Sunday, April 6, 2003

Saving the Museum Center

Director Douglass McDonald works tirelessly to get it back on track toward financial stability

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Douglas McDonald in the Museum Center's spectacular rotunda.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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Douglass W. McDonald is out stumping on a Friday morning at the African-American Chamber of Commerce in Walnut Hills.

President and CEO of Cincinnati Museum Center since 1999, McDonald, 49, sinks his tall, lean frame back in his chair, and cracks a smile through his salt-and-pepper beard.

"We are making an effort to go out in the community and tell our story," he tells his audience of three. "We have to find solutions. We need lots of partners."

Then he delivers his pitch: rapid-fire, practiced and sure - but not hardball. Although he's wearing a suit, tie and white shirt, he smiles often and looks relaxed. It's infectious.

Through a slick PowerPoint presentation, he details the history and mission of the Museum Center, an umbrella that includes the Museum of Natural History & Science, the Cincinnati History Museum and Historical Society Library, the Cinergy Children's Museum and Omnimax Theater.

The complex is housed in Union Terminal, an architectural jewel with the largest free-standing half-dome in the Western Hemisphere. With a million annual visitors, it's the most visited museum complex in Ohio. Its economic impact on the area is just behind the Reds and Bengals: $75.6 million a year, he tells them.

Then he lays the predicament on the table, unflinching.

"But it costs $750,000 a year just to keep the lights on," he says.

The Museum Center is running out of money.

Is McDonald a salesman? Politician? Evangelist? Savior?

Board members hope he's all of the above. Because, behind the most blockbuster show this town has ever seen (St. Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes, coming in December), behind the hoards of school children at the museums on any given weekday, and behind the families flocking to the Children's Museum - Cincinnati Museum Center is in trouble.

McDonald, folks say, is the one man who could turn it around.

McDonald next to a cannon in the current Civil War exhibit.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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The Museum Center annually hosts 1.4 million visitors, 145,000 school children and more than 700 community events. It has been the site of:
• The Day of Remembrance Ceremony on Sept. 11, a community tribute for the victims and heroes of 9-11.
• President Bush's national address, October 2002.
- Source: Museum Center at Union Terminal
More than 70 percent of the center's revenue comes from earned income - largely ticket sales - income that has plummeted since 9-11. The Museum Center receives little public support - 82 percent of state historical grant money went to Cleveland institutions this year. Unlike Cincinnati Zoo, the Museum Center has no tax levy. The city and county give little. And the center benefits from neither the Fine Arts Fund nor Ohio Arts Council.

"What we need from you is advocates, the opportunity to bring this to people who have influence, and to talk to elected officials," he says to his small audience. "If we don't come up with a solution, we're putting the institution at risk."

He is cool, efficient, persuasive.

"I thought, am I at a United Way presentation? Please give," laughs an impressed De Asa Brown, president of the Chamber of Commerce.

What she didn't hear in the PowerPoint was this:

• When he arrived in 1999, the Museum Center posted a $2.3 million operating deficit that July. Since it formed in 1990, the center has had a deficit of more than $1 million per year, every year except one. This year, the projected deficit approaches $2 million.

• Since the April 2001 riots, the Museum Center has lost $1.5 million in projected revenue because people are not coming to the Omnimax Theater.

• The endowment has shrunk from $14 million to $9 million, due to paying off deficits and the downturn in the stock market.

McDonald's deadline to find a source of sustained revenue: two years. Or the Museum Center could go the way of the woolly mammoth.

"He's a believer in the city," says lobbyist Richard A. Weiland. "I don't think (local politicians) have any realization what it would be not to have the Museum Center. It's no different than if baseball wasn't here. It would be a big void. If the Museum Center wasn't here, we wouldn't have a world-class city."

Growing up on the farm

McDonald never dreamed he would one day head a major cultural institution.

"Cleaning out hog pens was a great motivation to get your college education," says the CEO, who grew up on a pig farm in Iowa.

• Birth date: July 22, 1953
• Education: B.A. in human relations (1974), William Penn University, Oskaloosa, Iowa; graduate work at Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis
• Occupation: President and CEO, Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal
• Current home: Anderson Township
• Family: Married to Kay; one son, Tim, 15
• People would be surprised to know: "I'm a Quaker minister."
• Does he still give sermons? "No, but my son thinks I still do it every day."
• How he gets it done: "I don't require much sleep, which is a benefit for my poor staff, who get e-mails from me at 2 a.m."
• For fun: I love the outdoors. I enjoy golf, but I'm not good at golf. I'm active in Boy Scouts (with son Tim) ... I've canoed the boundary waters between Minnesota and Canada.
• Favorite TV show: "Law and Order and NYPD Blue. I don't like doctor shows."
"I grew up on a farm outside a little town called Clemons, Iowa, which has a post office with one employee. My dad always raised hogs. Yup, I can call pigs."

