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When the Stars Aren't Enough

Like nervous museums everywhere, Adler's getting a makeover.

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Consulting firms are now the brains behind most museums--and the reason they're looking as homogenous as shopping malls. Last week's national meeting of the American Association of Museums at McCormick Place turned out to be a showcase for these firms as well as a window on some local organizations. Among them: the Adler Planetarium, which responded to the meeting's clearly desperate theme, "Why Museums Matter," by presenting its own identity crisis as a case study.

After 75 years as a sky dome with an attached museum of scientific artifacts, the Adler is about to reinvent itself. Its original mission of furthering science and helping the public understand the universe has been expanded to include becoming "the world's premier space science center." The new mission popped into focus a few years ago, after consultants convinced museum management they needed to humanize the Adler's content and (were the stars aligned?) astronaut James Lovell happened to walk through the door. Lovell became the museum's partner in the new permanent exhibit "Shoot for the Moon," which opened last fall. Using Lovell's personal story to illuminate space exploration, it's the first step in a plan that will see two-thirds of the public areas of the museum revamped over the next five or six years.

The Adler was built and donated to the city by Sears, Roebuck executive Max Adler. When it opened in 1930 it was the first planetarium in the Western Hemisphere. A new theater was added in 1999 (the building now houses two), and the following year the museum logged a record half million visitors. But the party was short-lived: president Paul Knappenberger told the AAM audience that after 9/11 both attendance and government funding took a dive. Attendance immediately dropped 30 percent, he said. (It's now back up to about 400,000). City funding, which had been $2.5 million annually, has fallen to $2 million (the museum's annual budget is $11 million). With the Adler's 75th anniversary on the horizon, Knappenberger said, it seemed like a good time to reassess.

Research on non-Adler visitors by the Leo Burnett Company (which worked pro bono) and Slover Linett Strategies, reported at the AAM meeting by Cheryl Slover-Linett, yielded this alarming tidbit: people said they "thought the work of astronomy was done." Focus groups brought into the museum found the name, Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, unappealing, the exhibits too scientific, and astronomy itself unengaging. There was also an awareness deficit: some tourists at the Field Museum didn't seem to know that the Adler was right next door. Slover-Linett concluded that the museum needed to be less rooted in the past. Faced with the mysteries of the universe and beyond, what the public wants, she said, is inspiration, personal connection, a memorable experience, and a view into the future.

That sounds like a recipe for the Adler Museum of Your Very Own Amazing and Extreme Space Adventure, but Knappenberger said museum officials took the message to heart: "Not everyone is as interested in astronomy as we are." And just as they were considering "transforming" the institution by focusing on space exploration, Lovell dropped in, not quite out of the blue. Local artists Omri Amrany and Julie Rotblatt-Amrany, who created the bronze statue of Michael Jordan at the United Center, wanted to do a similar likeness of Lovell; they wondered if the Adler would be interested. Lovell came in to the museum to talk about it, Knappenberger said, and they "hit it off." What Lovell wanted, over the long term, "was what we wanted--to inspire the next generation of explorers." Lovell wound up parking his collection of space-travel mementos in the Adler on long-term loan, and his story, including his having guided Apollo 13 back to earth after an explosion on board, presented as a lesson in not giving up, became the core of the museum's new exhibit. The Adler commissioned the statue, now installed in the museum lobby.

The exhibit itself was the work of another consultant, California's BRC Imagination Arts. BRC staffer Carmel Lewis Owens noted that 100 years ago museums were "about a building and a collection." Now young audiences are technologically savvy and people are inundated by choices. Museums are competing with every attraction from the multiplex to the theme park. And in Chicago especially, Owens said, there's a "fiercely competitive market." Her firm laid down five rules for the Adler: they needed to marry scholarship to showmanship, to present the visual before the verbal, to favor the emotional over the intellectual, to tell less and intrigue more, and to remember that story is primal. In the world according to BRC, "Facts teach; stories persuade."

Figuring out where to get the money for all this fell to fund-raising consultant Edith Falk of Campbell & Company. After surveying the Adler's trustees and taking a good look at its development staff, Falk advised the museum to build its board, get board members more involved, and develop personal relationships with potential major donors. Then she brought them down to earth. The staff had in mind a full bells-and-whistles revamp that would have required raising as much as $60 million. Falk told them this would probably be aiming too high. The fund-raising goal--yet to be announced--is likely to be in the $30 million range. Like the Gemini missions it portrays, "Shoot for the Moon" is the first step in a bigger plan. Knappenberger said that so far this year attendance is up 9 percent and revenues are up 23 percent--increases he attributes to the new exhibit. But this is a test case, he said. "Long term, the jury's still out."

Also at AAM . . .

a The brand-new Chicago Cultural Alliance introduced itself and its effort to pull diverse and independent ethnic organizations together for the greater good. Incorporated last fall after nearly three years of talks under the auspices of the Field Museum, the CCA has 20 members--all small community-based museums--and two big partners: the Chicago History Museum and the Field. The plan is to approach foundations together for funding and to share resources.

a Milwaukee Art Museum director David Gordon told a cautionary tale about private events. Last year his museum rented its famous Calatrava addition to Clear Channel for a $30 all-the-martinis-you-can-drink bash. Rising to the challenge, partygoers mounted statues, beat up on each other, and passed out, requiring ambulances and attracting the attention of police. Some of the art was the worse for wear, Gordon said, but in the end, "the damage to our reputation was much greater than the actual damage to the art." The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's coverage, under the headline "Martinifest Leaves Art Museum Shaken and Stirred," circled the globe and lives on forever in cyberspace. Gordon's story reminded another speaker of a now legendary New Year's Eve at the Field Museum, hosted by Dennis Rodman.

Looptopia: Success or Chaos?

Despite a dire shortage of portable johns and some scary overcrowding, the Chicago Loop Alliance is calling its Looptopia event a success because it drew more than twice the 100,000 people expected. Executive director Ty Tabing says that planning for the all-night party took two years and included a scouting trip to similar events in Europe. He says inconveniences like huge (and disappointed) lines at venues, a lack of late-night service on the el, and closed parks, buildings, and businesses that left Looptopians aimless and restless were merely the result of "capacity issues" after "a lot of people underestimated the event's drawing power." Tabing says Looptopia was intended to "rebrand this area" as an exciting place and that the date was chosen because hotels typically have empty rooms over Mother's Day weekend and the east Loop colleges would still be in session. He says organizers "wanted to engage the college students" but thinks if they do it again, "programming changes" might help tilt the wee-hours crowd toward a more balanced (read: older, more sober) demographic. He also thinks on the next round more businesses will be willing to stay open. Tabing says talks with the city, police, aldermen, and Alliance members will determine whether Looptopia will rise again: "We hope to have a decision about next year by mid-June."

Follow-Up

The mayor's recently proposed public art ordinance, which looks like it would take the public out of decision making on public art commissions, passed a committee hearing last Friday and is headed for likely passage in the City Council.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The "Shoot for the Moon" exhibit, including a new sculpture of James Lovell and the restored Gemini XII capsule/ Lovell photo by Bred Kramer Photograpy.

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