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Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County raises fundraising goal

The Exposition Park museum increases its new target $20 million to $135 million and extends campaign to 2013.

November 06, 2010|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History
Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

Waging the biggest fundraising campaign in its history in the face of stiff economic headwinds hasn't been easy for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, but director Jane Pisano was optimistic Thursday while announcing that the goal has been raised from $115 million to $135 million to allow for new nature-oriented attractions, a parking structure and additional seismic improvements.

Projected as a five-year fundraising and renovation project when it began in 2007, the campaign, now dubbed "NHM Next," has been extended to 2013, when the Exposition Park museum will celebrate its centennial. State and county government are covering $38 million. The museum must raise the remaining $97 million from donors — it has $55 million to go.

The campaign fell $28 million short of its goals during its first three years, according to reports by Moody's Investors Service. But Pisano said that July's debut of the restoration of the historic 1913 Building, with its distinctive rotunda, and the new Age of Mammals exhibit should help make up the lost ground.

The new attractions helped draw 162,000 visitors in the first quarter of the new fiscal year, up 41% from the previous year. Museum leaders predict that when the campaign ends in 2013, having added 12 new galleries and five new exhibits, annual attendance will reach 1 million in Exposition Park with an additional 300,000 or more at the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. Pisano said that touring exhibitions, suspended since construction began, will begin arriving at the museum again in 2013.

"In the early years, all we could do was talk, and now we have reality," she said. "We have a lot of prospects, and a lot of confidence based on our conversations with these donors."

The financial markets' recovery from their 2008-09 meltdown improves the chances of finding donors willing to emblazon their names on exhibition halls, outdoor gardens or even labels for individual specimens. A further inducement to join the bandwagon, Pisano said, is the dinosaur exhibition due to open in July 2011, highlighted by what figures to be the museum's signature draw, the nearly complete fossilized skeleton of Thomas the T. rex.

Most of the $20-million increase in the campaign goal is coming from Los Angeles County, which owns the museum and relies on a private, nonprofit foundation to run it. The county is providing $16 million this year, Pisano said: $6 million for seismic work on a 1920s-vintage section of a building, and $10 million for a new parking area with spaces at ground level and underground.

By concentrating the parking in one place, the museum aims to present a more attractive face to Exposition Boulevard and free up 3.5 acres for "learning gardens" with exhibits of local flora and fauna that are expected to open late in 2012. Inside, a Nature Lab is being created as the gardens' companion in a new "community science" component focused on urban biodiversity.

In addition to the $16 million for the capital campaign, the county is providing $8.9 million to address other building needs, including elevator upgrades and electrical work. The $24.9 million for construction and repairs comes on top of $14.2 million in county-paid annual operating support, which covers about half the museum's regular spending.

Moody's issued a new ratings report on the museum's $89.8 million in bonds this week, leaving their A2 rating and "stable" investment outlook unchanged (A2 signifies a "low credit risk"). The county government's ongoing financial support is a key economic strength, said Moody's analysts, who also praised the museum for diversifying its endowment. After suffering a 25% loss on its investments in 2008-09, Moody's said, the museum bounced back with a 15% gain in 2009-10.

As part of a new, more public phase of the campaign, the Natural History Museum plans to add a new area to its website, http://www.nhm.org, by mid-November; there, donors will be invited to make online contributions that Linda Ross, the chief financial officer, said can range from small gifts to $25 million to get one's name on "the front of the building."

mike.boehm@latimes.com

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