There's nothing like a grand entrance to make an impact, whether you're Gone With the Wind heroine Scarlett O'Hara descending the staircase of her antebellum mansion or Cincinnati Museum Center President and CEO Douglass W. McDonald meeting a reporter.
McDonald knows how to use Union Terminal, the Art Deco train station that's been home to the Museum Center since 1990. We could meet in his office or any number of staff spaces for a conversation about the recent landslide passage of Issue 11, a five-year Hamilton County tax levy that will provide approximately $3.6 million a year for repairs, improvements and maintenance.
But McDonald chooses to meet in the rotunda, entering from the back, near the OMNIMAX theater, taking full advantage of the building's soaring dome and the massive wall murals that surround him, before heading to an adjacent ice cream parlor for coffee and dessert.
These are good times at the Cincinnati Museum Center, the first in a long time, perhaps since the institution opened its doors. Issue 11 passed by a 64 percent approval rating, confirming the community's support for the museums, a fondness for Union Terminal or perhaps both.
The tax monies, which start rolling into museum coffers in 2005, will allow much-needed infrastructure improvements to take place. McDonald points to archival photos in a Union Terminal coffee table book to show how the aftereffects of the improvements will enable the facility to look like it had during its heyday as a passenger train station. Second-floor private dining rooms will be restored to their Art Deco brilliance and made available as public event rooms.
McDonald's plans for the building are practical and conservative.
Work will be completed on long overdue maintenance projects, some of which will generate new streams of rental revenue for the Museum Center.
The other good news, almost as important as the new monies from a tax levy, is that attendance figures are beginning to return to levels prior to the 2001 riots that heavily impacted the Museum Center's West End neighborhood. More than 185,000 people saw Saint Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes, a touring exhibition of artworks and historical objects from the Vatican and its famous museums that finished its local run April 18.
The challenge is to keep people coming, and building maintenance isn't a draw.
McDonald looks fiscally responsible. He has the conservative haircut and business suit. His speech is quiet, his demeanor polite.
He doesn't claim the flamboyance of other cultural figureheads such as Cincinnati Opera's Nic Muni or Playhouse in the Park's Ed Stern. McDonald comes off as a numbers man, someone whose focus is on business plans and development. His task is to get the Museum Center in financial order. Of course, a lot depends on what happens at his doorstep.
Cincinnati Museum Center is a destination unto itself, surrounded by a vast parking lot instead of green space, with no adjacent restaurants or shops to service visitors. On its horizons, the new residential development City West continues to grow, replacing government apartments with market rate housing, while Linn Street and Court Street are being transformed into a new mixed-income neighborhood. For once, it looks like the Museum Center has the chance to be connected to the city instead of being an island.
In the aftermath of the record-setting Saint Peter and the Vatican attendance figures and the approved tax levy, McDonald is unwilling to reveal any grand plans for Museum Center exhibitions or expansion. There will be no new summer hours — instead, this is a time to get the house in order.
Renderings of a planetarium drawn up by local architects do exist, but McDonald insists that's another conversation for another day. His face is unlined and worry-free, perhaps because he sees a light at the end of the train station tunnel and it no longer involves financial ruin.
They're going to fix the space they call home. The grand vision for awakening the center comes next.
We stepped up to the plate with Issue 11. McDonald knows that he now owes us.