News Column

After nearly three decades, Children's Museum still afloat, thanks to community support

August 3, 2014

By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican

Aug. 03--Ten years ago, Sarah Jones, 16, experienced the Santa Fe Children's Museum as a great magical castle where play, imagination and learning were ever-present. Now, as a volunteer for the facility on Old Pecos Trail, she still sees the magic unfold as kids play dress-up, envelop themselves in a huge bubble and scamper about in a life-sized, 2,750-pound Rubik's Cube playhouse.

"It's such a great environment with a welcoming feeling. It hasn't changed," Jones said as she kept a close eye on some child charges at the museum one morning last week.

But the castle almost collapsed two years ago when the museum, founded in 1985, announced that it needed $200,000 to cover a budget shortfall or it would close by the end of 2012.

In the past, some Santa Fe nonprofits have asked for similar help from the community and did not receive it. Others have been afraid to ask, aware that a request for aid could be perceived as a sign of weakness. But the gambit paid off for the museum. Hutton Broadcasting led a fundraising drive that included live radio broadcasts from the museum.

By the early 2013, about $240,000 in donations had rolled in, saving the day for the museum and even giving it a slight funding reserve for future planning. And as the museum looks forward to celebrating its 30th birthday in February, Executive Director Shannon Martin Roberts and the museum's supporters are forging ahead with a plan to stay financially stable and creatively viable.

Roberts also wants to send a message to other nonprofits that it's OK to ask for help. "It's always a risk to go to the community, but it is an appropriate action step," she said in an interview in Wednesday.

Some donors did ask her, "If I write you this check, how do I know you won't close the next day?"

So she opened the books and laid out her plans to stay afloat and move forward, helped in part by the support of such community partners as the McCune Charitable Foundation. She credits the community and her predecessors for ensuring the museum was in good shape when she came on board in April 2013.

Roberts' background encompasses about 20 years of running nonprofits as both an executive and development director, including positions at the Dallas Children's Theater, the Dallas Museum of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Most recently, she worked on the capital campaign side of Resource Center Dallas, an HIV and AIDS service agency.

The Children's Museum operates on a $700,000 annual budget. Roberts said that ideally, the budget should be generated from 40 percent contributions and grants and 60 percent earned revenue -- admission, memberships, workshops, rentals and summer camps, for instance. Right now that balance is about 43-57, she said.

As she and her staff plan a 30th birthday celebration in February -- which may include a party just for adults -- they await the results of an artistic and financial audit conducted by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The assessment will take 10 months and include a peer review of the museum's finances, and artistic organization and stewardship, and its success in community engagement.

"It will make sure our bylaws and finances are in order and ask deeper questions about where our audience is and how the community is changing," Roberts said.

Meanwhile, the museum is doing its own audit, using nearly 30 years of data and documents. Roberts has discovered that a large majority of visitors come from the city's south side, despite anecdotal evidence suggesting otherwise. About a quarter of all visitors travel at least 50 miles to the museum. More than half of all one-time visitors are from out of state, records show.

The museum will offer about 1,000 free field trips for Title 1 public-school students in grades K-3 this coming school year. It has partnered with Las Cumbres Community Services to start a Grandparents Raising Grandchildren program. And Roberts wants to see the museum offer more early childhood education opportunities. She also sees it as a possible venue for immunization clinics.

Based on feedback she received from the community, Roberts brought back the popular bubble-making tire rig. On Wednesday, one child after another stepped inside the tire, gave a tug on a pulley, and found themselves surrounded in a giant bubble of their own making.

The old tire got plain worn out and was discarded before Roberts came on board and got a donation to replace it.

Keeping the museum fresh and alive is a challenge -- "one that costs money," Roberts said. She expects to draft a new plan sometime next summer or fall, after the Institute of Museum and Library Services's assessment results come in. The museum will hold fundraisers to move forward and grow -- not to just survive, she said. In the interim, the museum will continue to work to serve its clientele of parents and children.

That makes 6-year-old Ethan Elliott of Albuquerque happy. As he climbed around the Rubik's Cube with his face freshly painted (another popular Children's Museum offering), he said he wouldn't mind living at the museum. Museum staffer Indian Nixon said she understands that.

"This place gives families a chance to connect to each other. ... I don't think there are enough places in the world that do that," she said.

Contact Robert Nott at 986-3020 or


--The Santa Fe Children's Museum is at 1050 Old Pecos Trail. It is open at different times every day of the week through August. Visit the website, www.santafechildren', for more information and operating hours.


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Source: Santa Fe New Mexican, The (NM)

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