Leonardo museum merges science, art to enhance Utah’s ‘culture of culture’

Published: Saturday, Jan. 25 2014 12:00 p.m. MST

Visitors explore "Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times" at The Leonardo in Salt Lake City in November 2013.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Editor's note: First in a series highlighting arts organizations around Utah.

What's in a name?

For The Leonardo, a museum located in downtown Salt Lake City, it's much more than a title. It all has to do with Leonardo da Vinci.

“I think da Vinci kind of embodies, really, this idea that we as humans are not compartmentalized ... our lives touch everything,” said Alexandra Hesse, executive director for The Leonardo. “He never, I don’t think, woke up and said, ‘Today I’ll be an artist; I’ll paint the Mona Lisa,’ or ‘Tomorrow I’ll be an engineer, and I’ll invent a war machine.' "

Even before the vision for what it would be was nailed down, the Salt Lake City museum, which first opened temporarily in 2005, adopted the working title of “The Leonardo.” The name was chosen in a meeting early in the museum’s development, said Lisa Davis, media and public relations director for The Leonardo.

“They understood that he wasn’t just an artist or just a scientist, but this coming together in his own mind and his own living, out of this just incredible way of being, created this level of creativity and this level of thinking and output,” Davis said.

Leonardo's legacy helps explain the museum's vision and mission.

“We have a mission to inspire creativity and innovation, to really get people to see the world and think and to be as innovative as Leonardo da Vinci, our namesake, was," Hesse said. "That’s why the name and the mission are kind of really perfect."

Rather than focus directly on either the arts or the sciences, The Leonardo presents them together and encourages visitors to merge them in their individual pursuits.

When it comes to inspiring innovation, Hesse said, “We do this by giving people real literacy and keys in what we call the STEAM area: science, technology, engineering, arts and math. It’s a twist on STEM. ... The 'arts,' really, is what turns just an acronym into something that’s a real engine.”

Realizing the vision

While museums traditionally begin with a clear concept and a blueprint for a building, The Leonardo began with a host of ideas and a repurposed space.

A multidisciplinary center had been under consideration by civic leaders for years, and when the new Salt Lake Main Library was being built, three art and science groups were selected to share the old, soon-to-be-vacant library building at 209 E. 500 South.

Over time, a single organization was born. In 2008, The Leonardo hosted “Body Worlds” before it even had a lease on the building. The experience of hosting that large traveling exhibit taught the staff many lessons, including how to organize volunteers and manage crowds. Another lesson of primary significance was the need for temporary walls within the museum to accommodate exhibits of all shapes and sizes.

A $10 million bond financed the renovation of the old library building between September 2009 and August 2011. Salt Lake City taxpayers agreed to increase their property taxes over a certain number of years to fund the renovation. As a private nonprofit, The Leonardo raised an additional $10 million from individuals, corporations and other donors to create exhibits and programs, hire staff and fund the museum's ongoing operations.

“There are a lot of people we would have to credit with being where we are right now,” Hesse said.

The Leonardo opened to the public on Oct. 8, 2011.

The Leonardo currently leases its building from the city and is funded by a variety of sources, such as ticket sales, event rentals, its cafe and fundraising. Additionally, the museum continues to apply for government grants on a “project-by-project basis,” Davis explained.

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