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Written by Mike Spock
I soon figured out that, like an orchid, The Children's Museum was living on air. There was no predicable source of solid income beyond a tiny endowment. The Godfrey M. Hyams Trust made a habit of contributing generously each year to our operating budget. They had set the stage in 1935 when Hyams' two sisters, Sarah and Isabel, underwrote the move to our new home by purchasing the Mitton Mansion on the Jamaicaway and constructing the auditorium that became the Visitor Center in 1968.
Each year the volunteer Museum Aid group held a holiday bazaar for which they crafted handmade gifts and invited specialty shops to offer tables of their goods giving a percentage of sales to Museum Aid. At the end of each year, the board of trustees made up the difference to bring the museum's budget back into balance. In Boston, there was no operating subsidy from the city or regional or state governments as there was in other metropolitan areas.
Having grown up in New York, where most of the big museums were free, I could just walk in—even just to use the restrooms—and walk out. There was a modest admission at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). I loved MoMA's special exhibitions like Indian Art of the United States (1941) where I could watch native artists at work, and Airways to Peace (1943) where interactive exhibit modules helped me figure out how maps were designed for alternative uses and alternate trips. And of course the silent movies in the basement, accompanied by a live piano, were all appealing. Rockefeller Center's Museum of Science, among the museums I really loved, also charged admission.
Although I resisted the change, we had to begin charging admission at The Children's Museum. We softened the blow with a tent card on the admission desk: "If the charge is a problem, let us know and we will arrange to sponsor your admission.' It was $1.00. The staff was coached to be aware of visitors hesitating at the door, to open the conversation, and to always let them in. We were also active in getting Boston city branch libraries to loan out membership cards for free admission to the museum.
We began extending the Friday evening hours to 9:00 p.m., advertising them as "Free Friday Nights.' Both changes were timed to the opening of What's Inside? We offered modest Friday evening theater programs, for which we charged, giving all the proceeds to the performers. In one very tough year, we had to charge $1.00 for the formerly free Friday Nights, but were able to hold for many years before corporations began to sponsor what became Friday Family Nights. It took years for the word to get out that Friday Family Nights were a bargain! But once it did, Friday Family Nights became really busy, and the demographics were much more diverse—which made us feel a touch less guilty.
When the new MATCh Kits were ready to go to the schools—and if teachers were not trying out the prototype units in their classrooms—we started to charge for the kit rentals to cover the department's operating expenses. We offered to send them by UPS if teachers couldn't arrange for pickups and returns. The museum store began to make a little money, and we got very good at writing and selling grants to foundations and government agencies. In fact, we think we were the first non-federal museum to receive a program grant from a federal agency.
But getting the budget to balance each year continued to be a struggle. We were always looking for the next opportunity to exploit a new source of funding or savings. For each opportunity we uncovered and mined, the upward income curve, however promising initially, would always flatten out leaving us to find yet another source. The demand was insatiable. Unlike capital-intensive industries (media, manufacturing, transportation) where technological improvements tended to keep inflation in check, we were riding the same curve as other labor-intensive organizations (schools, hospitals, orchestras) where the curve always exceeded the rate of inflation. After intense rounds of aggressive management savings, museums like ours could not count on continued efficiencies and scaling. Making the budget fit each year was exhausting.
When the holiday bazaar began to run out of steam, at my urging, the Community Services department and Museum Aid shamelessly copied The Children's Museum of Indianapolis's Haunted House as our next seasonal fundraiser. After the move to the Wharf, we co-sponsored the Big Apple Circus when they began to venture beyond New York City.
But the museum's bread and butter became earned income driven by growing attendance and admission fees, which in turn drove shop sales and membership income. Like most science museums today, (yes, we took our clue from them and zoos—not art or history museums—unless they were government-owned or on park land and therefore, subsidized) the percentage of earned income to unearned was about three quarters of our budget.