He married an Iowa farm girl, and his parents still live on the farm, where the family worked 700 acres - hogs, corn, beans and the occasional cow. The 4-H member showed hogs at state fairs, including once in Ohio.

"I enjoyed growing up on a farm - the machines, the plowing, the cultivation," he says. "You'd come home from school, go out to do your chores, and you did tasks alongside your father. You knew you were a meaningful part of contributing to getting a task done. Then you'd all go in for dinner together."

A beaming McDonald talks as he strolls through Union Terminal's massive rotunda, hands in pockets, just below his offices perched over still bustling railroad yards. The space is teeming with children in strollers and school groups eating lunch. They'll turn over the tables three times.

"For me, the most exciting part of the day is right here, when you look at all those kids and the great time they have," he says, stopping to ask a girl how she liked a film.

Living history

The rotunda of Union Terminal, a landmark since 1933, echoes with history. It was here that Cincinnatians saw their loved ones off to two great wars (World War II and Korea), and, if they were lucky, welcomed them home. On the fringe of downtown, the view from its front portal is stunning - a city panorama unlike any other, what must have been a wondrous sight to returning war heroes and weary travelers.

"This is a very emotional place. I've talked to people who actually can't come into the facility, because their last memory was watching somebody go off who never returned," McDonald says.

Growing up Quaker during the Vietnam era, he doesn't know whether he would have been a conscientious objector, had he been drafted.

"I would have really struggled with that," he says, noting the Quakers' pacifist stance. "I was very appreciative to have draft No. 286 in the lottery. It's one of those things you remember."

When he headed for college at William Penn University in Oskaloosa, Iowa, his plan was to work with youth through the church. By the time he went to graduate school in psychology and theology at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, he was serving as a pastoral minister in the Society of Friends Church.

"I'm still a recorded minister," he says. " I think your religious faith should shape your orientation toward people in society at large."

But while he was a minister, their community of Noblesville, Ind., grappled with the gambling issue - a horse track was going in. He led a grass-roots effort to beat a referendum, and it was defeated, with a 70 percent vote against the track.

He was asked, "Have you ever thought about getting involved in politics?"

He said no, but reconsidered, agreeing to give the church his salary if he was elected to city council. He spent 16 years in office, including terms as council president and chairman of the finance committee.

"We did some major downtown redevelopments, basically rebuilt the downtown, which improved the quality of life in Noblesville," he says. "It got people engaged in thinking that downtown had some charm and interest. ... We put grants in place that allowed summer theater, a summer concert series and things to take place in the city which we didn't have before.

"Everything I've learned through politics and government is helpful, and I have an appreciation and respect for elected officials."

Playing the numbers

It was the beginning of a career immersed in numbers, something that, although he had no training in it, came easy to McDonald. As a councilman, he sat on the board of Conner Prairie Museum, an open-air, living-history museum north of Indianapolis. But he was surprised when he got a call from then-president Polly Jontz Lennon to come on staff as business manager.

"I didn't really understand the accounting system and how that worked, but I was able to hide my ignorance, and learn on the job, basically," he says. "To me it was always a simple thing: We ought to be able to figure out what our expenses are, and what our income is. At the end of the day, it's about knowing that we have or have not made a profit, and that we have been able to balance our budget."

So began a track record of tight fiscal control and turning institutions around. The museum's budget was balanced for the first time in five years. He added events like Symphony on the Prairie, which is still well attended.

"The director used to say, 'You know what I like about a farm boy? Evidently, you don't think there's anything you can't do,' " he says. "That was probably the right analogy ... On a farm, you have to figure out how to make do with what you have."

"Doug was vital in the tremendous growth that we experienced. He was a wonderful right hand to me for 12 years," says Lennon, who retired in 1996. "It was a time of building; we built a new museum center. His first day on the job, he worked with the symphony to craft an agreement for Symphony on the Prairie. That's typical of Doug. He could jump in, he could understand, he could negotiate, and he was a driving force in our success."

Thirteen years later, he was again putting out fires at a museum in Rochester, N.Y., as CEO of Genesee Country Village & Museum.

"At these museums, you don't always find the best financial talent," says Joseph P. Clayton, now at Sirius Satellite Radio in New York. But Clayton, then CEO of Frontier Communications in Rochester, was persuaded to begin supporting the museum after he saw what McDonald was accomplishing.

"In terms of bringing in money, he knows his stuff. We were the phone company, and the community is our client base," he says. "He's always balanced the budget - but I think he's also an excellent marketer. He's the full package when it comes to CEO in nonprofit."

The full package is exactly what the Museum Center board needed when it came time to search for a successor to Richard Glover, an executive on loan from Procter & Gamble since 1995, who was retiring.

