Cradle will rock: New children’s museum head has big plans, defends new direction

Cradle will rock: New children’s museum head has big plans, defends new direction
Photo by Cate Dingley

The Brooklyn Children’s Museum is growing up, but it’s not forgetting its roots.

That’s the message the 116-year-old kids institution’s new leader wants to send following a scathing New York Times article in which current and former staffers accused museum management of forsaking its working-class neighbors in Crown Heights in favor of outside-the-neighborhood expansions and programming changes aimed at hooking gentrifying transplants — and their spending power. The museum is getting an annex in Dumbo, but it is also working on three projects on its home campus in Crown Heights, which Stephanie Wilchfort, the newly minted president, said shows how committed her team is to serving all Brooklynites.

“Before we do anything in Dumbo, we’re opening a 20,000-square-foot performance space that will serve the neighborhood here,” she said. “We love our neighborhood. We value our neighborhood. But we consider all of Brooklyn our community.”

The performance space Wilchfort mentioned is part of a new $8.5 million rooftop pavilion, that will be able to fit 700 people, and also includes a play area and a nature walk. The project began in 2008 and is being funded by money from the city and state. Wilchfort expects it to open later this year and hopes to host a series of dance parties on the roof during the inaugural season. Eventually, the space is set to be used for environmentally oriented programming, such as live animal demonstrations or science fairs, as well as public performances focused on particular cultures.

The museum also has plans to reopen a children’s garden that has been shuttered since 2013 because of structural problems with a retaining wall. The wall is predicted to cost $3.5 million to repair, and after that work is done, additional money will be spent for landscaping and a playground, Wilchfort said. She hopes to open the green space by 2017.

No tunnel vision: Just-arrived Brooklyn Children’s Museum president Stephanie Wilchfort says the institution’s expansion doesn’t mean it is forgetting about working-class neighbors.
Photo by Cate Dingley

Another big project planned for the Crown Heights building is a 200-seat indoor auditorium set to open in 2019. Costing $6.7 million, the facility is supposed to host school groups and family-friendly performances.

The Dumbo space, being called the BCM Studio, will occupy the ground floor of a new 12-story residential building on John Street. The site of that building was once used for a temporary art installation involving a field of clover, which may or may not have served as the last meal for some goats, set out to graze for art, then picked up by a van belonging to a halal meat company under mysterious circumstances.

The museum is getting the Dumbo space for $1 per year, and it will be built out by the building’s developer, Alloy. Wilchfort said she is still hammering out the specifics about what kind of programming will go there, but she wants to see a hands-on learning environment that incorporates elements of the arts and sciences.

“The idea is to create an interdisciplinary space that stands at the intersection of STEM and the arts,” she said.

Some of the exhibits at the annex will be free, while other programming will cost parents a fee. Wilchfort said this is the same model employed at the home campus, where 30 percent of the 250,000 visitors each year do not pay admission, because they are either attending a free event or come on Thursdays between 2 pm and 5 pm, when it is free to get in.

Splish splash: Sakura Bellamy, left, 8, and Sirius Shabaka, 4, check out a water feature in the Brooklyn Chidlren’s Museum shortly after an expansion in 2008.
Brooklyn Children’s Museum / Diane Bondareff

The museum currently has a full-time staff of 35 employees, and 40 part-timers. Wilchfort said they are devoted and thrifty.

“They do amazing things on a shoestring budget,” she said.

She noted that the new space will be about one-sixtieth the size of the original. The 2008 economic collapse hit the museum hard, prompting a prolonged series of budget cuts that led to 25 layoffs, as the Times reported. But Wilchfort said staffing the Dumbo outpost should not strain the institution very much.

“At 1,700-square-feet, it’s a true a studio,” she said. “We’re not talking about a tremendous amount of additional staffing. It will not create a meaningful diversion of resources.”

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260–8310. E-mail him at mperlman@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.
Stephanie Wilchfort
Kelly Guenther