O Children, Where Art Thou?

Mitch O'Connell

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.

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.

"It could undermine all future financing for art and cultural amenities," he says.

In the past, Phoenix voters have been generous in approving bond measures. City residents have approved $2.8 billion of the $2.9 billion in projects presented to them in 10 bond elections.

The last bond election was in 1988. That $1 billion package of projects -- to be paid off over a six-year period -- took longer than expected to retire, largely because of a downturn in Phoenix property values.

So in the past 13 years, many city departments and city leaders have developed long wish lists for projects they hope will win approval this month. Police and fire officials say they are woefully behind in technology, equipment and stations to adequately serve Phoenix residents. Libraries, parks and senior centers need more branches, more room and upgrades making them accessible to the handicapped. Street improvements, better storm sewers, a new homeless shelter and neighborhood city service centers are all needed. Arts, cultural and historic preservation groups sought money for new or enlarged facilities, necessary repairs and upgrades and funds to save two Phoenix landmarks: what's left of the Phoenix Union High School and Tovrea Castle.

The city asked 300 Phoenix residents to help whittle the list of nearly $3 billion worth of projects to about $700 million. The goal was to keep the amount low enough so no increase in property tax would be necessary to pay off the bonds.

About 30 people worked on the Cultural and Historic Preservation Subcommittee. They pared down more than $230 million in requested projects by two thirds, held several meetings last fall, toured the proposed projects and conducted two public hearings.

And the Phoenix Family Museum, the only start-up group in the bunch, fared well. It received the third highest individual sum, trailing only two local arts scene veterans: the Phoenix Art Museum and Symphony Hall.

But an examination of the committee and its process shows the museum's success shouldn't have been a surprise.

The top museum backers -- Van der Veen and Freeman -- are veterans of city politics. Freeman served as director of public art for Phoenix at the time of the 1988 bond election, so, she says, she knew how the process worked. Van der Veen is a management assistant for the city's library administration department. Freeman and city councilman Phil Gordon -- a supporter of the museum -- says Van der Veen has been scrupulously careful to do museum business on her own time. But the cause has benefited from Van der Veen's easy access to city staffers and an intimate understanding of the process.

Consider this chatty e-mail, sent from her museum e-mail address, to City Manager Frank Fairbanks in August, as city departments were drawing up their lists of capital needs.

"Hello! We're working away trying to find a good site for the Phoenix Family Museum/Museo de la Familia de Phoenix downtown. If you have any ideas about good/bad locations, we'd love to know . . . Kim"

Fairbanks replied two days later: "Kim, We need to talk. What if we bought a couple of Phoenix Union Buildings and rehabbed them? Just a thought. frank"

In July, the museum became the first -- and so far the only -- organization to be given the use of a city bus, free of charge. A transit department spokesman says the bus was ready to be retired to the surplus yard when the city council approved a three-year loan to the Phoenix Family Museum. According to council records, the city in return will get recognition from the museum and a promise that Phoenix residents will get free admission to any mobile museum events (which so far have been free to everyone). Freeman says the idea came not from inside dealings, but from a museum supporter at Arizona Community Foundation, who broached the idea to councilwoman Peggy Bilsten.

Bilsten did not return calls for comment. A spokesperson for the city says retired transit buses sell for $800 to $3,500 at surplus auctions.

The bus ended up playing an important role in the bond process. Being able to travel around town with portable exhibits allowed the museum to not only drum up support for the idea, but to bolster its statistics on the number of people served -- figures the bond committee requested of every organization seeking money.  

As the bond process advanced, Van der Veen was allowed to juggle her schedule so she could attend the Cultural and Historic Preservation Subcommittee meetings. And she was able to keep close tabs on how, in general, the subcommittee process worked. She was listed as one of the city's contacts for the Libraries Subcommittee.

When one of the Cultural and Historic Preservation public hearings was held at the Burton Barr Central Library, the family museum provided free baby-sitting (complete with certified teachers and snacks) in an adjoining room so parents could attend the standing-room-only meeting.

During that public hearing, the museum filled the audience with supporters (some of them pintsized). At other meetings, the organization brought in high-profile members of its advisory board -- including former state attorney general Grant Woods and Phoenix Suns vice president Tom Ambrose -- to ask for money. Backers provided lapel stickers, passed out information folders and used a Power Point computerized slide show to describe their plans.

They weren't alone in such tactics, but they were the most adept. At the library public hearing, 62 attendees filled out cards in support of the Phoenix Family Museum. The next greatest show of support was for Valley Youth Theatre, whose backers filled out 40 note cards. Some groups had only one or two cards filled out.

Some presentations were not as polished.

Don Jackson, president of the Phoenix Union High School alumni association, had 5,000 former students behind him. Some wrote letters and e-mails to city officials asking that the school's remaining four buildings at Seventh Street and Van Buren be saved from demolition. Some people suggested the buildings could be used to serve the needs of groups requesting bond money, by providing museum, practice or rehearsal or performance space. Jackson made impassioned pleas to the subcommittee and helped organize a group of alumni to wear the school colors (red and black) to another public hearing at the Phoenix Civic Plaza.

