Operating in Five Locations Since Opening in 2006 Has Taught Us Flexibility

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By Lisa Van Deman and Melanie Hatz Levinson, Kidzu Children’s Museum

This article is part of the June 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “Tightening Up: Streamlining Museum Operations.” Click here to read other articles in this issue.

Describe your museum in 2008 (size, location, years in operation, target audiences, whether it was undergoing expansion/renovation/other major change, financial health, etc.)

In 2008, Kidzu Children’s Museum was two years old and operating in its first location—a 2,400-square-foot storefront in downtown Chapel Hill.   Having spent these years creating the visitor experience from a calendar of temporary exhibits, in 2008, Kidzu opened its first place-based original exhibit, Kidzoom: The Power of Creativity, which occupied the entire museum. The museum continued to serve between 30,000-35,000 visitors/year, with two and a half full-time professional staff, supplemented by work-study students from the University of North Carolina (UNC-Chapel Hill) and volunteers. Kidzu received several foundation grants and built a network of community partnerships, leveraging outside expertise to help create the museum experience and extend it beyond our walls. We worked extensively with the university, not only supporting numerous students and unpaid interns, but also working with the School of Education and its early learning research arm, The FPG Child Development Center.

As a university town, Chapel Hill was insulated from the economic fluctuations that occurred in other communities in 2008.  However, by 2010, Kidzu leadership realized its prime property rental wasn’t sustainable long term, and began looking for other options. UNC, in the midst of creating a new master plan for its downtown properties, generously offered the museum a temporary home (three years) in a vacant, university-owned storefront several blocks down the street at no charge while we strategized our growth plan and continued to serve the community. So, in 2011, Kidzu packed up Kidzoom and moved down the street to its new location (1,800 square feet) until the university was ready to repurpose the building.

In 2014, our public library moved into its new building and its previous temporary location was offered to the museum for free. Kidzu moved into this 10,000-square-foot space in University Place, a shopping mall two miles from the UNC campus. After only a few months, the museum was asked to move again to a similarly sized space across the hall, to make room for a large, rent-paying multi-plex movie theater. Kidzu opened a pop-up in an empty suite as the mall built out our new home. We again relied on the creative and artistic expertise of our community to create a museum that prides itself on “serving, celebrating and reflecting the community Kidzu calls home.

Even though your community was not heavily impacted by the recession, how did you plan for the viability and sustainability of your museum during these years of multiple relocations?

Throughout the museum’s early years and its many moves, board and staff continued to plan and fundraise for a permanent downtown location. Kidzu received a $1.5 million matching grant in 2012 from an international foundation with a Chapel Hill connection. With the significant income stream provided by this grant, the museum was able to explore a public/private partnership with the Town of Chapel Hill for a town-owned downtown space on the top deck of a parking garage. For a number of reasons, including structural issues, the location was ultimately not feasible. Fortunately, the museum was able to continue to work with the foundation to pivot their gift and use the funds to move into and operate our current University Place location.

While the 2008 recession had minimal impact on museum operations, the matching grant’s expiration in 2016 did. This grant had provided the impetus for an aggressive fundraising campaign of matching gifts and, as anticipated, its absence was keenly felt. Although we always knew the grant had an end date, its benevolent presence clouded our financial reality. When that funding ended, we had to make some serious changes, streamlining operations, not filling certain open positions and combining others. We restructured the board to include more members with broader networks, and developed a Museum Circle of community influencers who have helped open doors to new funding opportunities.

What did you learn from this experience that is applied to Kidzu’s operations today and its future planning?

In 2014, Kidzu opened a makerspace that is emblematic our brand—gritty, scrappy, highly creative, and rooted in North Carolina’s well-known arts and crafts culture. The maker mentality was a good fit for what we’d always done—repurposing materials and components, relying on local craftsmanship, pursuing less expensive ways of doing things (out of necessity)—all of which led to outcomes that were often unexpected, but more creative. Prototyping, tinkering, and the maker mindset became our modus operandus, not just in the makerspace, but throughout the entire museum and even into the way we operated. We became even more flexible, more adaptable, more creative in our visitor experience.

We began hosting adult events to build community and bring in additional revenues. We put greater emphasis on membership drives and fundraising to provide access for marginalized populations. We’ve continuously focused on transparency and communicating the value and impact of the museum. We’ve become deeply involved with our local Chamber of Commerce to build relationships with businesses and the corporate community.  We’ve become more explicit with funders about the financial realities of sustaining museum operations. And we continued to rely heavily on local expertise and our relationships with the university that help support and credential our work.

While the COVID-19 crisis could not have been predicted, how did your lessons learned from your 2016 crisis help you plan for the future, which now includes preserving your institution while navigating a path to reopening?

Following our 2016 experience, we have been working on building our cash reserves and establishing a working capital fund in order to weather whatever the economy has in store, but it’s not easy, and we certainly weren’t financially prepared for the impact of the pandemic. While our location in a university town offers many advantages and resources, fundraising is always challenging for all non-university affiliated nonprofits, including Kidzu.

With the onset of COVID-19, Kidzu was thrust into survival mode. We immediately raised funds from our closest supporters to help us minimize the immediate impact of revenue loss.  We downsized our staff to an essential few and have, like so many others, pivoted to focus on making the Kidzu experience available on-line. Frankly, Kidzu has operated in an environment of change and uncertainty for so many years that this latest challenge has been met with the our typical collective “can do” attitude, and ability to be creative on a shoestring. 

Our current operating budget pre-COVID fluctuated between $850,000 and $900,000 annually. Right before the museum closed for COVID-19, we were at about 50 percent earned revenue, and 50 percent unearned revenue and served over 85,000 visitors a year. Kidzu is still intent on growing into that “right sized” museum. We’re engaged with the Town of Chapel Hill and a local developer, weighing location opportunities in other areas of the city against expanding in place, while continuing to serve a wide swath of our region both at the museum and through outreach. We are working on a 2,000-square-foot expansion in our current location for fall of 2020 to make room for The Nest, a dedicated early learning space for children zero to three. This new space will also serve as a platform for collaborations with UNC’s School of Education and the North Carolina Reggio Emilia Alliance.

When we do open our doors again, we know it won’t be business as usual. Our operating hours may be limited, our team may be smaller, but we will continue to be the scrappy, innovative little museum that could!

Lisa Van Deman is executive director and Melanie Hatz Levinson is creative director and lead curator of Kidzu Children’s Museum in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.