The person who arguably should have answered the question was Giles’ predecessor, Mary Tull, who sat near the back of the third-floor council chambers in the City & County Building. Certainly it was her regime that was under attack from council members for a lack of leadership and financial viability—and, most bruising of all, for “five years of unreliable information,” as Council Chair Jill Remington-Love put it. “It’s an issue of trust,” she added.
Just how trustworthy The Leonardo’s numbers are was an issue City Weekly raised in the August 2007 feature “Will Smile for Cash.” The project’s problems date back to a 2003 voter-approved $10.2 million bond to renovate the former city library building downtown. Release of that bond was tied to the museum raising a matching $10.2 million. Come 2006, the city’s budget director Gordon Hoskins signed off on the museum successfully raising the required funds. But the city has yet to release the bond money, something Leonardo supporters including ex-Mayor Rocky Anderson say the city is legally obligated to do. Concerns, however, about $3.4 million of the $10.2 million the museum claimed to have raised in 2005 resulted in an audit this past May. The audit revealed that $3.4 million was missing from the 2005 matching funds. It had been covered by what Remington-Love called “a bridging loan”—essentially a promise by an anonymous donor to cough up nearly all the money in September 2009 if the museum hadn’t by then raised the necessary funds.
While The Leonardo told the council it has back-filled that $3.4 million guarantee with new funds, fund-raising problems have nevertheless dogged the project since 2006. Partly this seems because Tull, who refused to be interviewed for this story, put most of her fund-raising eggs into one basket—The Sorenson Legacy Foundation. “They went to Sorenson and were talking $10 million for the building, $10 million for operations,” Hoskins recalls. “It fell apart.” That didn’t deter Tull from returning to the foundation, according to press reports, to hit them up for a more conservative $5 million-$8 million. Again, she got shown the door.
The end result of The Leonardo’s fund-raising efforts as of April 2008, according to City Council information, was $21.3 million, of which nearly $14 million was the bond and city funds. That left $7.8 million of mostly private money, of which $4.6 million of donations has been spent.
Quite what The Leonardo has to show for that money is hard to say. There’s Leonardo on Wheels, which promotes science in schools. Money has also gone to Utah Science Center and Center for Documentary Arts. Those organizations, along with YouthCity Artways, a city-funded organization, were put together by then Mayor Anderson back in 2001 under the umbrella of The Leonardo, after the city solicited proposals for how to utilize the former library building. For one-time Leonardo grant writer and former Anderson spokeswoman Deeda Seed, lumping together such a disparate group only created problems. The Leonardo “was built through happenstance,” she recalls. “You’ve got an egg, a banana and a carrot. What are you going to make?”
A large chunk of The Leonardo’s costs has been its lengthy list of expensive consultants. One is Oakland, Calif.-based Gyroscope, which billed more than $700,000 to develop programming and exhibits for the museum.
During his City Council grilling, Giles brandished a large blue book produced by Gyroscope to demonstrate The Leonardo’s substance. However, what he didn’t say was how much of the at least year-old exhibit blueprints were relevant in the new scaled-down proposals The Leonardo made public on Aug. 12.
Days later, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker stated he was willing to allow other organizations to apply for space in the former library building on 500 South and 200 East. That’s a position Becker has since stepped back from.
Management salaries haven’t helped costs, either. The nonprofit’s June 2007 tax return shows Tull was paid $92,236 while business manager Philippe Wyffels earned $85,600, compared to his previous year earnings of $48,333. Compensation for the three top slots totaled $231,989. Total revenues, in comparison were just $225,596. Little wonder with total expenses of $1.2 million, by June 2007, net assets shrunk by almost a million to $2.8 million.
New executive director Giles works only part-time. Tull, meanwhile, still leads fund raising. With the high profile, plastinated human bodies exhibition Body Worlds 3 scheduled to open Sept. 19, The Leonardo is no doubt hoping the exhibition’s attendant hoopla will boost fund raising. Similar expectations in 2006 of the Exodus photographic exhibition on immigration, however, produced little hard cash. And, with so much negative press, The Leonardo’s fund-raising capabilities, Giles told the council, could well be jeopardized.
What The Leonardo will become also haunts the project. The Center for Documentary Arts [CDA] still, after six years, has yet to sign an affiliation agreement with The Leonardo. CDA founder Les Kelen says the jury’s still out on partner organization Utah Science Center’s six-month-old merger with The Leonardo. “We’re looking still to see what will happen there,” he says. Whether the museum dedicated to the integration of the arts and sciences ends up being driven by The Leonardo management or by the competing needs of its partner organizations has not been resolved.
Meanwhile, the monthly costs of The Leonardo—$63,700 according to the city audit—eat away at whatever unrestricted cash is at hand. Giles told the council it was $550,000, but the city audit showed $112,865. The city audit’s numbers suggest The Leonardo has only two months of solvency. Whether Tull will continue at full salary is unknown.
With the mayor’s office and the City Council setting no immediate deadline for completing their analysis of The Leonardo’s new phased development proposal, the museum teeters on the brink of either extinction or re-birth. Everything, it seems, depends on the fate of the bond money.
“The question whether The Leonardo brand is so despoiled it can’t be resurrected,” Seed says, has yet to be answered. It’s a question of credibility, she says. While The Leonardo management are “good people,” for the project to continue, “you have to wonder if they are the right people.”