It all started around a kitchen table.
In 1983, a chummy group of women gathered in the kitchen of educator Deborah Edward to dream up the Austin Children’s Museum.
“The project began with wondrous ideas,” says former board member Nancy Inman. “And no money. The ideas were grand and the purse small. That was our job: to just get it going.”
An initial, carefully vetted gift of $10,000 from the Junior League of Austin got things rolling. Four years later, a small, improvised storefront space opened on West Fifth Street. Later, in 1997, the museum moved downtown with great fanfare into a former plastics factory.
Thirty years after the women’s first meeting, the Austin Children’s Museum is evolving into the Thinkery, the big, red, 40,000-square-foot building that will open in December at the Mueller development with a price tag of $18 million.
Austin is accustomed to growing major institutions from scratch. After all, a mere town until relatively recently, it has had no choice but to go grassroots.
Yet the backstory on the Thinkery is something of a head-scratcher. A cohesive group of women, representing several generations of parents, have stuck with the project through the ups and downs of three decades.
“All of these women have made a lasting impact,” says Thinkery director Mike Nellis. “We likely wouldn’t be here without them. Over the last 30 years, each one had a major role in supporting and growing the museum into what it is today.”
Around the table
In the 1970s, New York-born Edward migrated to Austin, where her husband-to-be, Lynn Sanders, studied law at the University of Texas. The couple started careers and raised three kids here before moving to the West Coast where, these days, Edward heads the advocacy group Business for Culture & the Arts in Portland, Ore.
A product of Antioch College’s “radical education,” Edward earned a master’s degree in special education, worked with junior high school dropouts and then earned a doctorate in educational psychology at UT. During a Yale University conference on early childhood programs, she learned about the effectiveness of the Boston Children’s Museum.
“I was fascinated by the potential of using community settings to help families learn,” Edward says. “That summer, we took our two young kids on a trip around New England and visited a few children’s museums. It was clear that these places were great opportunities — and that Austin was ripe for one.”
Back in Austin, she talked up ways to engage kids in hands-on learning. She studied existing museums that showcased culture, everyday science, creativity, problem-solving, tinkering and careers. To her kitchen Cabinet, she invited women including Inman and Chris Crosby, who had also attended Antioch, to help shape public support.
Born and raised in Del Rio, Crosby, daughter of businessman and philanthropist Jack Crosby, benefited from parents whole-heartedly devoted to learning.
“My parents, without stating it in words, gave my brothers and me the understanding that the world was immense and fascinating,” she says. “And that there were all kinds of ways to learn about it.”
Crosby finished up her high school years at Austin’s St. Stephen’s Episcopal School — “a haven for creative thinkers” — and headed to Antioch, which encouraged alternative learning. Her graduate studies focused on developmental psychology.
“It was clear to me, early in my studies, that the kids and families I was drawn to were more able to learn in interactive, responsive settings,’ she says. “And that families who were disenfranchised could be reached and supported in helping their children develop curiosity and confidence as learners through programs based in and relevant to their communities.”
Chris drafted her mother, Joanne Crosby, a veteran of school boards and other civic positions, to organize benefits.
“Our first fundraiser was held in the Crosbys’ beautiful garden,” Inman says. “It had an Alice in Wonderland theme, with UT drama students acting out the characters, and the board producing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the Crosby kitchen. It was a huge success.”
Inman, born in Upstate New York, had enjoyed the established cultural outlets on the East Coast before arriving here in 1983 with microchip consortium MCC.
“We were used to all sorts of things for kids, from the Smithsonian classes to the National Zoo,” she recalls. “And with a group of young scientists and technicians arriving in Austin, they believed that this type of stimulation was something that Austin lacked.”
With the Junior League’s $10,000 and other small, but crucial gives, Edward and company tested their concept in the early 1980s with “The Edible Adventure” exhibit at Highland Mall.
“Kids helped build a city out of leftover vegetables, crackers, marshmallows,” Edward says. “And made a few volcanoes explode on the side. This was way before SimCity, but it showed how kids glom onto making, doing, thinking with all their senses.”
The group’s mobile exhibits proved an immediate success.
“Imagination ran rampant,” Inman says. “Not only did the exhibits teach, but they were flat-out fun as well. Our next step was to find a suitable home for this ‘museum,’ and a storefront on Fifth Street became its first home.”
While designers Jim Susman and Tom Hatch lent their expertise, the first bricks-and-mortar children’s museum, which opened in 1987, proved an exercise in group improvisation.
“We had engineers, carpenters, lawyers, students and painters,” Chris Crosby says. “All building, designing, donating their time and talent to something completely unknown and unproven in this town.”
Among the memorable attractions were “Stuffee,” a 9-foot doll that unzipped so kids could learn about digestion by pulling out organs; “Habitats,” an outdoor festival that encouraged people to build everything from Mongolian-style yurts to cardboard forts; “Growing Up,” an exhibit about everyday issues; and “What’s in A Tune,” a globe one could plug into and hear music from around the world.
“Kids would ‘work’ in the grocery store until their parents dragged them out,” Crosby says. They’d “drive the train in the playscape until they were exhausted, play out their fantasy lives in our changing exhibits, compose tunes on all manner of musical instruments, learn about their bodies and being healthy, become mad scientists and inventors.”
Among the early breakthroughs were programs to involve teens to help kids during the summer. Yet almost from the start, the backers dreamed of a bigger, more purposeful space.
