“If I look back on my life, everything has led up to me doing this,” Tanya Durand said about her role as executive director of the Children’s Museum of Tacoma. “I remember being in a museum at 6 years old and thinking to myself, ‘Museums are so cool — I wonder if there are jobs in museums.’”
And in fact, it does seem as if Durand was made for this role. She started working at the museum as development director in 1996, right after graduating from the University of Puget Sound with a BA in art history. A few years later, she was named executive director, and she has been changing the lives of children in Tacoma ever since. She has implemented multiple programs for the museum, has made admission run on a pay-as-you-wish system, was instrumental in its move to a different location, and has advocated for children’s rights in the community outside of the museum.
“I can’t imagine doing anything different,” said Durand.
— Courtney Wolfe
The Children’s Museum had a unique start: It was founded by a group of parents, teachers, and community leaders. How do you maintain this feeling of community ownership of the museum?
We’ve listened to the community and have figured out what the museum’s unique niches are in the community, and we’ve really stretched ourselves to make our gifts available to those who need them. We live in one of the lowest-income counties in our state, so the board works really hard to make sure that what we’re doing is in reflection of — or in response to — the families that live in our community.
What changes have you seen in the museum industry since you started this career?
The museum industry is in general not flourishing, and I think that people are wanting more hands-on, experiential learning, or just experiences. They want to be active and involved and engaged, and learning looks a lot different than it did even when I was a child. Museums as a whole are looking to children’s museums to help lead the way and help them understand how to do a better job so their audiences remain young, vibrant, and youthful. When you look at successful grant applications, children’s museums are a very small percentage of the total number of museums in this country, but we outperform the other museums.
The passing of Tacoma Creates — an initiative that will expand youth access to Tacoma’s arts, culture, science, and heritage programs — is something you have been advocating for. How did you become involved?
Because the museum believes so vehemently that access is important, I got really excited that for pretty minimal cost per citizen, we could put access on steroids for the community and make sure that everyone in Tacoma and Pierce County has the opportunity to engage in these really meaningful cultural experiences. Through art we tell our stories, so this is about our story as a people and making sure that everybody has a chance not only to participate in hearing and experiencing those stories, but also in creating those experiences themselves. So it was a real natural fit for the children’s museum to take a leadership role in that process.
If Tacoma Creates passes, how would that directly affect the museum?
Right now, we are pay-as-you-will, and our visitors are generous, and they do want to participate in that. But we still end up subsidizing admission by about $7.50 a visitor. So Tacoma Creates will make sure that’s a sustainable activity for us, and that we can continue to be essentially free to the community. It will also help us expand our free Play to Learn program that’s in about 22 neighborhoods a week throughout Pierce County.
Has the children’s museum always operated on a pay-as-you-will system?
We implemented that in 2012, when we relocated from Broadway down to Pacific Avenue. It was actually a pretty simple math equation. A lot of children’s museums do really well with their earned income from admissions and gift shops, but we were the absolute opposite. We had high contributing income (donations) but low earned. So I did some math and analysis, and it turned out that we were making less than $50,000 a year on people paying to get into the museum. So knowing that we live in a community of need, I asked the board how they would feel if we would just have to replace $50,000 a year for people to go for free. It was the quickest decision I’ve seen them make — of course they wanted to do it.
What percentage of the daily operations are supported by donations?
It’s interesting because we’ve become free, but our earned income has skyrocketed. I want to say 40 percent of our expenses are covered by donations, and we earn 60 percent now.
How do you go about getting such strong donors?
It’s all about building relationships. I think that we’re lucky — we’re beloved in the community. We’re kind of known as The Little Engine That Will. We’ve got some really generous donors that just stick with us and believe in what we do, so they make annual gifts to us. We have successful fundraisers that we throw, and we earn more than half of our income. We operate a childcare center that’s an income generator for us, and we operate preschools on two different campuses. That’s a real money-maker for us.
Was there ever a time when you thought the museum might be in trouble financially?
When I first became director, the museum was going through some real growing pains, and we were faced with the question of whether we should close. We did exhaustive interviews with funders and stakeholders, and everybody said, “No, hang on; let’s band together and pull out of this.” So with a lot of hard work and faith, we did. We rode the ship and, knock on wood, we’ve winded our sails ever since.
Why is it so important that children have a space in the community?
I had this epiphany one day: Why do we obsess over waiting for children to join us in our adult context? We hurry and think we’ve got to get them to grow; we’ve got to get them to learn this. If you compare an adult context to a child’s context, I’d much rather live in a child’s world. Children are the most loving, compassionate, interested, and engaged citizens we have. The way they think about things, I really think, is valuable and something we need to pay attention to.
What would you tell someone who hopes to find a job similar to yours?
There are only about 350 of my jobs in the country, so I feel pretty darn lucky to have mine … (But) I would say that if someone wanted to become a children’s museum director, they need to hold a really strong image of the child in their own hearts, and they need to be very open to what their community is telling them.
What’s next for the museum?
We’re working on putting a satellite museum on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, which would be the first (of its kind on a military installation). So we’re really feeling excited and humbled by that opportunity, and it’s just been a project that’s stolen the hearts of everyone on the team. So my goal is to get that open and do it really intentionally and well, and then also make sure we continue to see how we can raise the bar in terms of what’s provided for children in all of Pierce County.
What advice would you give to any woman who’s starting her career?
Just watch who’s doing smart things, and pay attention to them. And I wish I had done this younger — try to figure out what you think your gifts are, and fan the heck out of those. Don’t worry about what you’re not good at — you probably aren’t going to change that. Try to have strength-based grace with yourself. And buy good moisturizer.
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