They needed someone with financial and political savvy - an evangelist who could lobby for public support - and not least, someone with museum experience. The search covered 12 months and 50 candidates.

"It was apparent to all of us that we needed to bring someone in who was a true CEO, someone who understood all aspects of running a multi-dimensional organization," says Ron Tysoe, board vice-chairman and vice-chairman of Federated Department Stores. "It's not simple. That was recognized from the get-go."

"The presidents of the museum prior to Doug did not have a museum background," says Buck Niehoff, chairman of the board, and a law partner with a downtown firm. "We needed somebody who wanted to build an organization. We had three museums that had come together in a whole new entity, and clearly we needed someone to help us with the ongoing financial problems."

Enter McDonald.

Can one person turn around an institution? It depends, says Len Alexander, of the Connecticut-based Management Consultants for the Arts Inc.

"If it's to get every level of the institution functioning in a way that it keeps on functioning, that's a true turnaround," he says. "If it's simply to impose your will on an organization and make it work, but the minute you leave, it falls apart again - in my book, that's not a turnaround."

McDonald could be the Museum Center's savior, says Jason Hall, spokesperson for the American Association of Museums in Washington. "We've seen national press stories about some of the things he's doing, and I wouldn't be surprised if he's the man."

April 2001 was a setback

No sooner had McDonald balanced the books after arriving - aided by the hugely popular Titanic exhibit - when the riots occurred in Over-the-Rhine in April 2001. Three months later, McDonald and his staff, with the Arts Consortium, mounted Civil Unrest in Cincinnati: Voices of Our Community, a display on the history of civil unrest in Cincinnati. It was the first artistic response to the disturbances by a major Cincinnati organization, and more than 10,000 visitors saw it.

"We were not out to make a statement, or to try and get in people's faces. It was carefully considered, thoughtful messages, that helped people move forward," McDonald says.

It took nerve. But it has helped give a sense of inclusion to the residents of Cincinnati's West End, home of the Museum Center.

"He has definitely connected with the voice of the West End," says Dale Mallory, a member of the West End Community Council. Before McDonald came, he says, "people just felt like the Museum Center wasn't here for us."

McDonald and his staff regularly attend Community Council meetings. At first, Mallory was skeptical. "I thought he had another agenda," he says. "But when they attended our meetings every month, I knew they were genuine."

'No stone unturned'

While McDonald is out beating the bushes, he's hoping for a return in his investment: public support. His strategy is "no stone unturned."

"We are asking corporations to increase their gifts; asking individuals to increase their contributions; we're looking at fund-raising for endowed positions; and we're working hard to look at public funding from city, county, state and federal sources," he says.

He believes the city needs a "cultural trust" - new revenue streams to support all cultural organizations. He's lobbying for all this in the bleakest economic climate of the last decade.

And, as he struggles to balance the Museum Center's budget, he's had to make some tough decisions, among them eliminating 15 staff positions. It hasn't been pretty. Staff morale, says Niehoff, is better this year than it was last.

"It's so hard to do, because you're talking about people," Niehoff says. "He was very aware of the human side of that. We're at a bare-bones operation right now."

McDonald's vision goes beyond the blockbuster exhibits.

"There are many things we can and will consider as additional offerings for our city," McDonald says. "We've been successful in every way except financially. We need to finish the success story with a stable funding stream. I think we can become a more powerful force for the reinvigoration of downtown and a source of pride for everybody in the community."

He walks back into the rotunda, and looks up at the murals. He is still awed every time he walks by them.

"You know, it has not worn off," he says. "When I first came here, looking at the job, I was just kind of mesmerized. I thought this was really amazing, and I still feel that way."


Related Stories:
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Museum Center timeline

1980s - The Cincinnati Museum of Natural History and Cincinnati Historical Society develop plans for a joint museum project. Union Terminal is their top choice as a location.

1986 - Hamilton County voters pass a $42 million bond levy for restoration of Union Terminal over a 10-year period. The State of Ohio and the City of Cincinnati contribute grants of $8 million and $3 million, respectively. In addition, 3000 individuals, corporations and foundations contribute nearly $23 million.

November 1990 - Union Terminal reopens with the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History, the Cincinnati Historical Society Museum and Library and the Robert D. Lindner Family Omnimax Theater.

January 1995 - The Cincinnati History Museum, Cincinnati History Society Library, Museum of Natural History & Science and the Robert D. Lindner Family Omnimax Theater merge operations to become Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal.

July 1997 - Children's Museum of Cincinnati merges with Cincinnati Museum Center.

October 1998 - Cinergy Children's Museum opens at Cincinnati Museum Center.

November 1999 - Cincinnati Museum Center welcomes its 10 millionth visitor. Douglass McDonald becomes president and CEO.

March 2003 - Cincinnati Museum Center celebrates the 70th anniversary of its home, Union Terminal

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