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Shedd slashing its staff; other museums pinched
The Shedd Aquarium announced Monday it would lay off 44 full-time employees--16 percent of its staff of 267--because of declining attendance, a months-long trend that worsened after the terrorist attacks on the East Coast.
"Shedd's leadership was concerned about financial trends before the events of Sept. 11 and had counted on a strong fall season to bolster the budget," said a news release issued by the aquarium Monday.
In the two weeks following the attacks, visitorship at the Shedd, the world's largest indoor aquarium, was only 65 percent of the same period last year.
The falloff in business was "the last straw" triggering layoffs, said a spokesman.
Though no other cultural institutions contacted by the Tribune said they are planning layoffs at this time, almost all are experiencing revenue and attendance drops due to the economy and the attacks in New York and Washington.
Shedd President Ted Beattie said his staff had been trying to economize early in the year through attrition and hiring freezes, non-essential project cutbacks and voluntary managerial paycuts.
"We did make several changes before getting to this point," said Beattie.
"As we make these decisions, animal care and guest safety were our top priorities, and we will not compromise either of these."
He did not say which departments would be most affected, but employees reporting rumored layoffs last week said they would be in the visitor services, education and design departments.
For all museums, September is almost always the slowest attendance month.
Summer tourism decreases dramatically during September and school field trips are not yet in full swing.
The terrorist attacks sank the city's museum attendance even lower this year. Some museum officials worry that residual public fears of flying and of visiting busy public buildings may depress attendance for some time.
"Fifty percent of our business comes from outside the Chicago area," said Eileen Harakal, an Art Institute spokeswoman, "so if the hotels aren't full in the city, we will feel it."
Visitorship at the Art Institute was down before Sept. 11, said Harakal, but rose sharply after the museum's Sept. 22 public opening of its much-anticipated Van Gogh and Gauguin show.
"We expected a huge response to this exhibition, and we still do," said Harakal.
The exhibit initially was expected to draw 750,000 to 800,000 people.
"We're doing pretty well, but we could be doing better," she said. "The good news is that we'll still have hundreds of thousands of visitors. The bad news is that, with a drop in tourism, the odds are we just can't get as many people as we had thought we would have."
The day of the terrorist attacks, every museum and zoo in the city closed as a security measure. They all reopened the next day, but few people came.
"During the week of [the attacks] we were down 40 percent in visitorship," said Amy Ritter, spokeswoman for the Museum of Science and Industry. "The next week, we actually went up by 1 percent or so."
This year's attendance at Science and Industry will be considerably lower than 2000, one of the museum's busiest years because of a spectacular traveling exhibit of artifacts recovered from the Titanic.
The Field Museum, suffering enough from lagging business that it inaugurated a hiring freeze in June, has high hopes riding on its upcoming traveling exhibit of artifacts from the life of Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen. It opens Oct. 20.
"Our business is down from 2000, when we had a marvelous year when we unveiled Sue [the Tyrannosaurus rex dinosaur fossil], but it is up from 1999, a more normal year," said Field spokeswoman Nancy O'Shea.
"We're very optimistic about the rest of the year with the coming Cleopatra show."
Lincoln Park Zoo, the Chicago Botanic Garden and Chicago Historical Society reported little or no drop in admissions in 2001, and Brookfield Zoo and Adler Planetarium reported their attendance for the year is down only slightly.
None said they plan to lay off employees.
The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum may be looking at increased visitorship toward the end of the year, said its president, Joe Shacter, partially because of Grossology, a popular children's traveling exhibit that runs until Jan. 6.
"We think our attendance will be very strong this fall and winter," said Shacter.
In fact, he said, if the city's tourism business drops because of residual fears of air travel, local museums may be able to make up at least some of that lost business from stay-at-home Chicagoans and Midwesterners.
"We are just a morning's auto trip destination for millions of Midwesterners," said Shacter. "What we lose from out-of-state tourism we may pick up considerably from local and nearby visitors."