From Nice to Necessary

NEFA Award Recipient

Dover, NH

Contact Name
Justine Roberts
Project Dates
2008 - present
Workshop Leader
Creative Communities Exchange (CCX) 2013
Policy, Real Estate
CMNH moved to Dover from Portsmouth 5 years ago. The move was, in some ways, a happy accident - CMNH had been searching for space to expand in Portsmouth for a decade. Location after location was evaluated and plans drawn up but nothing panned out until a surprise call from the city of Dover invited CMNH to renovate an historic armory in the middle of town. This was clearly positioning the Museum as an anchor in a larger urban renewal effort for the city. Since that time, CMNH has made a point to pay attention to both the cultural value we add, and to the ways we serve as part of the economic infrastructure of Dover. The larger issue is how we make deliberate choices as an arts agency to influence conversations that affect us - to be an integral part of the decision making process.
Project Goals
What were the project goals?
The Children's Museum of New Hampshire's overarching goal is to be a sustainable organization making a measurable and highly valued contribution to the quality of life in the region. We want to be more than an amenity - we want to be necessary. We believe that the work we do makes a critical difference, and fills a niche that others in our area do not. But we face unique challenges communicating our value including our name - being a Children's Museum clearly signals the kind of hands-on, project-based, exploratory experiences we offer, but it also forces us to work harder to explain to adults, business people, property owners, the City, and others why we matter to them. While it is true that children are one-third of our community, and, as I once heard someone say "all of our future", that is not enough in today's economic reality where so many are coping with unmet basic needs to motivate investment (volunteerism, emotional connection, or donations). Our case for support is built, in part, on the contributions we make to the cultural and economic infrastructure of the community. And our goal is to make this case clearly, consistently, at effectively.
Have they changed over time?
The issue of being necessary has emerged over time. Initially, the goal of the Museum was to provide an experience for children. As we began to understand just how important a role adults play in their children's learning we began to talk about serving families. And research continues to support the theory that strong families reduces childhood stress, in turn reducing the risks for long term chronic illness. But the argument that we make a difference at the community level is relatively new to the Children's Museum field as a whole but increasingly central in how the field understands the work we do and the purpose of our organizations.
Who are the project partners and stakeholders?
The Museum itself employs 30 people and has a 17 person board all of whom are stakeholders in the success of the organization. We serve over 93,000 people a year, about 40% of whom are visiting us for the first time every year. All of those people are stakeholders as well.

The City of Dover is a major stakeholder and key partner in our success. When we accepted their offer to move they promised us a structurally sound facility with a $1/yr lease for 99 years. Our operating budget is just over $1MM and we spend almost all of that within 30 miles of Dover (staff is our largest expense and they all live locally). In addition, our visitors spend around $450,000 in "halo spending" in the community - gas, gifts, food, etc. Although we are not the largest employer in town by FTEs or budget we make a major contribution.

Local businesses are also stakeholders in our success.

The schools are also key stakeholders.
Project Specifics
How was the project implemented? What were the steps taken?
The "project" as such is really the LEED Silver renovation we completed of the historic armory building in downtown Dover and the subsequent work we have done to knit the Museum into the decision making fabric of the City so that future questions about housing development, parking structure construction, possible additional non profits locating in the city, city policy regarding public art, festivals and even playground design all include CMNH at the table. We have worked on this methodically, slowly and opportunistically.

