Shedd says it draws most visitors of any U.S. aquarium

Arts and CultureArtMuseumsTravelTourism and LeisureBrookfield ZooLincoln Park Zoo

The Shedd Aquarium reclaimed its attendance title among the nation’s major non-profit aquariums after trailing the relatively new Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta for the last five years.

Nearly 2.17 million people visited the Shedd in 2012, a 2 percent increase from the previous year and about 57,000 more than went to the Georgia Aquarium last year. 

“I think that contributes to what a world-class city Chicago is,” Shedd’s Executive Vice President Roger Germann said. “I think that’s really more where the significance is.”

Last year was a pretty good one across the board for the major Chicago-area museums and zoos, which saw attendance climb 4 percent to just shy of 15.1 million visitors from 2011, according to figures for 15 institutions affiliated through a public awareness campaign called Museums Work for Chicago.

The previous year, 2011, showed an uptick in attendance from 2010 of less than a percentage point, which officials still applauded because of a stagnant economy.

In the past, 14 museums and zoos were part of the coalition. This year, the Institute of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture was added. The Humboldt Park Institute’s attendance was about 15,000 and provided an inconsequential boost to the overall percentage increase.

Gary Johnson, president of Museums in the Park and the Chicago History Museum, said the increase in attendance indicate the city’s tourism strategy is working.

“The museums are a key magnet for tourism and so ... as the tourism campaign gets stronger, the museums get stronger too,” Johnson said. “It’s a cycle.”

Institutions showing the biggest percentage increase in attendance in 2012 were the Chicago Children’s Museum, up 10 percent to 459,958; the Chicago History Museum, up 9 percent to 224,536; and Brookfield Zoo, up 8 percent to 2,339,312.

The Lincoln Park Zoo, which is free, estimated its attendance at 3.5 million. Following that, the institutions with the highest number of visitors were the Brookfield Zoo; the Shedd; the Art Institute of Chicago, 1,461,420; and the Museum of Science and Industry, 1,456,985.

Chicago-area museums contribute $1 billion annually to the local economy in a ripple effect that starts and ends with tourist dollars, Johnson said.
 
“It brings people to your city who spend money when they’re here,” Johnson said.

About 55 percent of museum- and zoo-goers in Chicago are from Illinois, while 45 percent are out-of-state, according to Museums In the Park data.

The Shedd, for example, says it has an annual economic impact locally of  $112.7 million. In 2012, the first-ever birth Pacific white-sided dolphin calf, a male named Sagu, was born at the Shedd, which also welcomed its sixth beluga whale calf.

Every year, officials at the top 20 non-profit aquariums compile attendance data for comparison. The last time the Shedd had the highest attendance in that group was 2006.

Johnson said he expects attendance at museums and zoos in Chicago to continue to rise as the economy continues to improve as well.

“You know, museums are there for Main Street,” Johnson said. “And as Main Street continues to get stronger, attendance is going to firm.”

ehirst@tribune.com

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