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How did Mike Delfini progress from being a graphic designer for The Field Museum to Shedd Aquarium’s chief operating officer? By never being afraid to accept the next big challenge.

by Jonathan Black

Years ago, when Mike Delfini '85 BFA was just beginning his career as a graphic designer at The Field Museum, he’d pack up his lunch and take a short walk across what is now the Museum Campus to Shedd Aquarium. There, he’d relax and decompress in the cool dark that surrounded the big fish tank of the Caribbean Reef. Though his surname, Delfini, means “dolphins” in Italian, he had no plans to spend anything more than lunch among the world’s marine animals.

Today, Delfini does more than just visit. As the Shedd’s chief operating officer and executive vice president, he coordinates just about everything that makes it one of the world’s great aquariums. Delfini oversees the Shedd’s research and education outreach programs, and plays a major role in designing its branding and strategic marketing. He is responsible for the special exhibits that help draw close to 2 million visitors to the site annually. Delfini led the management team for the Oceanarium Reimagined project and helped guide two major capital campaigns: the $60 million Fund for the Shedd and the $100 million Next Wave campaign. Before he became COO, he served 10 years as vice president for planning and design.

How exactly do you go from working as a graphic artist to becoming second-in-command at one of Chicago’s great cultural institutions?

"I get that question a lot,” says Delfini with a smile, “and here’s what I tell people. It’s all about going from one circle in scope to the next circle. It’s all about looking for opportunity. When young folks come to me looking for work today, it can be a tough conversation. They’ll say, ‘How about you give me the job and the title and the salary, and I’ll prove I can do it.’ I tell them, ‘How about you prove to me you can do it, and then I’ll give you the job and the title and the salary.’ That’s how I moved through my career."

Delfini says he got off to a running start, thanks to UIC. A transfer student from College of DuPage, he selected UIC because he wanted to be near opportunities for work in the city. But getting admitted into the College of Architecture, Design and the Arts was no cakewalk. “It wasn’t about grades,” he says. “You had to show your work, and the curriculum was very different than DuPage’s, which focused on illustration and drawing—it was called ‘Commercial Art’ there. DuPage didn’t even use the term ‘Graphic Design.’” UIC had doubts about whether Delfini’s skills would match program requirements, but eventually granted him admittance.

"UIC was a phenomenal experience,” Delfini says. “I loved the professors, many of whom had working studios and real clients and real jobs. There were terrific summer internships. I’d always loved museums and cultural institutions, and they encouraged us to seek out work as designers there"

The Oceanarium
After graduating from UIC, Delfini toted his portfolio all over the city, from the Shedd to the Art Institute to the Museum of Science and Industry, until he landed a job at The Field Museum. “If it wasn’t for the Oceanarium project, I’d probably still be there,” he says.

It was the late 1980s, and the Shedd was almost 60 years old. Financed largely by John G. Shedd, a self-made millionaire and Marshall Field & Co. executive, the Shedd opened in 1930, and was the product of years of research and planning by teams of architects, engineers and marine biologists. To fill its first saltwater exhibits, the Aquarium shipped 1 million gallons of ocean water by train from the Florida Keys. (Today, it produces its own salt water—about 3 million gallons annually—to replenish its exhibits.) From 1930-75, many of its fish also arrived by rail onboard the Nautilus and Nautilus II, custom-built Pullman cars that traveled 20,000 miles per year. The 90,000-gallon central rotunda tank—the Caribbean Reef, where Delfini enjoyed his quiet lunch hours—remained the aquarium’s major draw for decades, but much of the remaining building housed “dry” exhibits, mounted displays and artifacts. Ted Beattie, the Shedd’s longtime president and CEO, looked around when he first arrived in 1994 and asked, "Where are all the animals?"

The Oceanarium was designed to meet that need. It was a hugely ambitious undertaking—a $47.2 million addition built on 1.8 acres of landfill and the first building expansion in Shedd’s history. What passersbys on Lake Shore Drive saw as a vast construction site, Delfini viewed as a job opportunity. He marched into the Aquarium, figuring it would “need some help,” and got hired. As he anticipated, the Shedd “exploded.” Every department—from public relations to marketing and membership—soon required new staff. True to the advice he dispenses today, Delfini took on additional responsibilities without a title upgrade or salary increase. “People said, ‘Hey, you’re doing great work; how would you like the job as director of this or that,’” he recalls.

Delfini still takes credit, albeit smilingly, for launching the Shedd into the electronic age by introducing “some of the first Apple Macintosh computers ever made. I’m talking about the little, tiny ones with 4-inch screens,” he says. His design background proved invaluable in other ways, as well. “It was all about process and planning,” Delfini says. “I’m not an expert in conservation and education, but I could help every department deliver its goals.”

Beattie has been especially grateful to have Delfini as his second-in-command.

"Mike has a unique understanding of the essential role planning plays in an organization,” Beattie says. “He’s very creative and cares about the people he works with. He brings people along with him through the process—start to finish—and a project isn’t finished until he’s finished."

Read more at UIAA.org/uic.



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