O Children, Where Art Thou?

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

At the Pueblo Grande Museum, another children's room features opportunities for kids to build their own ancient dwellings and design their own pottery.

The Phoenix Museum of History features hands-on activities for kids, the Phoenix Art Museum has its own room where the littlest artists can learn and play, and the Arizona Science Center is filled with interactive, educational exhibits for all ages. A special map is available to direct the youngest patrons to "knee high" exhibits.

"There's room for more," Freeman says. "It's a disservice to the children and families of this area to think that they shouldn't have more places to go."

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.

Also, supporters note, the Phoenix Family Museum will be downtown, offering plenty of parking but also easy access via public transit.

There is no organized campaign against the bond election.

As chairman of the pro-campaign, Phil Gordon says he has been well-received when asking groups to support this month's ballot items. "When you're ensuring the quality of life without raising taxes, our only opposition is apathy," he says. "The key is getting the word out."

And he says he is finding tremendous support for the Phoenix Family Museum.

Besides, opposing a children's museum is kind of like being against motherhood and apple pie, isn't it? Who wouldn't want another place in the Valley to imagine and dance, to build magical childhood memories?

As it turns out, a bunch of people in Mesa.

In a rare move, the Mesa mayor and city council sent a letter to their Phoenix counterparts asking them to reconsider plans to propose the Phoenix Family Museum as a bond-funded project.

The November 2 letter is an "expression of concern" for the impact of the project on the Arizona Museum for Youth, which it calls a statewide resource for children and families. It asks Phoenix's elected officials to "carefully consider whether a new facility is needed."

Mesa Mayor Keno Hawker and six councilmembers note that Mesa's museum is highly successful, has been used as a model for other children's museums around the country and serves a Valleywide audience -- 70 percent of whom are from cities other than Mesa.

The letter notes that the museum is in the middle of a $2.7 million expansion to include "developmentally appropriate learning activities for ages three to five" in a 3,000-square-foot hands-on town called ArtVille. (The new wing, slated to open next year, will specifically target the younger group the Phoenix Family Museum founders say is underserved.)

"As elected officials, we have a responsibility to recognize present successes and to grow them to meet future Valley needs," the letter says. "Providing quality museum and learning experiences for our youngest residents and family is a priority. Using our scarce resources to recreate already existing services is not the best use of those resources."

Mesa officials say they've never received an official response from the Phoenix City Council, although Vice Mayor Davidson says he heard informally that the council thought they should mind their own business. And a November 28 East Valley Tribune article quoted Phoenix City Manager Frank Fairbanks as saying the city received Mesa's objections to the museum too far into the bond committee process to take any action. He noted that the arts and culture subcommittee already had ranked the new museum high on its list of projects to be funded.

The only formal reply to the Mesa letter came in a November 16 note on Phoenix Family Museum stationery from advisory board chair Grant Woods. Woods applauds the accomplishments of the Mesa museum, restates the Phoenix museum's purpose, claims the two facilities have different missions and goals and promises to build a "mutually beneficial relationship" between the two facilities.

Later, Woods told New Times, "The plan in Phoenix is dramatically different than most anything they have ever done in Mesa."

Barbara Meyerson, who's headed the Arizona Museum for Youth for nearly 21 years, says her organization was a viable, operating entity before it got financial assistance from the city. Starting in 1978 with a $150,000 grant from a local company, the group first opened in a 4,000-square-foot space in a strip mall. Five years later it moved into an old grocery store in downtown Mesa. In 1987, the city bought the facility -- considered the only children's museum with a focus on fine arts in the country. It now operates on a budget that combines city funds with a "friends of the museum" group.

The expansion is being financed with 1995 bond money, the first such funding the museum has received.

Meyerson says she can't understand how the Phoenix Family Museum will be different from the Mesa museum.

Freeman says Mesa is simply "an arts museum for children" while the new group is "focusing on child development principles and learning."

There does seem to be little difference between the two concepts. Meyerson counters that providing developmentally appropriate exhibits that stimulate learning is exactly what any children's museum -- including the Arizona Museum for Youth -- should be doing. In the new ArtVille wing, educational material for the parents will be posted on the wall above each interactive exhibit, she says.

She and other civic leaders in Mesa see the Phoenix Family Museum as yet another example of one Valley city trying to duplicate what a neighboring city is planning -- be it a new performing arts complex, aquatics center or children's museum.

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