By Jen Alexander, Kidcity Children’s Museum
Amid all the unknowns since March 2020, I held fast to one constant: a standing appointment on Wednesdays at 3:30 p.m. EST. The almost weekly ACM Leadership Call, with Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) staff and other children’s museum directors, became my North star, my therapy group, and—in the darkest days of the shut-down—my primary social outlet!
How do you run a children’s museum without visitors? How do you pay the bills without income? Where should we turn for help? Executive directors logged on from around from around the globe and took turns presenting whatever new tactics we were trying or commiserating about the layoffs we were implementing (sometimes our own). But mostly, my sibling museum directors and I would hang on every word during the Leadership Call’s weekly advocacy updates, shared by Jeannette Thomas, formerly ACM’s senior director of development and advocacy. She translated the mysterious world of Washington politics with the comforting assurances and sense of mischief of the best babysitter ever. She kept us in the loop, but more than that, she trained us how to help ourselves. “Reach out to your legislators,” she would say, over and over. “Tell them how you are doing, and then tell me how it went.”
As the first COVID spring crept into COVID summer, I listened every week, but it wasn’t until September 2020 that I finally picked up the phone. Thanks to Twitter, circa 2010, I remembered our U.S. Senator, Chris Murphy, had once played at our museum with his kids—and tweeted about it. I called his office and spoke to an aide. I told her how the crisis looked at our children’s museum and asked if the senator would keep us in mind when voting on funding that could help.
Regardless of the outcome, those two whirlwind days in March 2021 have forged an alliance among our state’s children’s museums that did not exist before.
A Breakthrough Phone Call
I’ll be honest: it was a brutal call. I’m not sure how “professional” I sounded when I described what it was like to walk through the empty museum—I may have cried a bit. There wasn’t much she could offer, but she was nice, and that helped. As the pandemic went on, I kept calling. I called the mayor, the Chamber of Commerce, and various state politicians. The outcome was sometimes, “I’ll look for any programs you might apply for,” or usually, “I’m so sorry.”
I told them all about how children’s museums are a hybrid of education, tourism, and the arts, and that it was going to take us a long time to recover. When the federal Shuttered Venue Operator Grants (SVOG) came out—tantalizing us with a possible award of 45 percent of our 2019 income, and then blocking us because we didn’t have a “fixed seating performance venue”—I added that to my spiel about how children’s museums were falling through the cracks and needed special help.
Then, in March 2021, I finally called my local state senator. “Wow, that sounds terrible,” he said. “We’ve got all this stimulus money coming in…let’s put a line in for your museum. How much do you need?”
You would think I’d be ready for that question! Um…$20,000? $40,000? $100,000?
He told me the state was developing a strategy on how to distribute much larger amounts. He said, “I could put in a line just for Kidcity, or maybe for all the children’s museums in the state together? How many are there? How many people do you all see, combined, in a year?”
Again, I was stumped. I explained that the Connecticut children’s museums were all very independent; we didn’t really know each other very well. I couldn’t even tell him how many there were. Even though I have children’s museum BFF’s around the country, staff from the local museums had only rarely been in touch with each other. That’s how it had been for the twenty-two years since Kidcity opened.
Then I thought of those Wednesday calls. I had seen a few Connecticut names on those screens. “Let me try,” I said.
“Great,” he said. “Get back to me by Friday with your ask.”
Over the next forty-eight hours, I was able to reach all the other children’s museum directors in the state. They told me how they were holding their organizations together, how they had made the decision to stay open or closed to visitors, and what it would mean if they had an infusion of funding. A couple of these conversations took place while directors were simultaneously running their museum’s front desk. One museum was on the verge of closing for good and jumped at the hope of using funds to build an outdoor experience to keep visitors coming safely. Others wrestled with the reality that having an in-museum preschool meant they couldn’t open their exhibits to the public at all, because of COVID restrictions. (The state’s office of early childhood wouldn’t even let the parents accompany their preschoolers into buildings, much less the visiting public into exhibits.) I heard about the deficits created by reduced attendance and higher operating costs, and capital projects delayed while raising everyday operating funds. And they listened to my particular woes: our museum needed funding to retain our exhibit artists, as we tried to make the best use of this shutdown time.
