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Looming like icebergs, the white tents rise from the grass at Fullerton Parkway and Cannon Drive, the busiest intersection in Lincoln Park. They dominate the front of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, but there is still enough space on the contemporary building’s façade for a light show of dancing purple butterflies.
The ninth annual black-tie Butterfly Ball, the museum’s biggest fundraiser of the year, is this evening in early May. The event has always been elaborate and glamorous (one gala focused on magic illusions, with guests entering the museum through a 15-foot-high house of cards), and tonight’s-a Victorian-themed celebration-is no exception. More than six hundred guests, who have paid $600 a ticket, walk through a gazebo swagged with roses and peonies; overhead, mechanical butterflies flutter against a gauzy ceiling. The crowd is young and happy. Most of the gowns are backless, and black is the color of the night, although Desiree Rogers, the senior vice president of Peoples Energy, bucks the trends in a mercury silver gown; and Donna LaPietra, a vice president and executive producer of Kurtis Productions, wears a brightly colored striped dress with a short skirt that flutters away from her body like butterfly wings.
Robert Kennicott founded the museum’s parent institutionin 1857.
Other high-powered names in attendance include Barbara and David Speer, the latter the chief executive officer of the Illinois Tool Works, a corporate sponsor of this year’s ball; Michael Ferro Jr., the former chief executive officer of Click Commerce, another corporate sponsor (his wife, Jacky, was in Lexington, Kentucky, with their horse, which was running trials before the Kentucky Derby); and Peggy Notebaert, whose husband, Richard, originally paid $4 million for the naming rights to the museum as an anniversary present for her. (Richard, now the chief executive officer of Qwest Communications, stayed in Denver, where he had just finished testifying against the former head of the company, who is accused of insider stock trading. He is also awaiting a Supreme Court decision on a class-action shareholder suit arising from the collapse of Tellabs stocks. The central question in the case is whether Notebaert, once the chief executive officer of the Naperville company, violated security laws.)
Before the sit-down dinner of lobster and beef tenderloin, before the announcement of who won the raffle prize of the butterfly-shaped diamond-and-pearl earrings donated by Tiffany & Company, there is the cocktail hour. To one side in the museum’s foyer is the silent auction, with fierce bidding over the Aspen ski-lift tickets (value: $2,370), an Alaskan cruise ($7,545), and a trip to Shanghai ($14,176). Beside the security desk, a sign reads: To All Security Guards: It is very important that every hour you check on the rattlesnake in the Mysteries of the Marsh exhibit.
The conversations are robust and fueled by excitement or vanilla-flavored martinis, the signature drink of the evening. “There were 52 of us on the yacht, and by noon every day we were plastered,” one man tells his friends. In another group, a woman with sun-kissed hair says, “I thought, You have to be kidding me. There is no way I’m paying that for highlights. But then, they couldn’t look more natural.” Later, at a dinner table covered in butterfly-patterned damask, a woman says to her companions, “I’ve never been to the museum itself. It seems like a nice place, and it’s a great location, but I’m a little confused about what happens here.”
She isn’t the only one. The Nature Museum, a $31-million eco-friendly building tucked into 6.35 acres of Lincoln Park, opened in 1999 as the public center of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, an institution founded a century and a half ago by a remarkable Chicago naturalist and adventurer. For years, the academy, once located at Armitage Avenue and Clark Street, had little to offer the public beyond some dusty dioramas of sand dunes and taxidermied animals. Then the Nature Museum opened, with its jewel exhibit, a butterfly haven where visitors can walk through an indoor garden, complete with a 14-foot waterfall, and interact with more than 75 varieties of butterflies.
From the beginning, there was a build-it-and-they-will-come attitude. But the visitors-originally expected to number 250,000 annually-did not materialize. Since then, the Nature Museum has struggled to establish its identity. In many ways, the first eight years have been more like a roller-coaster ride than a leisurely stroll in the park. Peaks include large crowds and high revenues in 2002 for the museum’s Grossology exhibit on runny noses and body odor, and the quickly established success of its annual Butterfly Ball as a see-and-be-seen fundraiser of the Chicago social set (this year the Butterfly Ball raised $1.5 million, and an anonymous donor matched the funds). Lows include critics who carp about the museum’s sagging attendance, heavy debt load, and identity crisis.
“Their problems go back many years to when they were making the decision to build a new facility,” says Greg Simoncini, the vice president of the Scofield Company, a Chicago-based advisory group for nonprofits and cultural institutions. “They didn’t take seriously the challenge of rebranding the place from an obscure destination with musty collections to a new nature museum. The challenge for the Notebaert is to distinguish itself, to demonstrate a need so people will understand why it exists. Right now the mission isn’t clear to the public.”
“Definitely there were issues five years ago,” says Charles Douglas, the museum’s board chairman and a partner at the law firm Sidley Austin. “And in some ways, we struggled to find ourselves and our audience. But I think we’ve found our way now.”
Certainly those in charge of the Nature Museum hope so. Insiders say there is pressure from city hall for the Notebaert to merge with its neighbor, the Lincoln Park Zoo-an idea that dismays the Nature Museum’s old guard members, who want the place to remain independent. Museum executives and board members are now promoting the museum as an environmentally centered destination, one where people can “find their own green paths.” This year, which marks the 150th anniversary of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, the question remains: Can the Notebaert Nature Museum find a path of its own?
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