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Former Disney executive selected to lead Buffalo Museum of Science

A former Walt Disney Co. executive has been picked to lead the Buffalo Museum of Science but says he has no intention of turning the 170-year-old institution into another Magic Kingdom.

Mark Mortenson, 41, who was with the California-based entertainment empire for 20 years before stepping down last year as vice president of global operations, will be museum president and chief executive officer.

He succeeds Carroll A. Simon, who has been acting president and chief executive since David E. Chesebrough left last year. She will remain with the organization.

Philip C. Ackerman, board chairman of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences, which operates the Humboldt Parkway museum and Tifft Nature Preserve on Fuhrmann Boulevard, said that Mortenson emerged from among four finalists as "the candidate of a lifetime" for the organization, which has struggled to regain its fiscal footing after the 2005 Erie County budget crisis forced it to cut back staffing and operating hours.

One of two people with corporate backgrounds who were given serious consideration -- the others had managed not-for-profit organizations -- Mortenson clearly stood above the rest, Ackerman said. "He had a load of energy. His skills were honed in a hotter fire."

Mortenson said he left Disney, where he headed global operations management, corporate operations and real estate, to begin a new life away from the high-pressure entertainment field with his partner, Buffalo native Curt Maranto, and their son, Nicholas, 6.

"Nicholas was entering kindergarten, and we decided we needed to recapture our quality of life," Mortenson said.

If business knowledge is what the museum board wanted in its new president, Mortenson seems to fill the bill.

The Tucson, Ariz., native joined Disney after graduating from the University of California, Fullerton in 1992 and spent his entire career there before moving to Buffalo nine months ago. He received his master's degree in business administration from Woodbury University in Burbank in 2001. In the last two years with Disney, he managed 17 million square feet of space in the conglomerate's worldwide operations, working with other executives to see that workplaces met company standards.

From 2001 to 2005, he was vice president of international operations and finance, overseeing the work force at 29 locations in 25 countries. Earlier, Mortenson was Disney's director of finance and planning, managing a $460 million budget with an annual capital investment of $44 million.

While new to the not-for-profit arena and lacking experience in science, he says his training will serve the museum well.

Noting that funding cuts are forcing many nonprofits "to transition to a business model," Mortenson said he can be effective by finding out what staff scientists, board members and the community expect from the museum.

"I want to hear what people have to say and incorporate that in our strategy," he said. "We can make very positive changes."

To Ackerman, "it seemed paramount to hire a leader to utilize the science expertise we already have and bring in others." The fact that Mortenson comes from the entertainment world does not mean science will be pushed into the background in favor of showy exhibits, he said.

"This is a science museum, and it's going to stay a science museum," Ackerman said. "We couldn't make it into Disneyland even if we wanted to."

Mortenson's appointment, nevertheless, was not unanimously applauded within the museum community, some of whose members are still upset over the layoffs of museum-based researchers during Chesebrough's tenure.

They argue the institution, which has struggled since the 2005 Erie County budget crisis led to the layoffs and reduced museum hours, would be better led by a person grounded in science.

Mortenson's message to doubters: "Give me a call. I'll be happy to listen."


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