New board breathes life into Santa Fe Children’s Museum

November 26, 2018 GMT

From a few yards away, Mac Bowen surveyed his charges.

Straight ahead, his 16-month-old daughter, Lilly, peeked over the top of the bubble table, reached up and dipped her hands into its silky solution. At 10 o’clock, his son, 3-year-old Sam, turned a hand railing alongside a ramp into a makeshift climbing gym.

All around them, the din of youthful exploration rang in the air. It was a busy Friday afternoon at the Santa Fe Children’s Museum.

“Here, we don’t have to play for them,” said Bowen, a 34-year-old Santa Fe resident. “At home, sometimes it’s really hard. You have to come up with spontaneous things to do. Here, it’s just all wound up and ready to go.”

It’s been nearly three years since the museum — a 33-year Santa Fe institution — shuttered amid financial and managerial uncertainty. But now, as a new slate of leaders prepare to finalize public financial filings for 2017, the museum’s first full year back in operation, they say things are looking up.

“We have worked so hard over the last two years to really bring the museum back, and it’s back,” said Sharon Woods, president of the completely overhauled museum board. “We’re in good, solid financial shape.”

The museum posted nearly $800,000 in revenue during 2017, according to the filings — its largest take in four years but still shy of the more than $1 million it collected back in 2002, the year staffers have described as the pinnacle of success. This past year, revenues exceeded expenses by more than $100,000 — a far cry from the five-figure deficits of yore. (In 2015, the museum’s expenses outweighed revenues to the tune of $84,125.)

That in-the-black bottom line, Woods and new Executive Director Susan Lynn said, is thanks to a renewed and revamped fundraising push, and a streamlined operation.

Before it closed for a few months inearly 2016, the museum employed 22 staffers. Today, Lynn said, it employs 11.

On the fundraising side, Lynn said she’s prioritized seeking multiyear pledges and expanded grant-writing efforts. A recent gala raised about $58,000.

The museum itself has had a bit of a face-lift, too. Brighter colors adorn the walls, and a series of new exhibits encourage the kind of collaborative, interactive play the museum champions.

A group of parents donated a new, $29,000 water flow table, at which children can use plastic tiles to build dams, divert flow and channel water from here to there.

The People on the Go exhibit, funded by a small local family foundation, features model wooden minitrains and tracks set against the backdrop of hand-painted scenes of Santa Fe. A few of the train cars have been painted in the style of the Rail Runner.

“We’re really proud of that,” said Lynn, a onetime attorney who joined the museum in February. “We designed it, we built it and we made it really relevant to the community.”

More changes are on the way, too, including a new build-your-own sailboat exhibit, set to open soon.

Despite the face-lift and the upturn in funding, the museum’s attendance is still on the mend. Lynn projected about 52,000 unique entrances for 2018 — up from 35,000 the year of the closure but still less than the 70,000 who walked through the doors in 2015.

Still, staffers are making an extra effort to engage the community, hosting themed event nights — a recent Weird Science Night received “fantastic feedback,” Lynn said — and kicking off an outreach effort to engage communities on the south side of town.

For some devotees, the 2016 closure felt like a real loss. Lauren Singley, a Santa Fe resident who remembers visiting the museum in her youth, now brings her own kids, 9-month-old Scarlett and 3-year-old Jackson.

She started attending the museum with her then-infant son after its reopening, grateful to be able to share her old favorite exhibits (“Face painting: That was my jam,” she said) with her young son while exploring new activities.

“When they reopened, it was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, let’s get to the museum,’ ” she said. “There’s not a lot of, especially indoor, places in town for kids. The staff has always been lovely. … I’m so happy they reopened.”