Discovery Children’s Museum: Age of Discovery

THIRTY YEARS AGO, philanthropist Barbara Molasky tri-chaired a fundraiser at the then-brand-new Boulevard Mall on Maryland Parkway. Leaders of the community gathered to raise money for an unusual concept at that time. As other cities struggled to nurture civil engagement, Molasky and her friends had an idea. The concept was the construction of a children’s museum, a place that would strengthen the bonds of community, family and education.

The museum’s co-founders, Robin Greenspun and Mark Tratos, arranged a partnership between the Junior League of Las Vegas and the Allied Arts Council. After landing a grant, this alliance opened the doors of the Lied Discovery Children’s Museum in 1990 in what is now the Downtown Cultural Corridor. Since then, the interactive educational facility has been nothing short of a success.

Indeed, despite a struggling economy in recent years, museum attendance and membership rocketed. In 2008, the museum hosted 87,000 visitors. Two years later, that figure nearly doubled to 160,000. Growth is great, but it resulted in a much-needed next step—finding a new location where the museum could better fulfill its mission to offer quality interactive education to Southern Nevada families.

It was a test of the museum’s leadership. So the board of trustees and its chair, Judy Cebulko, drew upon its long, established tradition of cooperation to make things happen. This spring, the museum will be relocated to the new Donald W. Reynolds Discovery Center. Thanks to a gift from the Reynolds Foundation, the Smith Center is putting aside $43 million of that money to build the Reynolds Discovery Center. The museum is responsible for the remaining $12 million to cover transition costs and ongoing programs. No public money will be used.

The new building is nestled in Symphony Park, a 61-acre mixed-use neighborhood in the heart of Downtown Las Vegas. Three stories tall and 58,000 square feet in size, Discovery Children’s Museum will offer nine immersive galleries with a strong curriculum on arts, sciences and humanities. That curriculum was guided by Vice Chair Joyce Schneider, retired “School Teacher of the Year,” along with Deputy Director Tifferney White. Together they held exhibit designers, the best in the nation, to a whole new standard. Eyes will be opened and smiles will be created when guests open the doors and plunge into the featured exhibit—a 60-foot-tall climbing, crawling, sliding structure that children and parents can explore together. Being next to the Smith Center for the Performing Arts is a synergistic move, meant to capitalize on the clustering of cultural and economic institutions. It’s also an evolution poised to increase the livability factor for all of us in Vegas.

With a 30th anniversary gala approaching on Oct. 20, diamondcake had a chance to chat with three gorgeous people—past Gala Tri-Chair and current Board of Advocates member Molasky, Gala Co-Chair and Board of Trustees Chair Judy Cebulko, Board of Trustees member and Shining Stars Committee Chair Annemarie Jones—about the storied past, present and future of Discovery Children’s Museum.

Barbara, you were on board from the start. Looking back, what has been most rewarding about your involvement?

Barbara Molasky: Many of us who helped launch the museum raised our children in that space. It has been heartwarming to see my daughter playing with my grandchildren in the museum. It’s a cultural institution that has withstood the test of time. I’m proud that it sustains itself, that it continues to thrive. I credit the efforts of the trustees and their experienced management. Big yellow buses still line the driveway in front of the museum on any given school day!

You held an early museum fundraiser in a shopping mall?

Barbara Molasky: The very first gala fundraiser in 1984 was held in the men’s department on the second floor of Bullock’s. The guy from the Mission: Impossible TV show, Greg Morris, was the emcee. It was so much fun. Who knew where it would all lead? We all banded together back then, as we do now. There was a group of us, because we had families, who wanted a place to take them. I’ve always loved downtown. To see what has developed and walk into Symphony Park makes me feel proud to have played a role in the museum’s future.

Let’s talk about the present. The museum has earned every conceivable award, from the Review-Journal’s Best Museum in Las Vegas to Nickelodeon’s Parent’s Picks. How did you accomplish this?

Judy Cebulko: The museum’s founders had a vision that investing in the educational development of children would pay dividends for their lifetimes and for the community as a whole. We agree with them, and so do parents of the more than 2 million children and families who’ve visited the museum. In recent years, we brought many new educational exhibits online, and the community responded with a soaring growth in attendance. We think of ourselves as an informal education platform that complements the formal education through the school district.

The future looks bright. Annemarie, you’re co-chairing the gala fundraiser. What level of involvement do you see?

Annemarie Jones: Incredible involvement from all levels. It’s because there are very few places like the Discovery Children’s Museum that really bring the whole community together.

It’s not an elitist museum. It includes everyone, and it’s critical, I think, to have a place where hotel housekeepers and CEOS can come to see their kids interact with these incredible exhibits. With fundraising, we receive $20 checks and then a million-dollar contribution comes in. But $20 is just as important, because it shows the community is pulling together. We want the community to feel like they’re involved in making sure the museum’s doors open in February.

There’s “synergy” in bringing the museum to Symphony Park. But isn’t it also a chance to introduce kids to Vegas’ larger cultural landscape?

Annemarie Jones: The children growing up in the DISCOVERY Children’s Museum will ultimately go on to be the supporters of Symphony Park and The Smith Center and the ballet and go on to underwrite these programs. I really do believe that when a child grows up in DISCOVERY Children’s Museum, he or she will end up being a future benefactor and attendee of the Smith Center’s programming. Kids will learn to see the Symphony Park as their home away from home.

Can you tell me about the museum’s outreach program called House Calls?

Judy Cebulko: House Calls is a hands-on, interactive health and science outreach program for grades K-5. From food and nutrition, to dental health and hygiene, to learning about circulatory and respiratory systems, a professional museum educator shows up in the teacher’s classroom and facilitates a learning experience. Anything we can do to supplement CCSD in terms of early childhood development is important.

I hear the museum’s YouthWorks program is successful.

Judy Cebulko: Yes. When I have a chance to share them, the facts about this program stop many governmental and community leaders in their tracks. I get goosebumps talking about the program’s success. YouthWorks is an at-risk teen program serving over 100 high school students each year, kids from low-income families who need support and encouragement to stay in school and graduate. The program provides training and job skills—everything from interacting with the public, to workforce responsibilities, to career planning. The YouthWorks staff creates an individualized counseling plan so students reach their fullest potential. Some students volunteer at the museum. If they have a good performance record they’re offered paid employment working at the museum. We have had a 100 percent graduation rate among the program’s seniors, which is incredible.

Any obstacles in getting a museum of this size and quality up and running?

Judy Cebulko: The only thing standing in the way of opening the doors of this new world-class experience for the children and families of Southern Nevada is support from the community. This board of trustees has happily taken this project as far as we can. Now we just need a huge hug from our community. We need everyone’s involvement, at whatever level they are capable, from a $20 cash gift, to $10,000, to a six-figure pledge, which can spread across a number of years. So many folks are philanthropic, but they may not realize we don’t need cash now! We simply need a pledge, a commitment of their support, that doesn’t need to be paid off until 2015.

Barbara Molasky: We want folks to feel a true sense of ownership. This is not our museum; it’s the community’s. And we need the philanthropic community’s support to bring this project “home” to Las Vegas.

Previously published by diamondcake. Updated by smallTALK. Archived for the Discovery Children’s Museum.