As Los Angeles enters its second decade as the only major American city without a children's museum, it's gratifying to see that people are again talking about resurrecting the idea. Sadly, it's the wrong people talking about the wrong location and the wrong concept.
Let's take those in reverse order. First, the concept: In my 25 years as head of the California Community Foundation, I made site visits to almost every children's museum in the country. The best of them (including San Francisco's Exploratorium, which is arguably the best of all), have one primary objective: fun. Yes, there is knowledge to be gleaned for the curious during the course of a visit, but a kid can also spend an afternoon running, laughing, shouting and letting it rip in the massive Exploratorium and learn absolutely nothing, which is profoundly OK.
But grown-up funding sources, especially foundation and government funding sources, too often attempt to mold children's museums into something loftier. Los Angeles was recently turned down by the state for a $7-million grant for a "nature education program" the city had hoped would go a long way toward enabling it to open a new museum. A Los Angeles Times article that reported the failed grant application also mentioned that there was no money to "create the environment-themed exhibits for the Children's Museum." Nature education programs? Environment-themed exhibits? That's like giving a 6-year-old piano lessons and socks for Christmas.
In fact, one of the chief drawbacks of the proposed Hansen Dam museum was the "eat your spinach" aspect of most of the exhibits being planned for it. They were unveiled to area grade school children; the kids applauded politely but seemed distinctly underwhelmed. Oops.
To succeed, children's museums should be run by freestanding nonprofit organizations with dedicated boards of directors, at least some of whom have deep pockets and golden Rolodexes. These private sector leaders should be dedicated to one thing: the best children's museum they can imagine. Governments can't do that. When a city undergoing a budget crunch is asked to choose between funding a new Velcro sticky-block playroom or adding five new police officers, the toys invariably lose.
The courageous and tireless men and women who created the original Los Angeles Children's Museum next to City Hall did a fine job making something out of nothing. The museum was small — tiny, actually — but constantly filled with wall-to-wall kids having fun. But the museum board quickly learned that a lot of people thought of children's museums like they thought of waste treatment centers: good idea, but not in my neighborhood.
I served on the L.A. Children's Museum site selection committee in the late 1980s and early 1990s after the original space was deemed too small. Our first choice near the Coliseum ran into zoning problems, the benign neglect of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission and funders' skepticism about the location. In the 1990s, we found a great site near the zoo and the Autry National Center of the American West, but parking and traffic flow concerns, not to mention a group of unhappy neighbors, sank it.
Then in 2000, not one but two children's museums were conceived as a public-private venture: a 60,000-square-foot "green" museum near Hansen Dam and a lodge-pole children's museum in Little Tokyo between the Japanese American National Museum and the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA. In retrospect, the downtown location was a dreadful choice. There was absolutely no parking, and neither the quiet reflection needed for the Japanese American National Museum nor the contemporary art at the Geffen lent themselves well to kids. The Hansen Dam location wasn't necessarily the best choice; it was the only choice left.
After they settled on the Hansen Dam site and began a capital campaign, the city of Los Angeles and other government funding sources did a good job living up to their end of the funding bargain, but private donations were slow to materialize. Enter Bruce Friedman, businessman and philanthropist, who pledged $10 million to complete the fund drive. But kids who didn't know a Ponzi scheme from a pogo stick got an education in the difference when Friedman was indicted in 2010 for stealing more than $200 million. He fled to France, abandoning his pledge and leaving the museum bankrupt.
Where should a new children's museum for Los Angeles kids be located? What about the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena? After UCLA plays there this season while Pauley Pavilion is being renovated, the Sports Arena's future is uncertain. Assuming that the building is structurally sound (and UCLA wouldn't be using if it weren't), just take out all the seats and voila — Exploratorium South.
Other Los Angeles projects have risen out of the ashes when the collective will of the city, both private sector and governmental, is there. Just think Disney Hall.
It was new leadership from the private sector that saved Disney Hall — people such as Richard Riordan, Eli Broad, Andrea Van de Kamp, Barry Sanders and Diane Disney Miller. And it must be new leadership from the private sector that resurrects our much-needed children's museum.
When those leaders step forward, as I hope they do, they should have a stock answer prepared for those who ask them what the children will learn at the new museum: "They will learn to romp, they will learn to be silly, they will learn to be in awe, they will learn to laugh so hard they their tummies hurt." That should be enough.
Jack Shakely is president emeritus of the California Community Foundation.