“They’re probably on eight lives out of nine.”
—A Salt Lake City council member, speaking about The Leonardo.
It was always a gamble, and it was always a jumble. The Leonardo, Salt Lake City’s attempt at capturing science and art in one building in the spirit of Leonardo da Vinci, has been like the helicopter da Vinci conceived centuries before human flight was invented: great idea, but it never really got off the ground.
The Tribune reported this week that The Leonardo could be as much as $3.5 million in debt, and it’s looking for more public and private funding. That would be throwing good money after bad.
That quote at the top is from former council member Carlton Christensen, and he said it a decade ago. That was before The Leonardo even opened.
The Leonardo’s first step actually had begun five years earlier, when Salt Lake City approved a $10.2 million bond in 2003 to remodel the old city library into a cultural center.
The Leonardo was born out of an amalgam of separate interests who wanted a science museum and a community arts center, and it struggled to gel. By the time Christensen made that statement in 2008, it had just replaced its management and dumped a failed plan to invest $26 million and name the center after the Sorensen family. Instead, they scaled back to an $11 million plan largely covered by city taxpayers.
The years since have been spotty at best. A few exhibits — notably the “Body World” show of dissected cadavers preserved in plastic — brought attention, but nothing was ever sustainable.
While selling itself as a bridge between art and science, it has never really succeeded at either. Between The Natural History Museum of Utah and the Clark Planetarium, the science museum space was already crowded with more mature players. On the art side, there was no demonstrated audience to warrant another museum in town. More often than not, The Leonardo fell short of budget each year.
The city has given The Leonardo the old main library building for $1 a year, and it has let it slide on its utility bills. But much of the debt is owed to the board members who let this happen. These are civic minded people who acted in the community’s interest, but they still let things go on too long. To look now for more public money is simply too much to ask. The long and twisted road only looks longer and twistier for The Leonardo.
To be sure, there isn’t an obvious use for the building. The city’s intent to maintain it as a cultural center still makes sense, if an economically viable use can be found. That should be the focus at this point.
The Leonardo has had its chance. The last words should come from da Vinci himself:
“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”