Will Field Museum president John W. McCarter use his business sense to make science fun–and profitable?
Dreams for the Field
The future may have arrived at the Field Museum. Late last year its board of directors surprised some in the clubby museum world by choosing a new leader outside the traditional avenues of academia and museums. The Field's new president and chief executive officer, John W. McCarter, was a senior vice president at Booz-Allen & Hamilton, the well-known corporate consulting firm, where he specialized in capital investment, acquisitions, and marketing. He'll replace the retiring Willard L. Boyd, who kept the Field solidly in the black for 15 years after serving as president of the University of Iowa for more than a decade.
Some believe McCarter's selection gives a clear indication of the board's long-term goals. "Boards increasingly are expecting most not-for-profit institutions to become more like businesses," says Janeanne Upp, associate director of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Field board members say McCarter was a logical choice, given the financial difficulties now faced by museums.
Over the last five years, annual attendance at the Field Museum has re-mained flat at about 1.2 million. The Field is still considered one of the great archives of natural history, with nearly one million square feet of exhibitions and a staff of 72 PhDs researching a range of scientific topics. But the museum can no longer attract visitors simply by selling itself as a great repository of knowledge. "Edu-tainment"
is the buzzword of the moment --museums need to find ways to both teach and amuse. "People have higher expectations and shorter attention spans nowadays," says board president Judy Block. "Museums have to learn to tell their stories in exciting ways without compromising scholarship."
When McCarter arrived last October, he was circumspect. "He was very low-key when he got here and spent time figuring out what makes the place work rather than forcing a new agenda on the museum," says John Flynn, head of the geology department. McCarter explains he was still a bit surprised to be there. "The call came out of the blue," he says, though he eventually "saw the logic" in the offer. "I came to the Field as a kid and have been familiar with the institution for a long time." McCarter has extensive experience with two other not-for-profit institutions, serving on the boards of the University of Chicago and public TV station WTTW. Currently, he chairs the U. of C.'s committee on biological sciences and health care. More important, McCarter brings to the Field a set of management principles honed from years of working in the profit-oriented world of business. Chief among those tenets, says McCarter, are focusing on what you do best, building consensus, and making sure the entire team understands the company's priorities.
McCarter recognizes the challenges facing the Field. "Museums are increasingly complex entities vying for people's time," he says. "And a visit here can be complicated. I think we have a real opportunity to underscore that the Field is a place to come to for learning and for fun." McCarter hopes the museum will soon benefit from its new grassy environs, which will link the Field with its sister institutions, the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium, saying, "There are a spectacular array of activities that can happen on that museum campus."
In the meantime, the Field is trying to entertain its visitors. For instance, in conjunction with the "Dinosaur Families" exhibit opening on May 24, it's inviting families to spend a night "Dozin' With the Dinos." Parents and kids can bring sleeping bags and spend the night; the museum will offer two natural science workshops, an evening snack, and a performance. The Field is also erecting a tent on the museum veranda, where visitors can participate in a simulated "dig" for dinosaur bones. The bottom line, McCarter says, is that the museum become "an attractive place to visit."
Will more business executives like McCarter wind up running Chicago museums? The Museum of Science and Industry is currently searching for a new leader, and some sources believe its board may also reach into the ranks of business. Yet Art Institute spokeswoman Eileen Harakal doubts corporate types will be running art museums anytime soon. "Art museums have always been viewed as requiring a more specialized kind of knowledge and experience." President James Wood came to the Art Institute with a long history at other art museums; so did MCA director Kevin Consey. But McCarter believes appointments like his will become more common. Northwestern University's Kellogg business school agrees. Its newsletter tacked this bit of advice at the end of a report on McCarter's appointment--"Kellogg students take note: your options are expanding."
Courting a New Director
Court Theatre is apparently searching for a new managing director to replace Sandy Karuschak. A national directory of job opportunities in the arts lists the Court's directorship in its April edition. Interested applicants are asked to send resumés to artistic director Charlie Newell. In recent years Court has been struggling to find a younger audience, and Newell has tried--with mixed results--to introduce new types of programming to balance its traditional emphasis on the classics. Neither Newell nor Karuschak returned phone calls regarding the search.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of John W. McCarter by Jon Randolph.