“West Fifth was too small the day we moved in,” Crosby says. “But we knew it and did the best we could to make it both a destination and a hub for continued outreach into the community.”
Every day, the museum’s popularity argued for a better home.
“We built it during a time that the community needed places to come together,” Edward says. “And we made it obvious that Austin was a family-friendly place as the ’80s and ’90s saw big changes.”
The plastics factory
The leaders who nurtured the museum in its first decade realized they would need more help to move to a home designed from the inside out for the purpose of learning. So, in the 1990s, they recruited from the new parents who had joined the city’s second tech boom.
Among those they attracted was Lynn Meredith, wife of Dell financial wizard Tom Meredith and veteran of several civic campaigns.
They also needed a central location that would not cost an arm and a leg.
Several real estate experts led them to lower downtown Austin, which could be characterized as an industrial zone during much of the 20th century. At Colorado and Second streets stood an abandoned factory once operated by the old Nalle family.
To become urban pioneers and renovate the factory, the backers needed real money, not the five- or six-figure checks that maxed out most charity campaigns.
“Ronya Kozmetsky and I approached Susan Dell, who had just had her first baby,” Inman remembers. “To ask for a big donation to outfit the new downtown museum. And the Dell family graciously consented.”
It fact, some observers suggest that $1 million in 1997 marked the beginning of a up-and-down effort to outfit the city with lasting cultural assets: Long Center for the Performing Arts, Blanton Museum of Art, Topfer Theatre and the Contemporary Austin’s Jones Center among them.
Yet the backers still faced challenges just getting off the ground.
“We went through every open door and talked to anyone who would listen,” Crosby says. “Entrepreneurs, activists, philanthropists, as well as UT faculty, educators, children’s advocates, family welfare professionals, etc.”
When opened, the new space, with its soaring ceilings and roomy halls, indeed housed nationally recognized traveling exhibits and local inventions.
“It’s also fulfilled a role as a source of support and parenting education for young families,” Crosby says. “As well as becoming a venue for parties and celebrations of all sorts. As is obvious, demand outstripped its capacity. And downtown has become too congested — it’s no longer accessible to many families.”
Indeed, as the sleek Second Street District replaced the former empty lots and buildings nearby, traffic, parking problems and blocked streets often prevented families from reaching the museum.
So began the campaign for a third home, which included annual editions of the colorful Imaginarium, instantly one of the city’s best-loved galas, staged at a former hangar in the Mueller addition.
The big red box
The museum got a shot of fresh energy when Cissy Warner, Robyn Malloy and Jessica Weaver were drafted onto the Thinkery’s capital campaign.
“When began in 2008, we were up against a very sluggish economy,” Weaver says. “I remember thinking that we were crazy to try to raise $18 million in that environment, but we were successful nonetheless.”
The campaign was also blessed by a guardian angel in the graceful person of honorary chairwoman Lynn Meredith, who can open almost any social door in town.
“She is a powerhouse,” Weaver says. “And it has been a pleasure to see how she can leverage her role and her relationships for a great cause.”
“If you know Lynn, she doesn’t do anything honorary,” Malloy says. “She came to meetings, she cultivated donors, she is the real deal.”
Married to Greg Weaver, vice-president of Catellus Development, master developer of Mueller, Weaver was a natural addition to the team. She had become interested in the museum the first time the couple moved to Austin as new parents in 2002.
“I was eager to help provide an opportunity for all kids and adults to play and meet each other in a fun and safe environment,” she says. “When the board first started defining the needs for a perfect home for Thinkery, we were all over the map. Parking and outdoor space was something we wanted more than anything, along with a better opportunity to serve children in all parts of Austin. Moving to the east side of town was a large part of our discussion.”
For a while in the mid-2000s, the city of Austin tried to persuade the museum to move into the so-called Block 21 project, which eventually included the W Austin Hotel and Residences and ACL Live.
But Mueller kept beckoning and eventually won out.
Malloy, mother of five, began volunteering for the museum as she raised a family.
“I felt that the existing museum was not a true reflection of the dynamic and creative Austin community,” she says. Director Nellis “asked me to be one of the chairs of the campaign. Never having done any fundraising, I enthusiastically said yes. I often joke that he took advantage of a pregnant woman who had no idea what she was getting into.”
In turn, she credits Nellis with a lot of the campaign’s success, which received a big boost from the St. David’s Foundation.
“Mike knows everything about the museum’s past, present and future,” Malloy says. “He knows every donor, he went on almost every ‘ask.’ He kept us motivated when I thought things seemed pretty dire, and this from a guy in his early 30s who was not married and has no kids.”
When it opens, the museum’s full-time staff will increase from 25 to 40. The budget will go from $2 million a year to $4 million.
One of the big selling points for Mueller was the proximity to the Dell Children’s Hospital, Austin Studios and other groups that might encourage collaborative thinking for kids.
“I hope it will lead to an explosion of tinkering and support new generations of outside-the-box thinkers in our community,” Crosby says. “Kids with the curiosity, skills and confidence to change the world.”
Malloy echoes the hopes of core backers going back three decades.
“I think the Thinkery will put Austin on the map for children’s museums,” Malloy says. “We are already known for music, entertainment, football and food trailers. But for many of us, this is a family town. I love all those other things about Austin, but mostly I love raising my kids in a creative, smart and healthy community.”
The founding group of backers couldn’t be more pleased.
“One never knows if a concept will work until it is passed on to another generation,” Inman says. “And just look at it now.”
Michael Barnes writes about Austin’s people, places, culture and history