Richard Lariviere, the Field Museum president and CEO who remade the museum’s central hall and stabilized the institution’s finances, will step down in August 2020 after eight years at the helm.
Lariviere, 69, said his decision is motivated by a belief that leaders of major institutions should make way for new blood after less than a decade, and by his feeling ready to retire.
“The challenge and the wonder of an institution like the Field is you’re never done,” he said Tuesday. “But seven or eight years is enough.”
Lariviere, who was president of the University of Oregon before taking the Field reins in 2012, will remain in place until next August. With his help, the board of the lakefront natural history museum will begin in the fall a search for his successor.
“He’s had a very strong tenure as president of the museum,” said Field board chairman Wilbur H. Gantz III. “His vision has been one of stability and growth and of a future that people could buy into.”
Lariviere will leave behind an institution that has made tough decisions and seemingly emerged stronger for it. Annual attendance has remained in the 1.2 to 1.4 million range, but that’s essentially where its been the entire life of the museum, with the exception of a handful of years with special exhibits, he said. Meanwhile, revenues from attendance have grown.
On a deeper level, the museum should come out of his tenure not only with a firm hold on its ranking as a world leader in natural history, an increasingly vital field in a time of global climate crisis, but also with a renewed emphasis on the scientific research mission that undergirds its better known public display side.
When Lariviere began in Chicago, he took over a Field Museum that had overspent in a previous administration.
“There was a lot of uncertainty and the financial situation of the museum was not the best,” said Thorsten Lumbsch, curator of lichenized fungi and vice president of science and education. “With the budget cuts and the reorganization of the science departments, there was a lot of angst and concern about the future of science at the museum. But I think the last couple of years have shown the reorganization really helped to position the Field as a scientific leader.”
On the public front, Lariviere guided the move in 2018 of its prime specimen, the T. rex known as Sue that has long been recognized as the largest and most intact of the ancient top predators ever found, from a pedestal in the grand central hall to a more scientifically thorough exhibit upstairs, as a kind of dramatic culmination of the dinosaur displays there.
In Sue’s place in the hall is the cast replica of a South American titanosaur, which has been named Maximo by the museum.
“We moved Sue and completely remounted that iconic element of the museum,” he said. “We’ve now got a cast of the largest animal ever to walk the Earth as far as we know. And Stanley Field Hall has been completely reconfigured.”
Massive planters hang from the ceiling and many more benches equipped even with electronics charging capabilities dot the space in an effort to make it a place to linger, rather than pass through en route to exhibits along the perimeter walls.
Being able to make such physical changes was a surprise to Lariviere, he said.
“When I first came in and was wrestling with the financial issue, I didn’t think I would be able to have any significant impact on the public side of the museum,” he said. “I didn’t think there would be the money and I didn’t think we’d have the bandwidth to do it. And because we have such wonderful support from the community, including this fantastic ($16.5 million) gift from Ken Griffin, we were able to really make significant changes in the public part of the museum.”
Born in Chicago and raised in Iowa, Lariviere, who trained as a Sanskrit scholar before going into university administration, arrived at the Field not knowing how significant the financial threat was, he has said.
“It was a pretty shaky moment,” he said. The previous administration led by John W. McCarter had taken on, for instance, $90 million in bonds ahead of the 2008 financial crisis, largely to build an underground facility that houses much of the museum’s world-class collection of more than 40 million biological specimens.
In all, the museum had greater than $170 million in bonds, a high ratio compared to a roughly $300 million endowment. And it was paying more than $7 million annually, more than 10 percent of its budget, to service that debt.
Bond rating agencies were threatening to “down-rate” the museum’s outstanding debt, which meant “we would have to pay a lot more for our debt, and that would have disrupted our ability to fulfill our mission,” he said.
Working with a board committee on debt management, he was able to persuade the agencies to give the institution six months to put together a plan.
“We made a commitment to stay within our budget,” he said. “And that doesn’t sound like a great and brilliant strategy, and it really isn’t, but that hadn’t been the case with the museum. And we showed the agencies how if we stayed within our budget and actually lowered the budget significantly, we could get back on our feet. And, they said, ‘OK, we’ll see if you’re going to really follow through on this plan.’ And we were lucky enough to be able to do so.”
In the midst of budget cutting from operations and reorganizing the scientific staff, a gutting of science did not occur, although fears were high enough that an international petition drive protesting such a possibility occurred.
No scientists were let go, Lariviere said, although some positions were not filled following departures, and the museum has recently been staffing back up.
“We are currently searching for four new assistant curators,” said Lumbsch, and vacant senior collections managers positions have been filled in recent years as well. “We can demonstrate now to our peers that we are back in business for science.”
Meanwhile, the endowment at the end of January was about $440 million, Lariviere said. He led the five-year Because Earth fundraising campaign that has added $220 million to the museum’s coffers and is targeting $30 million more before its 2020 conclusion.
“This year is the first year in the museum’s history where we will have more money for operations from the endowment than we will from admissions,” he said.
Beyond the public presentation and financial side, Lariviere played a key role in nudging the 126-year-old institution into the future.
Last year, the museum announced it will revamp its badly outdate Native American Hall, working in partnership with representatives from native communities. And in 2017 it broke precedent by erecting a large temporary structure outside the front door to house “Jurassic World,” a temporary exhibit that straddled the line between pop culture and science.
Perhaps the boldest move, though, was a personnel decision. Early in his tenure, the museum brought in for a talk Emily Graslie, who was then a popular video blogger whose The Brain Scoop YouTube videos explaining natural history were rapidly growing an audience.
During her visit, “I was watching her standing by the elephants in Stanley Field Hall, and there were a hundred people around her or so, including families that had taken their kids out of school to come and see her,” Lariviere recalled. “I’d never heard of her. And I turned to (a colleague) and I said, ‘I don’t care what it takes. I don’t care how we do it, but I want you to hire her.’”
Graslie became the museum’s first chief curiosity correspondent and has continued to grow her series mostly by spotlighting what goes on in public and private spaces at the Field. She is currently filming a three-hour national PBS documentary series that will explore the natural history of the west-central part of the country.
“He really was a great leader for the museum and will be, I assume, for the year he’s staying on,” Lumbsch said. “I hope we will get someone of his caliber.”