O Children, Where Art Thou?

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

Aeed said later that in earlier subcommittee discussions, she had proposed the museum start small, select a spot like the vacant ground floor of the city garage across from Bank One Ballpark, build a constituency, then seek funding for a larger, permanent home. The museum backers weren't interested, she says.

Gretchen Freeman says the museum is not a start-up group with no track record. "We've been around two and a half years," she says.

In financial statements provided to the city, the Phoenix Family Museum says it expects to attract 130,000 visitors a year, based on its market research and studies of similar museums around the United States. With the city owning the building and covering some maintenance and operating expenses, the organization plans to operate on a $1.5 million annual budget. With admission fees in the neighborhood of $5.50, the report says, the organization expects to more than recoup its operating costs each year from entrance fees and other sources. (In Mesa, the Arizona Museum for Youth has a $1 million operating budget and charges $2.50 admission.)

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.

Freeman says her group plans to raise about $10 million in an endowment fund to pay for exhibits and to ensure the group's future viability. With major sponsors like the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks already on board, and influential members on its board of directors and advisory panel, the group expects to be able to raise the money easily and forge future partnerships.

Grant Woods, chairman of the group's capital campaign, agrees. "There is tremendous enthusiasm for this project and I believe that most everyone will want to be associated with it," he says.

Some local articles have reported that the group already is a designated United Way agency, but that's not true. United Way officials say the museum is not one of its agencies, but that it has signed up to be one of 500 other groups that employees can name as the recipient of paycheck contributions. The difference is the United Way has not scrutinized the Family Museum to determine whether it meets the organization's criteria and is deserving of funds. In fact, officials say they know nothing about the group, just that it did turn in its paperwork showing it is an IRS-recognized nonprofit group and accepted its avowal that the museum offers a health and human services program.

Paul Luna, a United Way vice president, said three people chose the Phoenix Family Museum to receive their contributions last year. He declined to reveal the amount raised, but says it was not a significant sum.

Even though a physical museum does not exist, the group has a strong presence. A number of local publications have featured the museum and its plans in articles. And since August, Raising Arizona Kids magazine has included a "Playtime" page sponsored by the museum, including parenting tips and ideas for children's activities. This month's page includes a plea for parents to vote for the bond proposal so the museum can be built.

The museum has an impressive Web site (phoenixfamilymuseum.com) and office space in the Van der Veens' central Phoenix home.

Museum proponents have been busy speaking to preschools and moms' groups, taking their mobile exhibits to ballparks, school carnivals and city celebrations. They have increased public awareness about the planned museum and recruited more and more volunteers to help in the process.

"The response has been overwhelming," Freeman says. "People say, 'Can I volunteer? Can I get on board?'"

Museum officials say last year they served 80,000 people as they've rolled around Phoenix, setting up displays for learning and playing. But many of those were at crowded venues like Arizona Diamondbacks games and, of course, the Family Museum went to them. At the Arizona Museum for Youth, about 60,000 people a year visit the facility in Mesa.

Plans for the permanent museum call for the organization to occupy 50,000 square feet of the 70,000-square-foot Monroe School. Extra space will be shared by MARS Artspace, which showcases local Arizona and Latino artists, and Free Arts, a group that offers artistic opportunities to abused children.

Children, grown-ups and school groups will find a world of adventures on the site.

Visitors will start at the main street exhibit, where they can see a police car, fire truck and working street lights, then visit four "city blocks." One will be geared at children aged 0 to 3, another will focus on imaginative role playing, like working in a mock grocery store, another will let kids explore the dress, foods and crafts of other cultures, and the last will be a creative arts place, where kids can experiment with art and learn from an on-site artist. The museum also plans to offer parenting classes, performances, a birthday party room and a program -- borrowed from the Southern Poverty Law Center -- designed to teach tolerance.

Still, there are plenty of similar hands-on interactive opportunities for kids around the Valley.

At the Arizona Museum for Youth, children can dress up, create works of art, dance in a pretend forest, analyze works of fine art and play educational games.

At the Heard Museum, a special children's section features interactive exhibits like beating Indian drums, making dolls and creating works of art. And a Native artist is always working nearby.

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