Robert Gehrke: The Leonardo and Salt Lake City have a toxic relationship

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s office served The Leonardo, a nonprofit science and technology museum on Library Square, a formal notice of default last month — marking an uncertain future for an organization that has had a rocky financial past.

Lisa Davis was at a colleague’s birthday party a few months ago, doing the regular cocktail chitchat when she ran into a guy she hadn’t met before and asked what he did. Kristian is the mayor’s arts and culture adviser.

“He said my first priority is to get The Leonardo out of that building,” Davis recalls.

That’s when things got awkward.

Davis chairs the board for The Leonardo, the science museum located near the city library and “that building” was the museum’s home since it opened eight years ago.

When she told Kristian Anderson who she was and what she did, she says “his face went white and he backtracked and said, ‘We want to be helpful to the Leonardo. We want to bring in other people to help you.’”

Davis got his number and followed up. But didn’t hear back until he delivered a proposed amendment to The Leonardo’s lease, which would give the city the ability to take any or all of The Leonardo’s space with 30 days notice.

For Davis it would make it impossible to schedule exhibits, book the space for events, even commit to school field trips. The next time she heard from the city, she said, was last month, when The Leonardo received a notice of default, essentially the first step toward eviction.

Anderson told me that’s not how he remembers things and, as a former museum director, “to think I am out trying to wreck an institution for the sake of doing it is insulting.”

“It’s making me sick to my stomach,” he said.

Anderson said his real mission is to make sure The Leonardo is viable. After years of the museum being unable to pay the utility bills, the best shot for that is to bring in other organizations to share the space and the burden — a concept Davis said the museum is open to, within reason.

Look. I’m not going to say who’s right and who’s wrong. But after the back-and-forth between The Leonardo and the city that has played out for months internally spilled out into the public this week, this much is clear: The relationship between the museum and the city is toxic. And it didn’t get there overnight and both sides shoulder some blame.

The Leonardo has not been an ideal tenant. It got a screaming deal from the city when it opened — paying $1 a month in rent, plus taking on the maintenance and utilities — and then failed to follow through.

The city set up a payment plan that the museum fell behind on, making just two $1,000 payments over about 18 months, emails show. When the city slapped The Leonardo with the default notice, it said the museum owed more than $600,000.

Likewise, the city has not been an ideal landlord. From the day that The Leonardo opened in 2011, the roof has leaked, a steady stream of water on stormy days. The water damaged one sculpture to the point that it will cost an estimated $900,000 to repair — if it can be salvaged.

The city appropriated funding to repair the roof back in 2016. Work on the building started in February and, as of today, it is still not complete.

That’s just one of the list of issues where, according to The Leonardo, the city has been a derelict landlord, including failing to fix broken windows and dilapidated escalators. The city contends the escalators and sculpture are The Leonardo’s responsibility.

Generally speaking, we can probably all agree that a tenant should pay its bills and, if it doesn’t, shouldn’t be surprised at the consequences, especially when the landlord has a duty to look out for taxpayer dollars.

Davis said, notwithstanding The Leonardo’s past struggles, the museum is now in the black, is projecting a balanced budget, and has tried to work out a new repayment deal with the city. The city has been unresponsive to the point that it didn’t even cash The Leonardo’s checks.

I also suspect that we can agree that a landlord should ensure the properties they lease are habitable. And, especially when the tenant is a nonprofit museum, be willing — within reason — to work out an arrangement if the tenant falls behind.

Both of those concepts have fallen by the wayside. It’s personal.

“The bottom line is they don’t want us here and they’ve been working actively to that end,” Davis said.

Indeed, the current relationship appears to be irreparably broken. But here’s the thing: the decision on the fate of The Leonardo won’t rest with the current administration. Come January, the city will have a new mayor in Erin Mendenhall.

“The new administration gives us an incredible opportunity for a fresh start,” Davis said. “That is our absolute hope.”

A spokeswoman for Mendenhall said the mayor-elect supports Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s action. So it’s possible that the city’s approach won’t change. Maybe The Leonardo no longer serves a purpose or has just exhausted whatever goodwill it once had.

It will be up to Mendenhall to decide if the science museum is a good idea that had a rough start, or if it’s nothing but a squatter making promises it can’t deliver.

Robert Gehrke