[Clash of the Liberals] Finally. It appears that a growing number of Salt Lake City policy makers are beginning to call out the emperor has no clothes! on the multi-million dollar mess that has become The Leonardo.
Earlier this month, Salt Lake City Councilman J.T. Martin expressed doubts that the project for a loosely defined science and humanities museum at Library Square would get the City Council's backing. From the start, The Leonardo has been built on oversize dreams and an exaggerated sense of self-importance. This led to repeated cost overruns and the collapse of expected donations--largely because The Leonardo's board and management staff could never quite define or explain what the museum was supposed to be or what it hoped to accomplish. City Weekly's Stephen Dark was all over last year, and was the first local reporter to nail all of the problems with getting the heavily taxpayer-subsidized museum off the ground.
Last weekend, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker finally jumped into the controversy. This is no small feat, and marks the most significant test yet of Becker's ability to stand up against the base that elected him last fall. Why? As Dark pointed out in his story, former Leonardo executive director Mary Tull (she recently left the post in the wake of growing controversy) is married to the Rev. Tom Goldsmith of Salt Lake's First Unitarian Church. Several of The Leonardo's financial backers--including liberal philanthropists Norman and Barbara Tanner (who coughed up $1 million)--are Unitarians or regular visitors to the church. Robert Newman, Dean of the University of Utah College of Humanities, has been a longtime supporter of the project.
Leonardo supporters make for a cozy group of Salt Lake City liberals and intellectuals--which also happened to make up the solid base behind Becker's election last fall. They gave him lots of money. They walked neighborhoods and knocked on doors for him. They proudly posted campaign signs for him in their xeriscaped yards.
Now--and wisely--Becker is acting like a mayor, questioning the strange expenditures of The Leonardo and projecting that even its board's latest plan to severely downscale the museum will not be enough to save the thing. Salt Lakers have put up with nearly a decade of fiddling around with notions for the best use of the old library. In 2003, city residents approved $10.2 million of their own money go toward rehabbing the building and putting The Leonardo in place. And still, there is nothing to show for it.
Rightly so, Becker is now wondering if there might be a better use for the space.
But the mayor surely isn't going to please those who brought him to the dance in the process.