Field Museum announces record-breaking donations

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The Field Museum of Natural History on Wednesday announced it has received $70 million in donations that will be used to strengthen the museum’s future and expand its research and exhibits. | Sun-Times file photo

The Field Museum of Natural History on Wednesday announced it has received $70 million in donations that will be used to strengthen the museum’s future and expand its research and exhibits.

The museum, which is no stranger to budget woes, hopes to raise $250 million by 2020, setting aside $100 million of that amount for its endowment.

The donations, the three largest in the museum’s history, will help support the continuation of the museum’s Early Elementary Science Partnership, new exhibitions and expanded global research programs. The science partnership gives teachers and principals the resources and training to strengthen science in early childhood classrooms through partnerships with local museums, such as The Field Museum.

The three largest donations were $20 million from the Grainger Foundation to create new science learning programs and support for research technologies; $10 million from Bill and Linda Gantz for the Gantz Family Collections Center to support research in museum labs; and $10 million from Connie and Dennis Keller for the Keller Science Action Center, part of its conservation program.

“We were pleasantly surprised by the progress we’re making on all fronts,” Field President Richard Lariviere said Wednesday.

Lariviere took the helm as president in 2012, announcing then the museum needed to make some big budget cuts because of its mounting debt.

In 2001, museum officials decided to time construction of their largest-ever expansion with Soldier Field’s renovation. Banking on increased attendance that never happened and overly optimistic fundraising projections, the museum spent $65 million to build the Collections Resource Center, the 186,000-square-foot underground storage facility that opened in 2005.

In 2012, the museum had $170 million in debt, in part, because of the sale of $90 million in bonds in 2002 to pay for the collections center and the east entrance. The rest of the debt was from bond sales between 1985 and 2000.

But Lariviere now says the museum’s debt is “under control.”

“It’s on a path that is both sustainable and will allow for growth over the long term,” Lariviere said. “We’re in pretty good shape.”

He said there are no plans to change museum staffing levels. The focus, however, continues to be on increasing revenue and attendance.

“We put in place a couple of years ago a plan that would make the museum sustainable, a growth pattern for the foreseeable future and part of that was cutting costs, part of it increasing revenue and part of it was to enhance the endowment,” Lariviere said.

Lariviere said the museum is ahead in attendance this year compared with 2014, and he expects warmer weather to help bring in crowds.

The museum will soon open the “Cyrus Tang Hall of China,” a permanent exhibit Lariviere calls the “most comprehensive examination of Chinese history and culture in any museum anywhere.” That exhibit opens June 24.

Next year, the museum will unveil an exhibit on Greek culture featuring a collection of more than 500 objects from 22 museums in Greece that have never before left that country.

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