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A Cash Cow Named Sue

Attendance may be down at the Field Museum, but business is booming in the gift shop.

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It's curtains for Marshall Field's--and a pox on Macy's for that--but the other Field in town is doing rip-roaring business in Hugg-A-Planet pillows and Balinese bat kites. Financial statements that went to the Field Museum's board this month show that revenue from its business enterprises--largely retail--jumped 36 percent to more than $11 million in 2004. Laura Sadler, who oversees the museum's businesses, including the stores and a new licensing program, studied the fashion merchandising branch of anthropology and got her training at the Limited, I. Magnin, and the May Company. She's the one to blame for the large commercial appendage attached to any special exhibit worth mentioning at the Field--a maze of T-shirts and commemorative toys that visitors have to navigate on their way out. Under her leadership the museum's exit shops have sold everything from a $4 Sue Skull Snapper toy to a $42,000 pearl necklace.

The museum, home to a mind-boggling 23 million specimens, is a dinosaur itself: 112 years old and coming off some tough times. Construction at Soldier Field eliminated its parking temporarily (and permanently on game days) at the same time the stock market took a dive. Attendance, which hit nearly 2.4 million in 2000, when the museum hosted the Dead Sea Scrolls and opened its Sue exhibit, began to fall, leveling off at about 1.3 million in each of the last two years. Net assets last year rose 10 percent, thanks in part to a "rebalancing" of investments that includes a diversity of hedge funds. But corporate, foundation, and government funding are all harder to come by these days. As a result the Field's been trimming programs and staff: it had more than 700 full-time employees in 2000 and is down by about 100 today. CFO Jim Croft says that's been accomplished by attrition and by eliminating jobs supported by special funding when the funding ran out. The museum's "doing well in light of the challenging not-for-profit marketplace," he says, with revenues up almost $8 million in 2004. But it hasn't yet raised the money to pay for improvements, including the huge new underground repository it just opened (a capital campaign with a goal of $176 million is pending), and a midyear belt tightening this summer reduced the $61 million budget for 2005 by 1.5 percent. Going forward, Croft says, earned income from activities like retail sales will be increasingly important.

Sadler joined the Field in '97 after a ten-year stint as director of retail operations at the Lincoln Park Zoo. "When I started, business enterprises were contributing about 5 percent of the museum's operating revenue," she says. "That wasn't enough." Her first major project was an assessment of the museum's retail operations that resulted in moving the main gift shop just inside the busiest entrance. That was followed by the launch of a satellite store with a distinctive mascot--a 40-foot brachiosaurus skeleton--at O'Hare in 2000. (The O'Hare outpost now accounts for 8 to 10 percent of the museum's retail revenue, which hit $6.2 million last year.) Exhibits like "Chocolate" and "Pearls," with their obvious commercial potential and sponsors (a subject of consternation for museum purists), were a bonanza. Sadler took experts from the museum staff to a gem and jewelry trade show to put together a line of products sold in an exit shop during the "Pearls" exhibit, some under the label "Curator's Choice." The doodads ranged in price from an $8 bracelet to the $42,000 necklace, with items in the $800 to $2,000 range that Sadler says attracted plenty of interest. "That store generated about $1.7 million in a six-month period. It also taught me not to get hung up on price point." By 2004, when the museum hosted "Treasures of the Forbidden City," the exit shop was carrying specially commissioned Asian furniture and the museum's business enterprises were contributing more than 18 percent of the museum's operating revenue.

About a third of Sadler's business is in special events, which now number 200 or so a year. An intimate little gathering for up to 2,500 people in Stanley Field Hall begins with a $9,000 space rental; the museum also sells all the liquor used at the party and takes a commission from its half-dozen approved caterers. Group tours, which can be arranged for as few as 15 people, account for an additional 10 percent; they were goosed this year by the elegant Jackie Kennedy exhibit. But the fastest growing department in Sadler's collection is product licensing to manufacturers who pay to spin off an item or pattern from the museum's collection. Though the Art Institute has been actively licensing since the 80s, the Field just began looking closely at it a couple of years ago, after gallery owner Joel Oppenheimer approached it about doing limited-edition Audubon prints from its collection. We'll soon be seeing products like Brunschwig & Fils wallpaper and fabric based on the Field's patterns, but the hottest licensing property in its stable is Sue, the world's largest and most complete T. rex, acquired for $8 million in 1997. Safari Ltd. is producing Sue products including lunch boxes, backpacks, umbrellas, playing cards, and stickers, with the museum collecting royalties of 3 to 12 percent on the wholesale price. In Japan, where a cast of the iconic dino is currently touring, 35 specially created Sue products are on the market, including a comic book. The most popular items, two molded figurines, have sold 35,000 pieces in the last six months. The Field also helped develop (and will collect royalties on) 50 products that are being sold in conjunction with the new King Tut exhibit opening here in May; get ready for coffinette mugs and lapel pins. Sadler says licensing is "a way to extend our message," just as the retail shops are "a way to extend the experience of the exhibition." That Sue Plush you take home today could be tomorrow's artifact.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.

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