1. The Museum is in Dover because a group of Dover politicians approached the former Director with an offer she could not refuse. CMNH had long ago outgrown its current location, and the prospects for moving within Portsmouth seemed to be dwindling.
2. CMNH had to raise $3.7 million to renovate the armory and to do that a series of task forces and committees were formed throughout the state. In that process, the organization built some key relationships that it was able to leverage into board participation, ensuring a smooth transition. One of these people was the former mayor of Dover, and current head of the Housing Authority. Another was the former Economic and Industrial Authority Director for Dover, who later became Commissioner of DRED at the State level.
3. Choosing to do a Silver LEED project was an important decision - it set CMNH apart as the first LEED museum in the state, and one of only 18 in the whole country at that time.
4. After moving in, we began to say "yes" to every request we received to sit on a committee. Keeping in mind something a colleague had said to me once years ago about being a good friend and listening even when the conversation is not about you.
**We put staff, including the Director, on a local Tourism Committee along with the Economic Redevelopment Department, Dover Main Street, Recreation Director, the Greater Dover Chamber, and a rep for the local hotel chain. After 2 years we asked the group to add the Arts Commission. This meeting allowed us direct access to the person who was recruiting new businesses into town to make our case through him about the value we add. It also allowed us to collaboratively schedule dates for local arts events, festivals, farmer's markets and other public gatherings to take our calendar into account.
**We sit on another Economic Redevelopment Department committee designed to link schools to local businesses through tech voc programs. This lets us explain our role in STEM and workforce readiness to both audiences at the same time.
**We are on a Kids Cabinet committee which includes the local teen center, police department, Children's Home, and others through which we work on community engagement projects including End 78 Hours of Hunger and other outreach.
**We lobbied for an At Large seat for the Museum on the Dover Arts Commission and while that didn't pass, the Executive Director was voted onto the Commission. This was the platform we used to work on a city Arts Policy which then formed the foundation for the first ever temporary public art installation presented in collaboration between the Museum and Arts Commission last September.
5. We write about our work as often as possible sounding the themes of economic impact and relevance. We have such good relationships with the Economic Redevelopment Authority that we now have a column in the Dover Economic Times paper to talk about our work for a business audience.
6. The Museum's Director has made a point of getting to know the Chamber ED through coffees and lunches. Based on this relationship the Museum is at the table on a very important feasibility study and community needs assessment designed to evaluate whether a local mothballed movie theater could be brought back as a community arts center. If that were to happen, CMNH might have a significant interest in the project and being part of the Task Force is the best way for us to be the first to learn what we need to know to make that determination and be first in line if it turns out to be important.
7. In an even more active role, CMNH approached the Recreation Department which is our direct landlord, about renovating the playground immediately outside our doors. The Rec Director and CMNH Director have a good personal relationship and because the temporary art opening was such a success, there is a high level of trust. CMNH offered to fundraise for a design phase to explore what a destination "science playground" could look like, rather than simply replacing playground equipment. The Rec Director agreed and CMNH successfully brought enough money to the table to complete a Concept Phase. The Rec Director and Chamber Director both took a public stand in support of the project which significantly helped in the grant application. While this project is only in Concept it has garnered a lot of interest and has opened some new doors for the Museum which look like they will in turn lead to new Board development and possibly funding from some local businesses.
Have they been refined over time?
The clear answer is yes. Initially the goal was just to renovate a larger building, move the Museum into it, and rebuild audience and funding in a new city. Once moved in, with the focus no longer on a building project, the question really changed to what is our role both as a destination for so many people to the city, and as a promoter of arts and culture. The Museum was going to need to be more than just a building. In the past 2 years we have stopped talking about the "institution" and substituted the word "organization". We have created off site programming as well as this emphasis on local relationships. And our vision statement, adopted just 18m ago, reads "We aspire to shape communities by celebrating creativity, learning and collaboration, and by understanding their role in setting children on the path to lifelong success." None of that was the organization's objective 5 years ago.
What were your major obstacles?
1. Funding, funding, funding. We could do so much more with more money! We could have more people focused on collaboration and on how the Museum's practice can be directed to build the greatest public value. We could also implement more projects. We have 5 or 6 ideas right now about things we want to do which we simply don't have the capacity to work on.
2. Politics. Dover is in transition and there are people who are less open to change. When the temporary art installation was initially proposed there were vocal opponents. One reason we put a formal City Council approved Public Art Policy in place was to create a process which allowed us to do our work. It didn't silence the objections but it gave us a formal channel and process to work through.
3. Effectively making our case. It isn't clear why it is so hard to translate the good will into actual support and we think it may be that we need to keep working on how we talk about our work. There are restaurants in town who claim their business increased over 20% since we moved to town, and there are 2 new major housing projects right near the Museum which our presence helped make attractive. Yet we struggle to be taken seriously.
4. There is an unexpected degree of responsibility which comes with the role we have chosen. We have made commitments to the Chamber to help with the community needs assessment, and to the Rec Department to fundraise on their behalf. How we balance that work and the time it takes with other organizational priorities is not easy.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
It is really about finding and nurturing key relationships. This might be different in a larger town but we are only 30,000 people and everyone knows each other. Each of the relationships that we have invested in have led to opportunities that aren't offered to other organizations or people. Because we are at the table even when it is not directly relevant we are there when stray things do come up. We are in a position to say yes to things, and our organizational culture is built around collaboration, risk taking, and partnership. So we are open to saying yes to things.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
Be patient, be persistent and be visible.
Project Impact
How has this project contributed to creative community building?
CMNH has begun to think of itself as a hub of the creative community and to intentionally work on projects that bring people together, build networks, enhance the vibrancy of downtown, spur investment in public art, increase art appreciation, and put the creative economy at the center of conversations about urban renewal.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
The original goal was to get the Museum moved into a larger facility, with new amenities and to transition audience and funding to this new location without losing ground. So the project started as a real estate development effort, and in some ways has simply continued and grown from there.
Were there unexpected impacts?
It is exciting to be part of a city in transition, especially a city that is moving toward a greater role in the creative economy. There are a lot of factors playing into that, and our being in Dover is only one. We would like to be associated with that shift, and hope that we make a major contribution and impact. But it is too early to know.

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