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Thursday, Feb 22, 2024

Valley-Based Children’s Museum Short on Donors

It is the first major cultural institution to be located in the San Fernando Valley, a city museum ballyhooed as a state-of-the-art facility. But after two years the organizers of the Children’s Museum of Los Angeles have barely scraped together enough money to break ground. In coming weeks museum officials are expected to scale back their original plans for the museum, which is to be located at Hansen Dam in Lakeview Terrace, making it a one-story building instead of the two-story landmark they originally hoped to construct. “The important thing is that we get it open for the kids,” said Bruce Corwin, co-chair of the board of governors for the Children’s Museum. “If we have to err on the side of getting it open as opposed to having it the greatest looking building ever, we’d rather err on the side of getting it open.” Since the decision was made to build the Children’s Museum at Hansen Dam, the board has chosen architects and designers who have envisioned a collection of interactive, hands-on exhibits about native peoples, flora and fauna, the environment and health and safety in a building that connects indoor and outdoor activities and rises at its highest point to three stories. But only about half of the $52 million needed to build the museum as originally designed has been pledged or received. “It has been slow going,” said Cathy Maguire, a member of the board of directors for the museum who has taken an active role in fundraising. “We’ve gotten money from the city and we have raised private dollars, but we certainly weren’t able to raise them as fast as anticipated.” Times are tough for fund raising of all kinds, and many not-for-profits are scrambling for a limited gift-giving pot. What irks many of those close to the project, at least privately, is that the San Fernando Valley has for years complained that the area gets bypassed when a major cultural venue is proposed for the city, and now that the long-awaited opportunity has arrived, local leaders have not stepped up to offer financial support. “The big question in my mind is when will the Valley say, ‘hey, the city is wanting to put a major cultural institution into our backyard,'” said Tova Joffe, capital campaign consultant for the Children’s Museum. “Every major city has a philharmonic, an opera and a children’s museum. There’s an opportunity to have a gem in their backyard.” The Children’s Museum for 27 years had operated out of a location in downtown Los Angeles. But in 2000, the museum’s lease expired, and officials began to look for another venue. Early on, there were plans to construct two museums, one in another downtown locale and one in the Valley. Then the museum received an offer it could not refuse. Affordable space Thanks to the efforts of City Councilman Alex Padilla, whose district includes parts of the Northeast Valley and who is widely regarded as having single-handedly championed the Hansen Dam location, the city offered the museum a 50-year lease on its land for $1 a foot. “We were going to build downtown and in the Valley and then we looked with a hard dollar sign and said it’s too expensive,” said Corwin. “So we said we have to build one place where we can afford it and open it. So we decided the Valley is the place.” Even with the attractive lease offer, getting support for locating the museum in the Northeast Valley was difficult, said Padilla, who remembers a day when he physically put one of the museum’s board members in his car and drove him out to the site. But he adds, “the biggest challenge has been the economic challenge. Philanthropic giving across the board is down in terms of the number of grants and awards, but also the dollar amounts. We have done a tremendous job given that financial environment.” Thus far the museum has raised about $21.5 million in pledges and contributions. Verizon has contributed $1 million. Wells Fargo and Anheuser Busch Companies Inc. have contributed $500,000 each and the Wasserman Foundation has pledged $250,000, said Corwin. But most of the funding has come from public grants, officials said. “Are there any specifics of individuals who have come on board in the Valley?” said Corwin. “No. But it’s like a domino effect. If we put enough balls in the air, it’s going to stick.” Officials believe that more contributors will come on board once construction actually begins, and the museum is only about $500,000 away from raising the $6 million it needs to break ground on the project. They say the situation is not unlike what occurred when Disney Hall was in planning stages, and fundraising stalled until businessman and philanthropist Eli Broad took up the cause. “What I have experienced is there was in general a lack of confidence in this project within the philanthropic community,” said Joffe. “What the board has been working on for the last two years is to regain the confidence of the philanthropic community in L.A. This has been done through success in fundraising as well as the progress in construction documents and design phase so there is I think a growing sense of certainty that this project is going to happen.” Location problems? But the other concern, implied at least, is that the Valley location has also hindered fundraising efforts. The philanthropic community on the other side of the hill is reluctant to invest in a project located so far from their own communities. And potential Valley philanthropists have, so far at least, not come forward. “I think Hansen Dam is a location people need to find out about,” Joffe said. “They haven’t heard about it, and they don’t know where it is. It’s really a matter of educating Angelenos to where it is.” Hansen Dam already has a number of attractions for families and children. It is home to the San Fernando Valley Fair. The lake offers many activities. There are horse trails and an equestrian center and a new library was recently opened adjacent to the proposed museum site. Ultimately, the museum’s supporters say they are confident that the family-oriented environment surrounding the museum site, the appeal of a children’s museum and their efforts will win over the philanthropic community. In the meantime, they hope to bring the cost of the museum in line with funding realities. “The recent reconsideration of the design has been how do we move forward with the museum in a way that’s financially realistic,” said Padilla. “So we did make the decision to reconsider the design to include as much functionality, but not as many bells and whistles which, though wonderful, are keeping the project just outside our grasp. With these modifications, we feel very confident we can put a shovel to dirt in the next few months.”

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