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L.A.'s big, fun, cool and empty thing

The new Children's Museum of L.A. sits vacant months after completion as money woes stymie plans.

June 08, 2008|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

After struggling for seven years to raise enough money for a new facility, the Children's Museum of Los Angeles marked a milestone last fall when workers put the finishing touches on the angular building nestled in the Hansen Dam Recreation Area's easternmost corner.

But the modern structure, surrounded by a chain-link fence, still sits empty. Its entryway is choked with weeds. And there's not enough money to pay for ambitious exhibits meant to fill the 57,000-square-foot museum.

Benefactors envisioned the new space in Lake View Terrace as a showcase for a revolutionary concept in children's museums, where youngsters would learn about the Earth, wind, fire and water by interacting with exhibits, including oversized animals and plants dubbed "Dogbear," "Puppycub" and "Tree."

"Nothing in this museum has been produced in this way before," said Cecilia Aguilera Glassman, the chief executive officer, during a recent tour of the vacant building.

Bringing that concept to life, however, is proving difficult. In tough economic times, the nonprofit must raise $26 million to build and install exhibits in the airy structure, which boasts a concrete floor pockmarked with rectangular craters for the animals and trees. The unfinished, high-ceilinged lobby is bare, except for a folding table decorated with several plush Dogbear toys and easels bearing colorful drawings of unbuilt exhibits.

Lack of money to complete the interior forced officials last week to postpone the museum's opening until the summer of 2010 -- 10 years after the nonprofit agency that runs it closed the original location downtown. Delays and rising construction costs have boosted the price for the new facility by 46% since officials announced the San Fernando Valley location in 2002. The current estimate is $58.5 million, with $2 million a year more required to operate the museum once it opens.

Museum supporters, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former Mayor Richard Riordan, are scrambling to find new board members who "have access to, or the ability to, raise large amounts of money."

"Different times call for different leadership," said Emmanuelle Soichet, a Villaraigosa spokeswoman. "Right now, the museum needs a new generation of energy to carry it through the capital campaign to its opening."

An audit by City Controller Laura Chick last year criticized the nonprofit, which leases its parkland site from the city for $1 a year, for relying too heavily on taxpayer dollars. The city funded about 70% of the museum's new facility, the audit found. Glassman said recently that the museum plans to wean itself off public subsidies and pay for the exhibits with private donations.

"The public sector has done everything it can," said Glassman, who took the helm 14 months ago. "We now need to focus all the remaining attention on fundraising in the private sector."

Like numerous nonprofit organizations nationwide, the Children's Museum faces a budget crunch as Americans coping with higher food, fuel and housing costs are less likely to donate to charitable causes.

Ongoing financial concerns also recently prompted Villaraigosa to order an independent review of the nonprofit's business plan. The critique, conducted by directors at the Autry National Center, the Skirball Cultural Center, the California Science Center and the Children's Discovery Museum of the Desert, found it would be difficult for the nonprofit to raise the amount of money it needs.

The price tag to build the facility and exhibits for the Children's Museum falls midway in a group of similar new facilities across the country. There are about 300 such museums in the United States.

At the museum's unfinished home, 22 miles from downtown L.A., Glassman climbs an enormous, zigzagging orange ramp to point out how visitors will learn about the elements by interacting with exhibits.

"This gives a good vantage point to see things. There will be a lot of visuals going on at the same time," she said.

Running near the orange ramp will be a contraption known as the "Big Fun Cool Thing," which will mimic a giant dry cleaners rack. It will haul projects created in one of the museum's four workshops -- a kitchen, a shop, a studio and an observatory -- through the museum on three lines.

From the ramp, visitors will be able to see one another climbing on, into and out of Tree, whose leaves will turn greener and fruits light up as children provide it the right nourishment, as well as Dogbear and Puppycub. Museum-goers can feed Puppycub a mixture of colored balls they make in the kitchen and will be able to help Dogbear breathe and drink.

A giant waterfall will cascade over the ramp into a tank near Tree. From the lofty perch, children will also be able to see messages scrolling by on electronic displays on the Big Fun Cool Thing carrying information they input as they enter the facility, such as their age, height, eye color and yummy or yucky foods.

The hands-on nature of the facility's exhibits will require 26 full-time and 66 part-time employees, and Glassman is counting on the generosity of L.A. residents and others to ensure the city does not remain the nation's only major metropolis without a children's museum.

"Los Angeles is an immensely creative and wealthy city," she said. "It's not a city with just a few who can support the arts. There are many."

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jennifer.oldham@latimes.com

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