Field Museum to cut staff and research, refocus mission
Visitors on the steps of the Field Museum. (E. Jason Wambsgans, Chicago Tribune / April 13, 2012)
A comprehensive plan being drawn up by museum officials also could include changes to its hours of operation and the admission price for special exhibits. Staff reductions would be aimed at curators and scientists, according to museum officials.
"This may turn out to involve shrinking certain areas of inquiry," said John Rowe, chairman of the museum's board of trustees.
The Field Museum is both an international research institution and a vital cultural attraction for residents and tourists, drawing about 1.3 million visitors in 2011.
The natural history museum is home to Sue, the best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex in the world and a Chicago icon. In the bowels of the museum and all around the world, Field scientists also are discovering new plants and animals—more than 200 last year alone—along with preserving rain forests and studying artifacts.
That complex, dual mission comes at a price, however, one that has grown increasingly difficult to cover amid the persistent economic downturn.
The cost-cutting plan announced Tuesday comes on the heels of a previous effort that included reducing operating costs by $5 million, mostly through staff cuts. Those measures were not enough to shore up an institution that in the past decade has doubled its bond debt and run multiple operating deficits amid flat revenues and shrinking government subsidies.
In April, the museum tapped former University of Oregon president Richard Lariviere to become president and CEO. Lariviere, who started in October, said he wants to use the cost-cutting measures as an opportunity to refocus the museum's mission.
"If we wrestle these issues to the ground successfully, our future is rosy," he said during a meeting with the Tribune's editorial board.
The effort will take shape between now and July 1, with input from the museum's staff and board members, who signed off on the approach Monday. The goal is to trim another $5 million in costs and, during the next few years, add $100 million to the museum's endowment.
Although the price of special exhibits may rise slightly, Lariviere said the average museum patron should feel little or no change in the short term. Over the long run, he said, the museum will rely more on its own collection, use technology to enhance its interaction with visitors and be more selective in choosing special exhibits it brings in from the outside.
Though the recession contributed significantly to the museum's financial struggles, its debt load is also to blame. The museum has more $170 million in outstanding bonds, which is "very high" compared with the Field's endowment of about $300 million, Lariviere said.
Those bonds cost the Field more than $7 million a year out of an operating budget of less than $70 million. The debt — along with the operating losses that the museum has seen in the past decade — has drawn the attention of Moody's Investors Service, which described the museum's finances as "imbalanced."
The high debt load means the museum is not able to borrow any more money, which affects its ability to shore up operations.
"Our credit cards are maxed out," Lariviere said.
He also suggested that it's possible the museum would seek to restructure its debt, taking advantage of historically low interest rates.
Despite the financial pressures, Lariviere said the museum benefits from a healthy endowment fund and loyal donors.
He and other museum officials outlined the broad strokes of their plan to staff members Tuesday. Those include shrinking its museum's staff and overhauling its management structure, he said.
Currently the museum is organized much like a university, with researchers divided into academic departments. Under Lariviere's plan, that structure would be simplified into four broad areas: science and education, programming, fundraising and operations.
He views those changes as a chance to better leverage the Field's world-renowned scientific collections to shed light on some of the most pressing questions of the day. Among them: climate change.
"Those kinds of climatological shifts, those kinds of questions related to the environment, are going to be one of the sweet spots of the museum going forward," Lariviere said.
The idea is to monetize the museum's one-of-a-kind collection while relying less on bringing in exhibitions from other institutions, which costs more money. "We've got to find a way to get more bang out of the exhibits," Lariviere said.
Museum officials said they also expect to cut research staff as they seek to narrow the scope of its mission, in part because support staffing already has been reduced.
Those cuts have been so drastic that Lariviere said it's now more of a crisis when a housekeeping staffer calls in sick than when a curator does.
With operational staff cut to the bone, Rowe said, "We have to get (savings) out of focusing our scientific work, but not eliminating it, out of reprioritizing our exhibitions and making certain that we are doing the right thing."
However, he acknowledged, those moves are likely to stir controversy inside the museum. "Over the next five months, we've got to come up with a more descriptive, positive agenda."