New Children's Museum Succeeding Despite Economic Challenges

West Hartford's iconic 87-year-old institution earned a surplus in its last fiscal year and is renewing focus on 21st Century skills as it looks to an exciting future.

Photo of Conny the whale courtesy of The New Children's Museum
Photo of Conny the whale courtesy of The New Children's Museum

Like “The Little Engine That Could,” The New Children’s Museum has proven that with hard work and a focused approach, it can rise up from some tough times, balance its budget, and position itself for an exciting future.

In its last fiscal year, The New Children’s Museum has climbed that mountain, earning a small surplus for the first time in many years.

“This is an institution that is facing the same challenges that other museums and cultural institutions have been facing since 2008,” said museum President and CEO Robert Griesmer. When Griesmer assumed his role in Sept. 2011, he was tasked with charting a new course for the 21st Century and orchestrating a financial turnaround – a major challenge in a time of decreased discretionary consumer spending for family recreation and tight public school education budgets reducing the number of field trips.

At the same time, Griesmer said, non-profits are competing for the available pool of corporate and foundation funds – which have been faced with lower earnings as well as increased demand on their endowments.

“For any non-profit to envision being sustainable long term, it must first ensure that finances are in balance. That sometimes comes with difficult decisions – decisions that sometimes may make the institution appear to be hurting but in reality provide a stronger foundation for sustainability,” said Sondra Lintelmann-Dellaripa, a consultant with Harvest Development Group, LLP, an organization that that provided the museum with a feasibility study.

While economic factors on their own set the stage for some tough times, Griesmer is the first to admit that when he arrived The New Children’s Museum seemed somewhat tired and worn, in need of a facelift, investment in exhibits, and new programming.

“The biggest mistake that a non-profit museum can make is thinking that it can address its long-term financial challenges by cutting costs and not making strategic investments in the products and services it provides to the community. It needs to invest in the institution. We are doing that by continuously realigning our resources in order to ensure that The New Children’s Museum is not only relevant but fundamental to the community we serve,” Griesmer said.

To achieve this, the institution is renewing focus on exhibits that stress creativity and problem-solving for 21st Century learners and emphasizing programming that will attract repeat visitors to the West Hartford facility as well as to its Roaring Brook Nature Center in Canton. A restructuring enabled The New Children’s Museum to clean up its balance sheet, pay off debt, increase liquidity, and produce a small surplus, Griesmer said.

Specific enhancements to the West Hartford facility include the new Imagination Playground and the Thinker Linker studio, which will soon provide an additional exhibit for children to work with circuitry and robotics. In addition, the museum has enhanced the brand of the Travelers Digital Dome/Gengras Planetarium by bringing in National Geographic’s “Wildest Weather in the Solar System.”

The New Children’s Museum is also seeking to drive growth through “robust programming, which should lead to repeat visitation and additional earned income,” said Griesmer, who is very excited about bringing in the live immersive exhibit “Butterflies: Winged Wonders” this summer.

“Lars the Little Polar Bear Experience” was one of the most successful new programs, said Director of Operations Beth Weller. The vacation-week program for children ages 3-8 incorporated a planetarium experience (live sky tour), a loveable mascot/character, and dancing. A vacation week program for April will incorporate a planetarium show about the moon.

Tinkering workshops, which began last summer thanks to some grant money from Lego and 3M, promote creativity and problem-solving, said Weller. One recent workshop focused on learning about and then crafting shadow puppets.

The museum has renewed emphasis on giving back to the community, offering discounted admission for donations of food or hats and mittens, and collecting letters to veterans. Members-only events, such as pajama parties, are held to increase the value of membership.

It’s common knowledge in the West Hartford area that the museum has been looking for a new location for the past several years. “We are encouraged by our efforts in this regard and are looking forward to the day when we can announce our concrete plans to the community,” Griesmer said.

The museum has been a fixture in the Greater Hartford area since 1927. It is a nationally unique institution due to its combination of science, nature, and a preschool.

“Institutions like ours continue to be unique because the community continues to invest today, tomorrow, and forever. With greater regional support, the future for the museum looks better than ever,” said Griesmer.

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