O Children, Where Art Thou?

Museum peace unlikely as a proposed family center in Phoenix fights critics over right to life.

Pamphlets for the new Phoenix Family Museum ask folks to "imagine . . . a place to engage the minds, muscles and imaginations of people of all ages."

"Imagine a place with all hands-on exhibits. Imagine a place where you can build magnetic cars, dance in costumes from around the world, paint on the walls and play with waterfalls. Imagine a place you enjoy as much as your children."

It sounds marvelous. And the story of the planned Phoenix Family Museum -- which is seeking $10.5 million of bond money in the March 13 election -- is the stuff, in fact, of happily-ever-after stories: Two families get an idea and turn it into a fabulous new facility for other parents and their little ones.

Mitch O'Connell
Barbara Meyerson, head of the Arizona Museum for Youth, shows plans for a $2.7 million expansion to the facility. She and other Mesa officials worry that the Valley won't be able to sustain two children's museums.
Paolo Vescia
Barbara Meyerson, head of the Arizona Museum for Youth, shows plans for a $2.7 million expansion to the facility. She and other Mesa officials worry that the Valley won't be able to sustain two children's museums.

But this fairy tale may have a darker twist, at least for the taxpayers. Does Phoenix -- with plenty of hands-on children's cultural exhibits all around town and a thriving, expanding children's museum in neighboring Mesa -- really need its own children's museum? Will it be offering anything that's not already out there? And, even if it gets the bond money to pay for its own site, can it raise the millions of dollars needed to keep it open?

The idea for the museum came three summers ago when two families -- the Van der Veens and Cazel-Jahns -- took their children to San Diego's children's museum on vacation. On that long drive back home, they talked about how much fun they had there, how neat it would be if Phoenix had such a place. And they began to discuss trying to start one themselves.

It was what board president Gretchen Freeman calls a "living room grassroots effort." From the Van der Veens' home, the Phoenix Family Museum began to take shape. An all-volunteer board of directors, advisory board members and staff conducted planning and research, raised money and sought grants. They launched an expert public relations effort and drew up a business plan that included tapping into Phoenix bond money to get the museum open.

Nearly three years after that trip to San Diego, the Phoenix Family Museum is a nonprofit corporation with well-known civic leaders, educators and business people on the boards of directors and advisers. It has an enthusiastic volunteer base and hundreds of supporters.

Directors have used $40,000 in grant money from the Nina Pulliam Charitable Trust and the Arizona Community Foundation to pay for start-up costs, like public relations materials, a computer and traveling exhibits. They've refurbished an old Phoenix transit bus into a "Museum on Wheels" program to take the campaign and interactive exhibits around town. And they've raised an additional $40,000 in cash donations from corporations and individuals.

But the Phoenix Family Museum has one more hurdle to cross before it can become more than a dream.

If Phoenix voters approve Proposition 6, the arts and culture portion of the upcoming bond package, the organization will be able to use $10.5 million in city funds to buy the historic Monroe School on Seventh Street, transforming it into a children's museum aimed at kids up to 12 years old.

"This is the time," says Freeman, an arts consultant and mother of two. "The time is ripe."

Freeman, a former City of Phoenix employee, is the head of the museum's board of directors. Kim Van der Veen, who has worked for the city for nearly 10 years in a number of management and policy positions, is the executive director of the organization. Neither draws a salary from the family museum.

Van der Veen wouldn't talk with New Times about the project or about concerns over whether she is using her insider connections with the city to win support for the museum. She left a brief voice mail lauding the museum and the bond committee process but was unavailable for interviews the last two weeks. Instead, Freeman was designated as the spokesperson for the group.

Critics of the proposal are bitter about the bond committee process in which a panel of citizens -- including several with ties to the Family Museum -- voted to give a large chunk of money to an organization with no track record when other already established groups went unfunded. A total of about $80 million for cultural and historic preservation projects is on the ballot.

And in Mesa, home of the Arizona Museum for Youth, city leaders say there might not be room in this Valley for two children's museums.

Joanie Flatt, a Mesa public relations executive, is worried that the Phoenix Family Museum would duplicate the Mesa museum's efforts.

"There is not a need in this Valley for another youth museum. The appropriate thing to do would have been for Phoenix to get involved in supporting the Museum for Youth," she says. "It's not called the Mesa Museum for Youth. It's the Arizona Museum for Youth. Do you need two Arizona Historical Societies, for God's sake?"

Mesa Vice Mayor Jim Davidson fears two children's museums may not survive, given the increased competition for families' recreational time and dollars and the limited funds available to sustain such entities.

In the worst scenario, he says, one of the two museums could actually fail. A shuttered museum might discourage public or private entities from spending more money on other institutions, Davidson says.

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