The Children’s Museum of the East End pulled itself back from the brink this summer and is now on solid fiscal footing and working to build community relationships, according to its new executive director.
The 12,000-square-foot museum on the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike in Bridgehampton has permanent and revolving exhibition spaces and provides creative programs and summer camps for children.
Steve Long became the executive director in June 2008, just weeks before the museum’s board announced that it would need $500,000 by the end of the summer to stay in operation. He has been making the rounds of community groups ever since, spreading the message that the museum has dramatically reduced its expenses and is here to stay.
The museum’s financial scare this summer was a response to many factors that were aggravated by the lack of a business plan. For one, the museum was paying off a $4 million construction loan to the tune of $20,000 per month. Less than $400,000 of its $1.8 million budget was raised through user fees, leaving the museum heavily dependent on donations that began to slow as the economy weakened. On top of those factors, the museum has no endowment, leaving it far too dependent on a pool of donors already stretched thin by a large number of charitable causes here.
The museum has since refinanced its mortgage with the Bridgehampton National Bank and is now paying, on average, $10,000 per month. The museum has reduced its operating budget to $1.2 million and hopes to reduce it further, by cutting down on supplies, holding its programming in conjunction with other community groups that pay to staff the events, and by using revolving exhibits that are created by other community groups, not rented.
Mr. Long said that he hopes to start a capital campaign to pay off the mortgage late next year and then begin developing an endowment to serve the museum for generations to come.
He said that the museum membership has increased slightly since the summer and that it is bringing in about the same amount of revenue from user fees as last year.
“We are stable and we will certainly be continuing,” Mr. Long told the East Hampton Rotary Club members Monday.
Signs of an improving community partnership are becoming more evident, Mr. Long said. Twelve students from the Bridgehampton School will begin volunteering at the museum in January and BookHampton has opened a small children’s bookshop there for the holiday season. The Bridgehampton Citizens Advisory Committee, many of whose members had previously been unaware of the museum’s existence, held their December meeting in a classroom at the museum, after Mr. Long spoke to the group last month.
“We didn’t have enough adult-size chairs. All our chairs were this high,” said Mr. Long at an East Hampton Rotary Club meeting Monday night, holding his hand about a foot off of the floor. In the end, the Hampton Library loaned Mr. Long 20 chairs so that the CAC could meet.
That may be a small matter, but it’s an example of the types of relationships that Mr. Long is working to foster at the museum, which was criticized by some this summer as an out-of-touch institution designed for the children of wealthy residents.
Mr. Long told the Rotary Club on Monday that one of the biggest hurdles the museum had to face was that it had opened without a business plan.
“It was a mistake,” he said, though he added that many museums make the same mistake. He said he hopes to have a draft of the business plan in place by mid-January and said that he is looking for public input on the plan when it is complete.
Though it currently primarily serves younger children, Mr. Long hopes to attract more teens in the future, through a Junior Docent program that would allow older students to develop ideas for exhibitions and work as curators alongside professionals at the museum.
He also hopes to build a playground on the museum grounds and see the museum’s board expanded to include broader representation of the community.
“Bridgehampton doesn’t have a community playground,” he said. “Kids here have fewer opportunities for play.”
Mr. Long said that recent statistics about high obesity levels in toddlers have him concerned, and he hopes to develop a program to help make kids aware of healthy lifestyles, starting with a wellness fair.
Mr. Long had previously been the vice president of collections and education at the Tenement Museum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he’d worked since 1994. He started a successful English as a Second Language program at the Tenement Museum and plans to start a family literacy program at the Children’s Museum. He hopes to involve both The Retreat and the East Hampton after-school program , Project Most, in the program.
“When I talk to parents, they say, ‘You’re not describing a museum. You’re talking about a community center,’” said Mr. Long. “That’s essentially the mission of CMEE.”