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Children’s museum eyes attendance

Marking its 20th anniversary, Grand Rapids Children’s Museum is debt-free for first time.

September 22, 2017
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The Grand Rapids Children’s Museum expects more than 200,000 visitors this year. Courtesy Grand Rapids Children's Museum

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) After just more than a year in a light-filled office with windows overlooking children at play, Maggie Lancaster’s enthusiasm for her job is palpable.

Executive director of Grand Rapids Children’s Museum since June 2016, Lancaster came to the organization after having worked as a volunteer and board member for 14 years. Prior to that, she was a history teacher and girls’ basketball coach.

“I’ve always been around play in one way or another,” she said.

Now, she gets to witness play changing an increasing number of lives. The museum expects to break attendance records, with more than 200,000 visitors coming through its doors this year — a feat she describes as “incredible,” given the museum’s $1.5-million budget and 14,000-square-foot space, comparatively small for a museum in a mid-sized city.

Paired with that milestone, for the first time in its history, the museum is debt-free.

“We are able to look into our future without having any debt or a mortgage hanging over our head. And that is amazing and very unique for a nonprofit,” she said. “We have worked very, very hard this last year to get to this point.”

Lancaster credits the vision of the museum’s founders — Alyce Greeson, Carla Morris, Aleicia Woodrick and Georgia Gietzen — for the position it is in today, as well as board members like Dale Rietberg, a business attorney at Varnum who wrote the GRCM bylaws in 1993.

“They felt there was a great need for open-ended play,” Lancaster said. “What is that? It is a lack of scheduling. It is a lack of telling somebody how to do something. Once those kids walk through our doors, they run the museum. You will often hear the play facilitators, like Jamal (Dawson), say, ‘Don’t forget to show your parents how to play.’”

While they weren’t experts in play psychology, it was 1997 and the four founders knew the digital age was coming.

“I always say this sarcastically about our founding mothers, ‘What did they know?’ Not much,” Lancaster said. “But of course, they had a crystal ball. They knew technology would take over the kids’ schedules, and parents would, and there would be a huge absence of play.

“That’s what happened, multiplied by the struggles we have in schools with fitting in recess. Academic testing is directly related to funding, and teachers have this struggle to fit it in, and it’s a terrible struggle. Where is recess? Where is open-ended play?”

Lancaster is on the same page with the founders about the importance of creating a level playing field in the museum.

“Because of our founding mothers, we were going to be named the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum and be welcoming to anyone, no matter their socioeconomic status, race or gender,” she said.

Under her watch, GRCM joined the nationwide Museums for All initiative that lets families of up to four people get into the museum for $1.75 per person using a WIC or EBT (Bridge) card.

“We are still the only one in West Michigan to do it,” she said, noting that the Flint Children’s Museum and Flint Institute of Arts are the only two other Michigan museums that have joined the program.

Looking ahead, Lancaster said her focus will be to reach more underserved populations.

“Where we are going in the next 20 years is going to involve a bigger, a more direct and intentional desire or route to include diversity and to include those who need us most,” she said. “Not that we didn’t do that in the past 20 years, but we’ve never been more intentional than we are right now about reaching diverse neighborhoods and families.”

She said GRCM already has been experimenting with ways to do that.

“We just finished a pilot program in Burton Elementary over the summer, called Purposefully Playing toward Kindergarten, and it was very successful,” she said.

“We were able to bring in children in that Burton neighborhood to prepare them for a typical kindergarten day. It entailed a lot of play. It entailed breakfast, a healthy snack and lunch. (It was) free to the kids, thanks to the Kellogg Foundation and Delta Dental.”

Lancaster also is proud of the museum’s STEAM-based (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) programming. She said it allows children to “tinker,” explore and get messy.

“At home — and I don’t blame them, because I do this, too — parents say, ‘Don’t get into that. I just got the house cleaned. Please don’t get out the beads.’ Here, kids can have all the fun they want, and we clean it up.”

Plenty else is keeping the museum’s staff of 31 part-time and nine full-time employees busy now that ArtPrize is underway. As always, GRCM is an outdoor venue with sculpture, time-based and installation artists whose work is kid-focused. This year, the venue has five entries.

Lancaster said the public art competition changed GRCM forever when brothers Tracy and Corey Van Duinen’s giant mural, “Imagine That,” transformed one full side of the building in an eye-catching display of color and creativity — and tied for runner-up.

“That was our first ArtPrize,” she said. “The building has literally changed us. The amount of people who come to have their picture taken now is daily: senior pictures, class pictures, proms, homecoming.

“The museum is 20 years old, so all of those kids grew up with us. They remember the bubble machine (one of the permanent indoor exhibits). It really is a great full circle.”

Since GRCM is all about play, Lancaster said they celebrate its anniversary every year, no matter what number it is. But next year will be special.

“Next summer, we will have a huge 21st birthday bash outside with all the breweries,” she said. “And along the way, we will have little, mini grown-up play dates. The first is Oct. 13 of this year. We will open our doors to have adults come in and play.”

The museum also will present its third annual Play Symposium on Oct. 11 at Grand Valley State University in partnership with GVSU’s Richard & Helen DeVos Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Steelcase and Custer. The symposium will explore “the inextricable bonds that tie play and entrepreneurship.”

Lancaster’s pride in her work is contagious. She calls it “the best job in the world” and does not foresee a detour.

“Looking back on the 20 years, I think a lot of people looked at us as ‘The Little Engine That Could,’” she said. “I like to think that now, we are the Amtrak, and we are going full-speed ahead.”

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