Crowded marketplace

By Julie Paul

Recent attention has focused on the appropriateness of public funding for local museums.

Does such funding help or hurt an institution’s efforts to achieve its mission?

How can we measure the public’s return on investment?

Should we just let museums fend for themselves?

In this debate, it is easy to overlook the lessons learned from Raleigh’s smaller museums such as Playspace Children’s Museum.

Founded by moms and early-childhood educators who saw a need for an educational and recreational facility for young children and their families, Playspace opened in 1991.

Playspace was founded on the belief that infancy to age seven mark the critical years to excite children about learning. Exhibits offer a child-sized world where children’s imaginations direct the action and education programming inspires curiosity.

Playspace’s vision has been validated year after year as attendance has grown.

More than 91,000 visitors passed through our doors in 2003, causing Playspace to sell out on occasion and have to turn away field trips.

Our vision has also been validated by the establishment of similar museums in cities across the U.S. since our opening.

What’s truly remarkable about Playspace is the institution’s success despite an annual operating budget of $365,000, rent of $102,000, only six full-time equivalent staff members, and public funding of $15,000, restricted for outreach.

Our counterparts in similarly-sized areas have annual budgets on average of $1.7 million, 22 full-time and 24 part-time staff members, and no rent because their buildings were publicly financed or donated.

Given our success with so little, you may conclude that Playspace should serve as the poster child for why museums ought not receive public funding.

A look beneath the surface, however, may lead to a different conclusion.

Playspace suffers from inadequate space and a lack of capacity to meet the area’s growth.

In addition, the Triangle region has become increasingly sophisticated.  Our patrons’ expectations about the museum experience and exhibit quality have risen. We lack the resources to meet those rising expectations.

Most disconcerting is our rent. Almost one-third of our budget covers rent, which will continue to escalate in coming years.  Since operations are already bare bones, we have few options to meet the rising rent.  Charging exorbitant admissions fees is not the answer.

Just imagine how effective and popular a children’s museum could be with adequate resources, staff and space.

With targeted public support, smaller museums such as Playspace could show impressive results in terms of more professional exhibits, creative programming, and space to accommodate our increasing audience.

In the long run, that will benefit all museums. By showing a strong return on investment, the public will understand the important role such funding plays.

Without it, we cannot have the quality of museums our citizens want and demand.

Julie Paul is executive director of Playspace in Raleigh.

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