By the time I had finished all those calls and emails, I had the answer to my state senator’s question: there are nine children’s museums in Connecticut, and in 2019, we had 625,000 in-house visits at our museums. We were all eager to make this state funding request. We knew that without a direct, line-item ask, we would face the same old scrum of competing within the tourism/hospitality sector on one end, or against other education and arts organizations on the other. To date, we hadn’t fared well in those battles; a direct ask represented a breakthrough. But was it a pipe dream?
But What Should We Ask For?
The first challenge was to figure out a fair and defensible request. I collected bits of data, thinking maybe the answer was there. How much PPP did each of us get? Maybe we should ask for two or three times that amount? Or maybe we should follow the federal SVOG formula, which determined grant amounts based on earned income?
The problem was, it’s hard to get an apples-to-apples comparison between any two children’s museums, much less an accurate picture of the whole group. In terms of annual attendance, the Connecticut museums range from 5,000 to 277,000 visits (Kidcity clocks in at 112,000). Four of the nine museums have preschools, two take care of animals, and one is aligned with a university. Since COVID started—and as of this writing—five of the museums had opened to limited numbers of visitors and four were still closed to the public, without an opening day in sight. My museum, Kidcity, is perhaps the oddest of the oddballs. We usually fund our operations and our exhibits from earned income, and haven’t tried to raise money since our early years…until now.
Eventually, it was clear that there was at least one thing we all had in common: a building which was closed or at reduced capacity, limiting our ability to earn income to sustain our museums.
Ultimately, we based our request on a formula of $4 per in-house visit from 2019. For each of the nine museums, that would be a truly significant grant, and in our case, similar to the size of an unattainable SVOG award. Together, the Connecticut children’s museums’ request added up to a $2.5 million—a small number compared to the federal aid the state was receiving, yet more than we were likely to receive in competitive grants from state agencies.
The Seed is Planted, But You Have to Water It
The next hurdle was advocacy. My state senator, as a member of the Appropriations Committee, pushed to include our request in the spending bill for the American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds, but we didn’t stop there. In a stroke of luck, one of our Connecticut children’s museum directors is also an elected state representative for her town. She gave us all a crash course in how the legislative process works in our state. Directors from each of the nine museums contacted their own elected state officials—and anyone else they thought could help. A few have become real champions of our ask.
This episode ends with a cliffhanger. Months later, we still don’t know if our effort will succeed. Even if we make it through appropriations, there are negotiations yet to come with the governor’s spending priorities. Our request could wind up on the cutting room floor, not from callousness on the part of Connecticut leaders, but just because obtaining money from the state is a complicated, multi-tiered process. (Note to Self: In the next pandemic, hire a lobbyist!)
Regardless of the outcome, those two whirlwind days in March 2021 have forged an alliance among our state’s children’s museums that did not exist before. Since then, we’ve been texting each other about grant opportunities, exhibit problems, and cheering each other on as we stretched to tell our story and make our ask. We may not get the stimulus funds we asked for, but I’m convinced that we have made our case and that Connecticut’s children’s museums will be seen in a new light because of our outreach.
There are lots of things from these months of pandemic that I’ll be happy to leave behind, and it’s even possible that someday, I won’t need the weekly ACM Leadership Call just to stay afloat. But Connecticut is known as the “Land of Steady Habits,” and now that we’ve started, I’m hoping we’ll keep the relationships among all levels of staff in our museums, even after these strange, strange times are in the past.
Jen Alexander is the founder and has served as the executive & creative director of Kidcity Children’s Museum for that past twenty-six years.
In mid-June, the Connecticut museums learned that their $2.5 million request was approved and doubled by the legislature, and they will receive the full grant for two consecutive years.