News | Shake-up at the Leonardo: Body Worlds 3 a success, but museum barely clings to life. 

While the old library building in downtown Salt Lake City blazes with the energy of the highly successful Body Worlds 3 exhibition, across Library Square the offices of the Leonardo are shrouded in darkness. That darkness marks the Leonardo’s management team shifting offices to the third floor of the old library building. It also heralds the abrupt dissolution of a partnership that for some critics of the art-culture-science hybrid museum all but ran it to the brink of disaster.

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Museum media relations consultant Lisa Davies confirmed that several weeks ago Leonardo executive director Peter Giles moved from the Bay Area to take up residence in Salt Lake City. At the invitation of the Leo’s board, headed by chair Marshall Wright, Giles has gone from a part-time position appointment last August to full-time head of the beleaguered museum as of Nov. 3. Long time fund-raiser, director, and until recently the Leonardo’s media face, Mary Tull, has returned to where she started. After months of uncertainty over her future with the project, Tull, who was sidelined by Giles’ part-time position, is now herself a part-time fund-raising consultant to the organization. That was a position she first came on board with back in 2002.

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If Tull still has a tenuous relationship with the Leonardo, Philippe Wyffels, a former European business executive and one time Belgian waffle street-vendor Tull brought into run The Leonardo’s finances, does not. The Leonardo’s business and project manager was fired several weeks ago. His financial responsibilities have been split between Giles and one-time exhibitions development manager Alexandra Hesse. Under Giles, Hesse has been newly promoted to associate director.

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Hesse spearheaded the drive to bring the Body Worlds 3 exhibit to Salt Lake City, Davies said. With more than 100,000 visitors to the exhibition at its half-way stage—it ends early January—Hesse and her cohorts have arguably managed to salvage, at least for now, the Leonardo from the publicity surrounding concerns over smoke and mirrors tactics to hide questionable financial reporting and ineffective fund-raising. An August 2007 City Weekly cover feature raised questions about a mysterious $3 million guarantee included in the $10 million The Leonardo managers claimed to have raised back in 2005. This was required to trigger the release of a 2003 voter-approved bond of an additional $10 million. That money has yet to be released.

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 In the teeth of an ever-darkening recession, future fund-raising for a yet-to-open museum looks inevitably bleak, especially when the core idea of what that museum will be remains maddeningly difficult to define. All Giles will say about how much money has been raised this year is, “We’ve made some progress in that area.” Questions also linger over what kind of programming the museum will offer the public. Body Worlds 3, as Davies notes, is the biggest museum exhibition in the world. Quite what The Leonardo can follow up with after such a smash hit remains to be seen.  

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The departure of Wyffels and the sidelining of Tull mark the end of an undoubtedly significant period in the Leonardo’s controversial history. Giles, Davis says, has consolidated the finance, technology and administrative arms of the organization. He’s also been out meeting with donors recently “to explain the state of the project,” and the museum’s work with the City, following the late August joint-issuing of a memorandum of understanding. Perhaps during these meetings with the deep pockets of some of Utah’s better known philanthropists and corporate donors, Giles has also been trying to shore up relationships that might well have been damaged by so much uncertainty over the museum’s future.

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For now the Leonardo has earned itself a breathing space. In the late August memorandum the city agreed to hold off on issuing an invitation for proposals for the future of the old library building. As to that hoary old chestnut of when the Leonardo will officially open for business—if it ever does—Davies says no date has been tabled.

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