Fight or Flight | News | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Fight or Flight 

The Leonardo emerges from rocky financial start, prepares for next phase.

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  • DW Harris

On its website, The Leonardo Museum in Library Square describes itself as a "community-powered" nonprofit.

Meaning this: The museum, inside a five-floor building with 30,000 square-feet of exhibit space, is driven to inspire and educate the people who visit.

But a more literal reading of the phrase "community-powered" applies, too, because taxpayers are paying the museum's power bill—and have been for at least two years. A records request to the city showed that The Leonardo has amassed almost $200,000 in unpaid invoices for electricity, gas, boiler-plant and water costs.

The building is city-owned, and leased to the museum for $1 per month, a contract Salt Lake City spokesman Matthew Rojas says is unique.

The Leonardo is on the hook for its utilities, but stopped paying them around August 2015. Monthly bills range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. The most expensive line item is from June 2016 when the electricity alone topped $6,800. Consistently, the monthly invoices have been left unpaid and total $197,637.79 through August this year, when the document was compiled.

So why the delinquency?

Katie Smith, director of development, says the unpaid utility invoices are one item in a complicated lease renegotiation between the city and the museum that is moving slowly, yet amicably.

"We're just trying to figure out in the end if it gets folded into the lease negotiation [or] if it gets forgiven—that's an option," she says. "If we decide that it's our responsibility, then we'll pay those and get caught up."

The Leonardo opened in 2011. Smith likens the museum's early years to that of a startup company—beginnings marked with uncertainty amid enthusiasm. The unpaid utility invoices represent rocky financial times, she says.

"We opened in the red, actually," she continues. Construction costs compounded with other exigent fixes—the escalators have had problems, for example—required The Leonardo to scrape the bottom of its reserves.

The first five years, Smith explains, were foundational. The museum invested in traveling exhibits like Body Worlds and Mummies that are expensive but showcased the niche the museum occupies in the community, while reinforcing its mission statement. Like its namesake, Leonardo da Vinci, the museum's goal is to fuse science, technology and art experiences while inspiring creativity and innovation.

"There were years when it was lean, especially when you add depreciation in," Smith says of a time she describes as "will we or won't we make it?"

But that was then. The first quarter of the museum's annual $3.5 million budget currently is on track, she says. "We understand what our expenses and revenues look like."

About 1.2 million visitors have come through its doors since opening, and "earned revenue"—which includes tickets, memberships, catering, retail and bistro sales—accounts for around 40 to 60 percent of the overall budget, she says.

With six years' worth of data, The Leonardo and the city decided to revisit the lease agreement, which is for 20 years with options for 10-year extensions. Hashing out a new accord has taken longer than expected, Smith says, but it comes at a time when The Leonardo is pushing ahead.

Now that the museum has turned the corner and made it through precarious financial beginnings, it's looking to enter a new phase.

The in-house exhibit Flight has become a cornerstone. This winter, the museum will debut Alive, another three- to five-year exhibit, which will convey "the spirit of what it means to be alive," Smith says. "There's going to be some exploration into AI and where does that go [and] some virtual reality simulations, but we really want to capture the wonder of life."

In another area, The Leonardo aims to establish a "makerspace" complete with a CNC (computer numeric control) machine, photography lab and other DIY nooks where users can nourish their innovative ideas.

The museum would like to jazz up its exterior as a way of projecting what's going on inside the building. Still in the planning stages, ideas include a glass entry point, striping the wall in neon lights, spelling out the name in giant, climbable letters or illuminating the sides with digital screens.

"But it takes a lot of money to do a cool treatment on the outside," Smith says. Therein lies the challenge.

Any exterior revamp is too early in the planning stages to pin down a dollar amount. But Smith envisions it would be paid for—as many cultural institutions are—with a mixture of public and private funding. "Anything would be paired with private funding from foundations, individual donors, corporate sponsors plus public funding from some sort, whether it's state, city or county. It would be a mixture of those," she says.

Securing public money can be competitive.

Salt Lake County Zoo, Arts and Parks (ZAP) Director Kirsten Darrington says The Leonardo has applied for Tier I ZAP funding, but so far hasn't been approved. Tier I ZAP funding is limited to 22 entities that must reapply each year. So if a new museum or garden is granted Tier I funding, that means one from the previous year will be dropped.

The funding is for nonprofits that operate in the county and are large enough to handle the influx of funds. In addition, the money is meant to go to entities that provide cultural or educational experiences.

"We want to see that they have a clearly botanical or cultural or artistic purpose and that they are providing access to Salt Lake County residents," Darrington says. "That is really at the heart of what we want to do with ZAP funds. We want to see these organizations providing access to these."

The Leonardo is hopeful that it will be a future recipient.

"When we get funded, someone else will then go back to Tier II," Smith says. "It's a long process because there's implications for the community."

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