Sunday, April 6, 2003

McDonald pursued exhibits that 'wow'

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

On March 11, Douglass McDonald is swinging a sledgehammer with Vice Mayor Alicia Reece at his side. They are officially breaking through the walls for the $2 million exhibit space expansion at Cincinnati Museum Center.

He looks fit - he hiked 62 miles in the mountains of New Mexico with his 15-year-old son Tim last summer - and he is relaxed, ribbing staff members with a sense of humor that borders on sarcastic. (David Letterman is his favorite comedian, he says.)

A 5,000 square-foot exhibit space, downstairs and across from the Children's Museum, will connect to a 10,000 square-foot exhibit hall behind it - slated for the blockbuster Baseball as America and St. Peter and the Vatican exhibits. (A $1.6 million allocation from the state of Ohio is helping to fund this and a planned satellite museum in Blue Ash.)

Blockbuster exhibits are part of McDonald's strategy. Shortly after he arrived, McDonald nabbed the Titanic: The Artifact Exhibit; its success briefly lifted the Museum Center out of red ink.

For him, it was logical. But getting these major shows is tantamount to bidding for the Olympics.

"You see something you think is important for the community and the institution, and you focus on it and pursue it - aggressively, diplomatically, every way I could," he says, with a steely glint in his eyes. "You have to convince the people who are making decisions for those corporations that this is where they want to be."

When he got wind of the Baseball exhibit, he knew the timing was ideal for the opening of Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park. He worked hard to be on the front of the list of cities that would get the show - a competitive group that included New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

After that, he systematically and relentlessly went after the biggest prize he could get: St. Peter and the Vatican, a collection of stunning, rarely seen pieces that reflect 2,000 years of civilization. (Tickets will go on sale this summer.)

"This exhibit is far, far more vast than anything we've ever sent out, anywhere, any time," says Stacy F. King, CEO at Clear Channel Exhibitions in San Antonio, Texas, which is producing the tour. "Seventy percent of the objects have never been seen before by any of this generation of living people. They won't be seen afterwards - they'll go back again into secret vaults."

The competition was stiff - everybody wanted this show. McDonald mounted a national campaign to make Cincinnati a stop on the tour. (It's also going to Houston, Fort Lauderdale and San Diego.)

"He lobbied us," King says. "Then he had people calling us from all over the country saying, 'Please go to Cincinnati.' I'm sitting at my Clear Channel conference, and the head of all of TV in our division came up to me and said, 'We really want to talk to you about Cincinnati.'

"He was relentless. He was dogged. He wanted this show, and he worked hard. He didn't just come in and talk the talk; he walked the walk. He really believes in Cincinnati, and he's a good partner."

Blockbuster exhibits can cost from $2 million to $10 million - because of extra security, cameras, alarmed cases, special trucks, freight, insurance and special mounting. The exhibit re-creates a section of the Sistine Chapel, the Tomb of St. Peter and elements of the Constantine Basilica.

King won't reveal the cost of mounting the Vatican tour, except to say, "This is certainly more costly than anything I've ever toured, because these are precious objects. You could never replace them."

Now, she says, Cincinnati is on the radar screen for future major shows. "They're one of our top-tier partners. (McDonald) has raised the bar there, no question."

And there's no question it will be a much-needed boon for Cincinnati. The economic impact will be huge - up to $25 million in hotel rooms, meals and related activities. Conservative estimates project that 250,000 people - and very likely twice that - will see the exhibit.

Getting the Vatican show was "a hell of a coup," says Joseph P. Clayton of Sirius Satellite Radio in New York. "For a 100-mile circle, you're going to draw most anybody who is Catholic. How many people from Kentucky get to go to Rome? And now Rome is in your backyard. I have five kids, I'm Catholic, and I'll ... get to Cincinnati to see it."

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