Children’s museum counts on collaboration

By Todd Cohen

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Every Wednesday at about 5 p.m., roughly 25 to 30 students from fourth through eighth grade arrive at the Greensboro Children’s Museum, where for 90 minutes to two hours they learn about nutrition and cooking, and play in the interactive exhibits at the museum.

The program, which began as a tutorial effort launched in the Glenwood neighborhood by Grace Community Church, is sponsored by Dow Corning, which makes Silly Putty at a local plant.

The sponsorship reflects a larger strategy by the museum to expand its programs and reach through collaboration with local companies and organizations.

“We want to continue to develop new community partnerships,” says Marian King, who became CEO of the museum in February after serving as interim CEO starting last July.

Launched in 1999, the museum operates with an annual budget of $1.4 million and full-time staff of 23 plus about 15 high-school and college students who work part-time as “program and learning specialists,” or PALS.

Annual attendance totaled about 127,000 people in the fiscal year ended last June 30, including nearly 16,000 students who attended with school groups, as well as visitors from 24 different states.

“We want to be accessible to everyone,” says King, a Greensboro native and veteran nonprofit executive who worked for the Girls Scouts’ 13-county Tar Heel Triad Council in a broad range of posts for 26 years, including the last 12 as chief operating officer.

Popular features at the 37,000-square-foot museum, which is located in a former car dealership, include an “Our Town” exhibit, as well as a half-acre “Edible School Yard.”

For Our Town, children can play at working in a variety of roles in hands-on exhibits depicting such “Main Street” locales as a grocery store, theater, health center, book store, construction zone, media center and post office.

The museum also includes a big transportation area featuring a race car donated by NASCAR’s Petty family, as well as a fire truck, police car and airplane cockpit.

The Edible School Yard, one of only five in the U.S. and the only one housed at a children’s museum, is part of a national project based in Berkeley, Calif., and coordinated by the Chez Panisse Foundation created by Alice Waters, a chef and restaurateur.

Offering programs after school, evenings and weekends, the Edible School Yard includes a garden and kitchen and lets kids and their families grow and harvest vegetables, learn to cook, and visit a nearby farmers market and buy fresh foods.

The museum generates about 60 percent of its revenue through earned income, including memberships, and counts on contributions, mainly from institutions, for the remainder.

Annual giving, for example, totaled $56,000 in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2011.

And the museum’s “Green Acres Gala,” scheduled for May 18 in its outdoor garden, aims to raise $50,000, up from $35,000 last year.

King says the museum is counting on partnerships like the one with Dow Corning to help it continue to grow.

Thanks to a new sponsorship from Greensboro-based Volvo Trucks North America, for example, the museum in May will open a new exhibit featuring a 13½-foot-high sleeper cab that kids can climb on and see.

King also hopes to build on a fundraising event the museum co-hosted Feb. 4 with the Green Hill Center for North Carolina Art and the Greensboro Public Library Foundation.

The event, which attracted 450 people and raised $60,000 that was divvied up among the three organizations, featured cocktails and appetizers at Green Hill, followed by dinner at the downtown branch of the library a two-minute walk away, followed by dessert and dancing to a live band at the museum across the street.

The Children’s Museum, which has an endowment totaling roughly $300,000 and is in the final year of collecting pledges for a capital campaign that raised $1.2 million for the Edible School Yard, aims to grow by offering new and different programs, and finding new partners, King says.

On April 27, for example, the museum will host a reception celebrating the opening of a new exhibit, “Larger than Life,” that aims to give children a bug’s eye view of the world from tactile, visual and auditory perspectives.

The exhibit has been developed by a group of undergraduate and graduate students in a class taught by Jonathan Anderson, an assistant professor in the department of interior architecture at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

A grant from UNCG paid for about half the $5,000 project, the students have raised funds for it, and Unifi has agreed to make up the difference.

“We want to develop new community partnerships,” King says.


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