He also had a promise from a well-placed PUHS alumnus -- Herma Hightower, director of national programs for the Smithsonian Institution -- that the historic buildings might be used to showcase some of the national collection. Jackson says Hightower has told him that one of the top priorities for the Institution is to move more of the museum's large collection into communities. Of 60 programs nationwide, Jackson says, only one -- the Bisbee Mining Museum -- is in Arizona.

But the subcommittee wasn't swayed. The PUHS $10 million request -- even though it was backed by the city -- didn't make it through the initial round of cuts.

A despondent Jackson told the subcommittee: "We have no staff to develop fancy presentations, no secretaries to help prepare documents to impress you. We just have volunteers, like me, who care about our city's history and see this as a defining moment in that history."

Jackson later said the alumni were mostly working folks who couldn't pack the public hearings or attend all the subcommittee meetings.

Lisa Irwin, an avid proponent of preserving historic parts of Phoenix, says she was appointed to the Cultural and Historic Preservation Subcommittee but couldn't attend a single meeting -- most of which were held during daytime hours. "I have to work," she says.

Last year, when the city began recruiting citizen volunteers for the subcommittees, Phoenix Family Museum supporters recognized an opportunity. In a May letter to councilman Greg Stanton, Gretchen Freeman thanked him for meeting with her and two others about the museum, thanked him for his advice on the bond election and asked that four people be appointed to the bond committee, including museum advisory board member Alan Silverman, a Phoenix attorney. The note doesn't mention that he is Freeman's husband (something he did disclose to other subcommittee members).

Other documents regarding the bond committee appointment process, obtained by New Times through a public records request, contain various e-mails, résumés and memos suggesting possible committee candidates.

In the end, the Phoenix Family Museum was well-represented on the Cultural and Historic Preservation Subcommittee, with seven of the subcommittee's 30 members affiliated with the museum project. They were board of directors or advisory board members Freeman, her husband Silverman, Rita Carrillo and Ginger Ward; two donors, Richard Goldsmith and Amy Clague; and Lois Savage, whose appointment was suggested by Van der Veen.

Later, when subcommittee recommendations went before the executive committee for final approval before the bond projects went before the city council, museum backers saw even more friendly faces. Chairman Dick Snell and member Denise Meredith are listed as donors in museum documents. And Diamondbacks president Rich Dozer also sat on the board. His team is listed as a "major sponsor" of the museum.  

Only two other groups -- the Phoenix Art Museum (with 11) and the Arizona Science Center (with nine) had more affiliates on the subcommittee. Both received funding. Of the groups with no representatives on the panel -- the Carver Museum and Cultural Center, the Herrera Center for the Cultural and Performing Arts and the Arizona Ballet School -- only the Carver proposal was approved.

Subcommittee members were required to disclose their affiliations but were not prohibited from voting on projects in which they had an other-than-financial interest.

At the subcommittee's last meeting, after the group had decided which proposals to recommend to the bond executive committee, member Chaunci Aeed told the panel she was worried about one allocation -- the Phoenix Family Museum.

The museum had requested $17 million in bond funds to purchase, renovate and furnish the new facility and pay for a main exhibit. The $10.5 million would be used to buy the historic school and renovate it, with furniture and exhibits coming out of the museum's own funds.

"The Phoenix Family Museum, I think, has a wonderful and loyal following. But they don't have a proven track record at this point," she said.

She proposed allocating $6 million -- the asking price for the purchase of the Monroe School -- then withholding the remaining $4.5 million until the museum could match that amount with its own fund-raising.

The committee took no action on her suggestion.

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.)

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 ( 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.

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."

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.

"At some point, I think we have to recognize that having one good thing is enough," Meyerson says.

Meyerson, who has acted as a consultant for children's museums around the country, says keeping a new museum open is the challenge. Children's museums have a revolving clientele, unlike other cultural entities that have lifelong patrons. So they are constantly being challenged to lure new customers, she says.

Meyerson says officials at the Phoenix Family Museum may not realize how difficult it is to solicit contributions in the Valley. "I am out there very active in fund-raising," she says. "It's hard to raise money. There are a number of major institutions with large budgets that are struggling. Some were on life support for a while."

Freeman says the Phoenix Family Museum believes it can maintain the funding to keep it viable. And she says cities like Chicago, which have four or five children's museums, have proven that there are markets for more than one such facility in a metropolitan area.

A national Association of Youth Museums directory shows only one in the Chicago city limits (home to 3 million people), with several others in surrounding areas. And New York City, with eight times the population of Phoenix, has three children's museums, according to the directory.

Phoenix councilman Gordon says it's "ludicrous" to think that two children's museums can't exist in the Valley. He says Phoenix should have its own museum, that there is an underserved population that would frequent a closer facility and that Mesa city officials shouldn't be telling the Phoenix mayor and council how to do their jobs.

"This whole thing has been blown out of proportion by some well-meaning people," he says.  

Museum backers are confident the March 13 bond cultural proposal will pass and that the new facility could be open by 2004. But if they aren't successful at the polls, they aren't giving up.

"We are here to stay," Freeman says.

Click here for more information on the bond process and propositions

Click here to visit the Phoenix Family Museum site

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