started out volunteering at the Cleveland Zoo, went on to serve in several management roles at Anheuser-Busch adventure parks and then led the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Sanford for more than a decade.
While with the zoo in Florida, Montisano helped raise $24 million in capital to tackle new projects. He aims to put those same talents to work for the Great Lakes Aquarium in his new role.
Montisano said he has a great affinity for animals and “education through animals” to give people a greater appreciation of the environment.
“Someone much smarter than me once said: You don’t appreciate what you can’t see. So it’s really hard to teach conservation without actual critters,” he said, describing the critical role zoos and aquariums play.