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National Aquarium taps Californian as new CEO

The National Aquarium Institute has tapped a California aquarium industry veteran to be the organization's next CEO.

John C. Racanelli, 55, will be expected to increase the ocean conservation and educational messages delivered through the National Aquariums in Baltimore and Washington. Visitors should see some physical improvements in the public exhibit areas, too, according to the board chairwoman, Jennifer Reynolds.

The new CEO will also take over the organization's key fundraising role, including the $50 million capital campaign for construction of a new National Aquarium building on the Mall in Washington.

"We need to continue to be an important attraction to visitors in both Baltimore and D.C., to be sure people have a great time," Reynolds said. "We also need to continue to weave the conservation message into everything we do. We wanted someone with a great track record in conservation."

Racanelli has been CEO at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, and a marketing executive at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. But for the past decade he has been a private consultant to conservation organizations and an adviser on issues of "strategic vision" and change management.

"For me it [the new post in Baltimore] represents an opportunity to take all I've learned and apply it to an institution I've known for almost 30 years and admired, and to help it go even further than it has in terms of its success as an attraction, as well as its importance as a voice and advocate for understanding of the blue part of our planet," Racanelli said.

Now a resident of Marin County, Calif., Racanelli will move to Maryland and take over next month from David Pittenger, who has worked for the National Aquarium for more than 25 years, and has served as its executive director for the past 15.

Under Pittenger's leadership, the National Aquarium in Baltimore constructed the Marine Mammal Pavilion in 1991, and the Animal Planet Australia exhibit in 2006. The institute also affiliated with the first National Aquarium, in the old Commerce Building in Washington. Combined revenues now total $49 million a year.

The institute has created the Center for Aquatic Life and Conservation to transform former industrial property on the Middle Branch into a waterfront conservation park. It also established the National Aquarium Conservation Center to create research partnerships with the Johns Hopkins University, the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., and others.

Last year, when Pittenger announced his plans to leave, the institute said its next leader would "move the Aquarium forward to accomplish an ever more demanding and important mission — raising a global voice for conservation."

In 2001, Racanelli founded a consulting firm to work with conservation leaders to change their organizations. He joined with oceanographer Sylvia Earle to co-found the Sylvia Earle Foundation, and assisted in the launch of Google Ocean and a partnership with the National Geographic Society called Mission Blue.

"I worked with boards of directors and helped them define their vision and build a strategy around that vision, and break that down into action," he said.

Racanelli said the National Aquarium is "poised to be a powerful voice for ocean and aquatic conservation; that's what really fires me up." He hopes to infuse the aquarium's educational messages with "more about … the impact of some of our activities on ocean health, coral reef degradation, ocean acidification, so people can start making personal choices."

Reynolds said Racanelli also brings his fundraising contacts, leadership and communications talents, and "good business and financial management skills." He may also be doing some reorganizing.

The institute's two aquariums, two conservation centers and its foundation now have a total of 60 board members. "What we are striving for is to be on point with one message and one aquarium," Reynolds said. "All of us need to focus on that. What changes that may bring, I don't know."

Racanelli first visited Baltimore during the Bicentennial Parade of Ships in 1976. He was a 20-year-old navigator aboard the tall ship Explorer, representing Washington and Oregon. "It was the absolute beginning of the revitalization of the Inner Harbor."

He returned years later, as CEO of the Florida Aquarium, to talk with Baltimore leaders about the harbor's success, which was "a model for Tampa as it was for many cities," he said.

"I believe the modern movement towards inspiring care for our blue planet can trace much of its origin to the National Aquarium, which set a new standard for appreciating the aquatic world 30 years ago," he said. "I am deeply honored to be a part of carrying this mission forward."

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