A mixed seed packet. Really strong winds. The bottom of someone’s shoe. A bird passing overhead at just the right moment. These are the ways a rogue seed might make its way into a garden patch where it wasn’t intentionally planted. The circumstances might be all wrong for the seed, but it gets plopped down in the dirt and its challenge begins.
How does something grow when the conditions are against all the odds?
Standing tall and strong in the squash patch in the garden at the Museum grows a single–but very large–sunflower. Vice President of Education and Learning Experience Kim Kleven noticed it growing there in June. Due to the reorganization of staff during and after the pandemic closure, Kleven herself had planted the garden, so she knew it wasn’t planned. But it was neatly in the corner of the garden and had taken a good rooting, so she decided to leave it.
“A lot of our other plants were being eaten by bunnies. Some squash rot was going on in another part of the garden. We said, ‘Let’s not do things the way they had been done before.’ We wanted to see how things grew and developed. One day we walked over to Cub and bought a bunch of seeds and just planted them. I wanted things I could use in programming.”
The sunflower continued to grow and began blooming in mid-July. As it started to open, Kleven noticed immediately it was facing the site of the planned expansion. She called others over to see it grow larger, stronger–Garden Assistant Eleanor Coons-Ruskey, Program Facilitator Rachel Gemlo, CEO Lou Dickmeyer–they all agreed it was a marvel.
“It quickly became a symbol for change and growth,” Kleven said, “it was emblematic of our coming out of the pandemic closure and having amazing things happening. We had three of our original staff move on all around the same time, so the sunflower became a promise that things would be okay.”
When things weren’t okay
Dickmeyer is just as awed as Kleven. “It was refreshing to have staff recognize it as a symbol of going big and bold, and we made it through the pandemic. Big, beautiful, bright sunflower. Given it’s our logo!”
On Saturday, March 14, 2020, led by then Board Chair Kleven and Dickmeyer, the Museum made the tough decision to close its doors–before the governor ordered it so. “It was important to us to be clear we were closing for safety; not because anyone made us do it.”
Like the rest of the world, a space usually inhabited by hundreds of people of all ages fell silent. All of the staff had to be furloughed. Dickmeyer was the only one who remained.
“I had only been there for six months. It felt like I had been building rapport and support, and then I had to do this; but they were super understanding. Staff didn’t blame me. Board members brought the PPP loan to our attention, so we were able to bring some folks back to finish a new exhibit opening in April. Our leadership team was meeting virtually but regularly, making the tough choices.”
While other venues and museums throughout the country opened in June at limited capacity with restrictions, Dickmeyer and the board made the prudent decision not to open until October. For a children’s museum of this kind, opening the doors meant a full staff. And they knew it wasn’t time for that yet. Once they did open in the fall, it was only for two months, as the governor ordered another shutdown soon after.
“When we reopened again, the cleaning was almost overwhelming. This was still early when surface cleaning was the big focus. We got a community fund grant to buy some new equipment, but it was a big focus. We had limited capacity–a person with a counter at the door–and a few times we had a line out the door. People waiting in line to play.”
After opening to full capacity, things looked different. The open hours shifted permanently. The staff had gone from 40 to 25. But these moves were intentional. When Dickmeyer spent her days alone in the Museum during the closure, no traffic going by out front, she went through all of the financials. She streamlined all of their systems.
“We had to keep a bold posture through it all. We were so supported. Tough decisions made quickly saved us. I was able to spend time on those things that I wouldn’t have been able to if we were open. Another large museum went from 74 staff to 12, and still isn’t open fully in 2022. I know of six children’s museums nationally that never reopened.”
Because the CMSM operated on a model that only included one third admissions and memberships, they were able to keep the budget going. Donors also supported consistently. “I remember getting five-figure checks as if from nowhere,” Dickmeyer smiles, “they really came through.”
Good foundation, good soil
In April 2022, a large land acquisition and plans for expansion onto the entire empty lot adjacent to the current space was announced. How does a business, nonprofit or otherwise, go from being closed the better part of a year to their biggest growth since their founding? Simple: it had been in the works for years
“We place such a high value on nature play. This new space will provide a way for kids to safely adventure. They can gather things and build things and really just explore. We have wanted a place like that for a long time,” says Kleven, who before serving in her current role as VP (and Board Chair before that), was one of the original thought leaders behind the Museum’s inception.
In the spring of 2021, when it became clear to everyone they would make it through, they resurrected the mission to expand, which started with acquiring the land, a necessary first step that had failed a handful of times previously. The owner had no motivation to sell. But the board met with some amazing donors who said, “if you can make it happen, we will fund it.” So they did. They invested money in planning the space before they owned the land. Working with the museum planners who had been involved in the current space, they put together a presentation for what would be possible.
“My sense was getting that land hinged on creating a vision, so the property owner would see how we could use that land, then make him an offer. No one had ever put money on the table,” remembers Dickmeyer, “He went from ‘okay, I’ll listen,’ to accepting our offer. That planning money was well-spent.”
Keep on growing
Out in the garden, now known as the Sunflower Garden, the analogy is clear: as long as the core is strong, the situation to grow will support itself.
“The stem of the sunflower is as thick as a tree trunk; that strong foundation reminds me so much of the Founding Mothers. This place has always valued play above all else: no politics, no agenda, no curriculum, just an awe-inspiring environment,” Kleven shared. “That sunflower growing up and toward the future of the Museum is like our resilient kids growing after the pandemic.”
Admission has been strong over the summer, even attracting more summer group visits than previous years. The Museum vows to be a part of children’s return to their routines. “Kids missed out these last couple of years, that’s certain,” said Kleven, whose background is rooted in early childhood education, “and we want to help them try to get that time back. We are always here.”
“Through all of it, they remained super supportive and willing to make tough decisions and support me in making decisions. Looking ahead and keeping a positive outlook were our focus. We knew we had a good foundation. We kept planning and digging our heels in. That’s what brought us through. I always felt supported in my decisions and the direction I wanted things to move. If we would’ve had a board that was not as bold, we might have misstepped. The board and I were pretty aggressive in our approach. Other museums didn’t lay off their staff, didn’t cut back, and they are floundering. Our donors held us up. Our donors really came through. They wanted to make sure we survived.”
The sunflower survived, too, but only for the season. It has started its decline and it will be used in undetermined ways for fall programming and beyond. Maybe the seeds can be harvested and used to grow the patch in the new space. Maybe they can be roasted and shared among friends. However that single seed showed up in the squash patch, one thing is certain: its impact has inspired the staff and visitors for months.
“It’s an amazing feature,” concluded Dickmeyer. “I look at it every time I come and go. It’s stunning.”