August 1, 2011

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Work of Art

The Leonardo Aims to be Much More than a Musty Museum

Melanie Johnson

August 1, 2011

Innovation is not an abstract concept at The Leonardo. This is a place dedicated to making it a way of life for Utahns.

The Leonardo opens its doors to the public this fall and will do so with a singular mission: to become a hub for creativity and forward thinking in the realms of science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.

The leaders here are determined that this center will be more than another downtown Salt Lake City museum. Its offerings will include a robust schedule of panel discussions, workshops, educational seminars and classes, in-gallery talks, film series, dance and theater performances, to name a few. In essence, it will be a place that engages Utahns by sparking an interest in new ways of learning about the world.

“It gets the message out very clearly that innovation is important to Utah, innovation is happening in Utah and the whole culture of that is something The Leonardo can do uniquely,” says Peter Giles, executive director of The Leonardo.

Visitors will have the opportunity to rub shoulders with real scientists, artists and engineers; exhibits will be focused on seeing these experts in action and showing concepts and ideas that will inspire children and adults alike to further pursue these disciplines.

“A lot of the science centers make three-dimensional versions of textbooks that are engaging and interesting, but they are still fact based,” says Alexandra Hesse, associate director of The Leonardo. “Where we come in and where we connect to business is more on the inspiration side and eye-opening side.”

Hesse sees The Leonardo serving as a public platform for the value of growing and nourishing innovative thinkers. To this end, it is partnering with the University of Utah, Brigham Young University and Utah State University to foster a synergy between higher education, technology leaders and the local business community. The universities have embraced the idea of partnering with The Leonardo because it gives them a chance to expose students to ideas and experiences not available through traditional learning channels.

The Leonardo’s mission has drawn plenty of believers from the local business community as well.

Jim Sorenson, trustee for the Sorenson Legacy Foundation, sees great potential in what The Leonardo can accomplish when its doors are opened. That is one reason why the Sorenson Legacy Foundation helped fund the James L. Sorenson Family Science Gallery at the museum.

Sorenson says this center will become a tremendous cultural asset for Utah. “It really focuses on what makes our state and this region unique,” he says. “It focuses on the achievements in science and art and the business community. It will attract and bring in unique exhibits and opportunities for learning.”

Other major donors involved in getting The Leonardo off the ground include the Micron Technology Foundation, O.C. Tanner, and the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation. Several other donors—including notables such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Foundation, EnergySolutions Foundation, L-3 Communications, The Rocky Mountain NASA Space Grant Consortium and Zions Bank—have also invested in The Leonardo.

These private funds helped stave off the potential loss of a $10.2 million bond approved by voters in 2003. Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker threatened to take away the bond money unless The Leonardo scaled back costs associated with getting the museum off the ground. Leaders at The Leonardo met that directive successfully.

With funds in place, The Leonardo’s permanent home has finally taken shape. The former Salt Lake City library building has undergone a massive physical transformation. Construction crews stripped down the building and removed old lighting fixtures, carpeting and asbestos. An old stairway was removed in one part of the building and holes were bored through each level of the facility to insert heavy beams as part of a seismic upgrade.

Another flurry of activity has taken place in recent months. Volunteers and employees at The Leonardo began officially moving into their new home in the spring and installing a variety of exhibits to prepare for the grand opening.

Among the headlining exhibits will be Hylozoic Ground, a work by renowned sculptor Philip Beesley. Beesley’s sculpture uses nano technology and responds to human presence. A team of 30 volunteers spent the summer assembling his piece for display.

Exhibits such as Hylozoic Ground offer an example of what The Leonardo aims to bring to Utah to build upon what Giles refers to as the state’s “ecological habitat.” His hope is that it turns the center into a repeat destination for all ages.

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