Welcoming the Neighbors

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This article is part of the “Forged in Fire: New Models” issue of Hand to Hand. Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Carol Tang, PhD, Children’s Creativity Museum

Over the past few years, the Children’s Creativity Museum (CCM) has grown dramatically; both attendance and overall budget have increased by more than 50 percent since 2015. We diversified our earned income streams to benefit from the tourists and convention travelers that visit our San Francisco neighborhood. That financial foundation allowed us to offer 60 percent of our field trips for free to Title 1 schools and free admissions to thousands of families through Museums for All, library passes, and free memberships to community organizations and families.

Since our closure on March 12, 2020, those carefully built financial foundations have disappeared—and perhaps will not return until 2025 when tourism and business travel are projected to fully rebound. However, the other foundations we built around our values, equity, and inclusion during the same time period are even more valuable than the financial ones and provide us with a clear path for rebuilding: focus on the neighborhood.

A June 2020 member survey indicated that 28 percent of respondents usually walked to the museum. Many of them visited many times a month—one member came more than 200 times in a single year! This high proportion of very local visitation will provide a base as CCM explores reopening to the public. Meanwhile, the 37 percent of members who reported coming by public transportation may now be uncomfortable with that mode of travel, as well as further impacted by the elimination of weekend service for some time to come.

Finding the silver lining in a pandemic, we are adapting.  We are replacing our focus on boosting visitation numbers and earned income from (now absent) tourists and one-time visitors with pursuing equity strategies for neighborhood families.

CCM is located in a dense, urban neighborhood in downtown San Francisco with few open spaces or opportunities for play or social gathering. The museum sits in a green oasis, Yerba Buena Gardens, which has a playground, free live-music venues, and planted landscapes. With the recent construction of high-rise luxury residences, this rapidly-changing neighborhood has evolved from being one of the poorest districts in San Francisco to one of the highest-income ones in just five years. Yet, on average, 84 percent of the children in the four public schools within a mile of CCM are socio-economically disadvantaged. Among the low-income families who have remained in the neighborhood are hundreds of school children who face housing insecurity. In fact, when CCM was founded more than twenty years ago (as Zeum), it was in response to an earlier community redevelopment project that displaced many low-income, blue collar, and immigrant residents. This change left many children and families with few out-of-school learning activities, particularly technology-based ones at a time when most low-income families had no access to computers. Today, our neighborhood has been designated a Filipino Cultural Heritage District, named SOMA Pilipinas, to preserve some of its rich history.

By returning our focus to serving our local community, we can not only think more deeply about engaging all families within walking distance, but also apply and track our own theory of change based on developmental research. This research posits that the more time children spend doing creative activities with caring adults, the more likely the museum is to achieve our desired outcome of building “creative confidence and creative collaboration.” In a neighborhood where families come from an extremely wide income spectrum, CCM may become a hub where children grow up together and help each other to thrive.

Finding the silver lining in a pandemic, we are adapting. We are replacing our focus on boosting visitation numbers and earned income from (now absent) tourists and one-time visitors with pursuing equity strategies for neighborhood families. How can we engage families in the museum, at home, and in the surrounding Yerba Buena Gardens setting? By finding more open-ended activities that serve multiple generations and multiple ages, bringing families back again and again. By re-examining our membership, pricing structures, and fundraising strategies to equitably serve both high- and low-income families. By providing a place for people to re-learn how to create things together and thrive in the local communal spaces now available to them.

In January, we were honored with an award for Excellence in Community Engagement by our local business improvement district. While we know that we need to re-consider our entire business model, we are building on the formerly sustainable pre-pandemic foundations and finding new solutions to put our neighborhood visitors at the center of our work. We expect this new focus to give us renewed energy as a museum for years to come.

Carol Tang, PhD, has been the executive director of the Children’s Creativity Museum in San Francisco, California, for six years.