Family Feud

A new director, maybe even a new name -- but no new construction at the Phoenix Family Museum

For the Phoenix Family Museum, there is no bigger event than the annual "Family Affair" gala. Last February, the gala raised almost a quarter of a million dollars. With a "Chinese New Year" theme for the February 5 festivities -- complete with a magical dragon -- the fledging museum hopes to do even better this year.

But one person won't be dusting off her gala attire: Kim Van Der Veen.

Van Der Veen came up with the idea of bringing a children's museum to Phoenix nearly seven years ago. Its first office was in her home; she was the museum's first executive director. An ambitious networker relentless in her hunt for potential donors, she persuaded the city to give the project $10.5 million in bond money and then shepherded its purchase of the historic Monroe School.

Last March, the board of directors demanded her resignation.

Van Der Veen's dismissal was just one of a series of ugly detours for the museum in 2004. Facing a cash-poor fund-raising market and construction estimates that came in 40 percent higher than anticipated, the board was forced to delay the construction project that would, finally, turn the 93-year-old school building into a real children's museum.

Suddenly, everything was up for debate. And that really does mean everything, including having either "Family" or "Museum" in the facility's title. Board members now muse that it might be less confusing to get "children" in there . . . and take "museum" out. ("'Museum' connotes standing around looking at something," explains board chairman Tom Ambrose. "We want hands-on activity.") The board hired a nonprofit consultant to help with a "strategic reassessment." Meanwhile, the opening date has been pushed back two years, to the spring of 2007.

Officially, no one interviewed for this story will admit to anything worse than frustration. But many privately concede that Van Der Veen's departure was ugly.

They say the board was unhappy with her work, but since many board members were friends or people she'd recruited, some struggled to take action. Others give questions about her a terse "no comment." Some board members are obviously uncomfortable even admitting that Van Der Veen's gone, despite the new director's arrival nearly six months ago.

After all, the museum truly was Kim Van Der Veen's baby. In 1998, Van Der Veen, then an administrator with the city library department, took her family to California with another Phoenix clan, the Cazel-Jahns. While they were driving back to Arizona, inspiration came in the form of a pipe dream. The San Diego children's museum had been so much fun, the adults marveled. Cities from Boston to Seattle had museums similarly devoted to creative play and hands-on education; why not start one themselves in Phoenix?

They had no experience to justify such hubris, but their enthusiasm attracted a phalanx of volunteers and an advisory board helmed by former attorney general Grant Woods. But it only really took off in 2001, when the start-up museum beat out longtime Valley establishments to get the third biggest piece of the bond issuance.

Critics griped that Van Der Veen had unfairly worked her City Hall connections. After all, there already was a perfectly good children's museum, the Arizona Museum for Youth, in Mesa. (To be fair, that museum only recently added its star attraction, an arts-oriented exhibit for the toddler set.) It didn't help when Van Der Veen soon thereafter quit her library job to start as the museum's executive director -- at $72,000 a year, plus benefits, according to tax records.

Angela Cazel-Jahn, who shared the "aha!" moment in San Diego, is today the museum's artistic director. Asked about Van Der Veen, she says only, "I don't think I'll comment on that one. Thank you, though." (Cazel-Jahn sent an e-mail the next day saying she holds Van Der Veen "in very high esteem.")

While Van Der Veen's not exactly forthcoming about the details of her departure, no one can accuse her of reticence: "I love the children's museum!" she volunteers. Board members can say they forced her out; to her, it was "a mutually agreed-upon departure." As for what went wrong, she says only, "We had a different perspective in how the organization needed to be managed. They were looking for a different kind of manager, and I wasn't a good fit."

Ambrose, the board chairman, attributes Van Der Veen's dismissal to growing pains. "We got to a point where we needed that additional experience," he says. The new director, Debbie Gilpin, ran a children's museum in Massachusetts for 10 years.

"A lot of times, the skills that go into starting a project aren't the skills needed to carry it through," he says. "We didn't come by that decision lightly. It was very difficult."

The pains continue. The museum spent $5 million in bond money to buy the Monroe School, then another $652,000 on design fees. That left almost $5 million for construction, which was supposed to be enough -- until estimates for the work came in $2 million over that.

City leaders say they aren't about to release the remaining bond money without assurance that the museum can finish what it starts. Phil Jones, executive director of the city's Arts Commission, says the museum must show it has $2 million of its own to get the money it's due.

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