The Leonardo 

Does the $25M museum deliver?

click to enlarge AUSTEN DIAMOND

The Leonardo’s lab manager, artist Jann Haworth, sets on the table a weighty acorn that she found in the gutter. “It’s so symbolic,” she says. “Everything is in there. If you plant it, you’re going to have to take care of it. It’s just starting. Anything could kill it.”

She’s referring metaphorically to the nonprofit science, technology and art museum on Library Square in downtown Salt Lake City that opened its doors Oct. 8. That opening came after a more than 10-year troubled gestation, from putting a roof over the head of three unrelated organizations to the birth of the “new, dangerous and inventive” place of “thinking and creativity” that Haworth is so proud of now. But what exactly has Salt Lake City gotten for the $25-million-plus sticker price?

One thing it hasn’t gotten is free access. The Leonardo costs $14 for adults, $10 for children, a far cry from being free, as it was once touted. What it does have is fabricated exhibits valued at $1.8 million. Executive Director Peter Giles, however, says the $1.8 million represents direct costs only. “If you factor in the staff and exhibit-consultant time, it is significantly more than that,” adds spokeswoman Lisa Davis. It is a lot more—adding up the past nine years of the Leonardo’s expenses itemized in tax returns reveals that $10.4 million has been spent.

After all the years of debate—of support, then criticism, then support again from the mayor’s office, and the millions paid to consultants and staff—walk around the museum and it’s the gleaming-eyed passion of Haworth and other employees on the floor that inevitably makes the most memorable impact.

Multidisciplinary artist Amy Caron’s yet-to-be completed sculptural tribute to algae sounds a certain half-finished note, but it’s arguably the neighboring lab that Haworth manages—where resident artists hold court and help pre-teens and teenagers express themselves creatively—that evokes the museum’s greatest potential: as a meeting place for passionate minds and talented artists, scientists and thinkers.
In the face of what Giles describes as “a lousy economy,” he argues the Leonardo has done “an incredible job, given the headwind we’ve had to work against.”

That headwind led to doubters among city officials. Indeed, Salt Lake City Council’s Deputy Director Jennifer Bruno, in a July 2011 briefing memorandum to the city council, advised caution with regard to a $600,000 loan request the museum made this summer. She noted that it would be in the red to a tune of $1.1 million in July 2012.

Its feathers ruffled, the Leonardo pointed out that if multiyear pledges and its cash reserves were thrown in—a financial version of everything but the kitchen sink—then it would have enough cash—$152,566—to make it to the following year in the black. On the Leonardo’s current burn rate of expenses of over $200,000 a month, that amounts to three weeks.

Those figures are predicated on financial ambitions—and appetites—that arguably are daunting. The Leonardo forecasts $4.1 million in expenses for its first year, with $3.2 million in projected earnings. That income figure breaks down to $1.4 million from fundraising and a hopeful $1.6 million in ticket, membership and other sales.

The Leonardo has always had a certain way with numbers. In its first years, cost estimates mushroomed from $20.2 million to $50.8 million by 2008. After internal turmoil—including a mysterious e-mail by a “Mr. Leo” sent out to media and the Salt Lake City Council lambasting then-executive-director Mary Tull—Tull and her deputy Philip Wyffels left, the former replaced by Giles.

In October 2009, Giles announced a scaled-down plan to open the museum, dropping costs to just over $25 million. That was comprised of $10 million in bond money for the construction, $10 million of matched funds raised by the Leonardo to pay for exhibits and $5.3 million in starting funds it promised to raise for an April 2011 opening. That opening was postponed till October because of problems the city had with its contractor, Ascent Construction, completing the project on time.

When the museum, blaming the city for a six-month delay in much-needed ticket revenue, asked the council for a $600,000 loan to keep it afloat until the opening, Salt Lake City Council chair Jill Remington-Love asked in a July 19, 2011, council working session if the museum had met its fundraising targets. A staffer replied haltingly, “I believe so.” However, according to the Leonardo’s own documentation provided to the council in May 2011, the Leonardo had raised only $3.5 million by that time. Nevertheless, the Leonardo got the loan, raising its annual debt service to $195,360.

Giles dismisses attempts to question the Leonardo’s financial stability and viability. He says the $5.3 million was “our goal. We were doing what was necessary to provide the experience that’s here.” As he descends down to the parking garage after a 20-minute interview that shed little light on the museum’s finances, he says, rather than the numbers, “the story” is “what we are doing for visitors. The real story is talking about the Leonardo.”

But for skeptics, the real story is whether the Leonardo can continue walking the financial tightrope it has managed to inch along so far. This summer, for instance, it had committed to raising over $500,000 between July and October. Giles wouldn’t discuss specifics, other than to say, “fundraising was going well,” and numerous sponsors had come forward. Then there’s the ticket-sale forecast of $220,000 for its first month alone. Again, he declined to comment on the first weeks. Instead, he suggested coming back in a year’s time to inquire as to how ticket sales and fundraising efforts had gone.

Haworth is inspired by the potential of the museum. When asked if the Leonardo will hit its projected 650 visitors a day, she says candidly, “It won’t for a while. We have to be realistic. It’s a tough month to open. But it will average out OK.”

A mid-October visit, during the Utah Education Association weekend—when  K-12 children have a four-day break from school—saw numerous families milling around exhibits. The following Thursday evening, an hour before closing, the museum was almost empty but for a handful of visitors and staffers manning the exhibits. Several staffers said weekdays had been slow.

All this leads to more head-scratching when you consider the $600,000 loan was supposedly for ramp-up costs “including staffing, advertising, consultants and supplies” according to the council transmittal. But the advertising budget for the grand opening of the Leonardo was just $50,000, according to a frustrated Haworth.

She isn’t daunted, though. “I expect it to feel precarious,” she says. “Anything original, radical, different is bloody going to be precarious. We’re inventing something, a squally little creature.” Much of that “creature”  revolves around “hands-on, interface, making stuff,” Haworth says, whether animating a short film, trying out a prosthetic limb, or having your spit tested for genetic markers.

Haworth says it’s not about the numbers. While the bottom line “can kill us or cure us, it’s absolutely not the measure of this place.” She continues, “Building this baby hasn’t been easy, but it’s been worth every damned minute of it. If the toddler can get to walk, it can be something quite spectacular.”

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