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Carole Charnow: We’re finding that people who are living in difficult circumstance are desperate for these opportunities to give these gifts to their children, to provide them with these educational opportunities and have new experiences, which are very, very important to the brain development of young children.
Anita Walker: Hi. I’m Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Carole Charnow, President and CEO of the Boston Children’s Museum. Welcome to the program.
Carole Charnow: Thank you so much for having me.
Anita Walker: Now Carole, you are doing something that we are so impressed with, here at the Mass Cultural Council, that I wanted you to come on our podcast and tell everybody about it. And it has to do with the way that you are finding an opportunity for people, who couldn’t necessarily afford the admission cost, to participate in all the wonderful things that you have at the Children’s Museum, and not be called out on it, so to speak.
Carole Charnow: Yes.
Anita Walker: Talk to me about that.
Carole Charnow: So the Children’s Museum has been committed to access for all of its 104 years. And we’re quite well-known for our one dollar, or free, Friday night, which has been going on for four decades. But what we learned a few years ago was that, for parents with very young children, Friday nights are quite difficult to get to the museum. It’s quite a– it’s in a difficult part of the city to get to, and a young child is getting pretty tired by five or six o’clock, and they really don’t want to be out that late. So we talked to people and found out that they really wanted to be able to come to the museum whenever anyone else comes to the museum. So these individuals, many of whom live in Boston, and also in some surrounding counties, would w– really wanted to have access to the museum, just as anyo– other of our full-paying– or members. So we looked around and thought of what could be a model for enabling these individuals to come.
Carole Charnow: I have lived in England for a long time, and I knew that if you were unemployed, you were able to use your unemployment card to get a cheaper admission to museums and shows, and so forth. And I wondered whether there was anything similar in the United States. I did find out there was one children’s museum in Pittsburgh that was actually using the EBT card, which is the Electronics Benefits Transfer card–
Anita Walker: Or food stamps, as some people might recognize it.
Carole Charnow: A food stamp card, that’s right– for an ID card, which actually notified the museum that these individuals were benefits-eligible. And they were using this card as a means of providing a very reasonable entry to the museum. So we talked to our own Department of Transitional Assistance in the Commonwealth, and we asked them, “Could we do something similar?” And we found out we were the first, really, in New England to even contemplate something of this nature. They were really excited about it, and the only thing they cautioned us about was whether families who were using the EBT card would feel, in some way, conspicuous or uncomfortable using their card. So during the summer of 2012, we did a lot of focus groups out in the neighborhoods, and we found out that people said, “Well, you know, it’s just like an ID card. It’s just like showing your credit card.” So as long as it was just a– easily done at the information desk, and there wasn’t a lot of, kind of, kerfuffle around it, they would be happy to use it. So we launched the program in 2012. The idea was a two-dollar admission, up to a family of four– two dollars per person, any time the museum’s open, upon presentation of the EBT card with some sort of ID. Well, little did we know that this would become such a mammoth hit almost overnight. And attendance doubled the three subsequent years, to the point, now, where we actually– starting with just a few EBT visitors, we now, at the last of– the last counting of FY15, which was last year, we were at 13 and a half thousand EBT visitors.
Anita Walker: How are you letting people know about this program, the people who have the EBT cards?
Carole Charnow: Well, we are thrilled that other museums and cultural institutions have joined us now, largely through the promotion of the Mass Cultural Council, so we’re very grateful for that. There are a number of museums and– in the Boston area, and across the Commonwealth now, that are using the EBT card. And the great news is that, now, the Department of Transitional Assistance provides a letter, with every single EBT card that is issued, with a list of all the institutions that provide a discount for EBT users. So there couldn’t be any better way of getting the word out than that. But we also provide, at the museum, a number of promotional opportunities for people to learn about it. We actually do advertising. We advertise in local papers, we advertise in community health centers, we also have a brochure, in a number of different languages, of the Boston Public Schools, that we actually distribute through the school system. So we are really promoting this quite aggressively, and we have seen that the promotion has worked, because the attendance has grown, incrementally, every single year.
Anita Walker: Talk a little bit more about the quality of the experience for the visitor, when they can come any time they want. We love the free days, but often times, those can be days that are very crowded–
Carole Charnow: Very busy.
Anita Walker: Very busy. You have to stand in line, perhaps, if it’s a singular free day that isn’t coming around very often. And that whole idea, that you can actually come when it’s convenient for you, when the muse– maybe choose a time when the museum isn’t as busy.
Carole Charnow: Absolutely. EBT users can come any time the Museum is open. The Museum’s open 363 days a year, 9 to 5, and then 5 to 9 on Fridays. We are finding that most of our EBT users come on Saturday and Sunday, and that is typically when families with children are free to come to the Museum. We think that a number of the Friday night visitors have now moved on to the weekend, because that is more convenient for them. And we’re finding that people who are living in difficult circumstances, who are living in different degrees of poverty, are desperate for these opportunities to give these gifts to their children, to provide them with these educational opportunities, to provide them with a new environment to go to to learn and enjoy, and learn new words, and have new experiences, which are very, very important to the brain development of young children. And we’re just so thrilled that the Museum of Science, the Museum of Fine Arts, the ICA, the Gardener, other museums that are such rich environments for young families, are also opening their doors to– families to come at any time that anyone else can come. And we do find that our free night, our f– one dollar Friday night, is extremely busy. And our free days are ridiculously busy. So we’re really happy we can offer this opportunity to families to come any time that suits them, and enjoy an experience that any family could have.
Anita Walker: Now, we have a lot of museums who are also listeners to the podcast.
Carole Charnow: Uh-huh.
Anita Walker: So was there anything you learned along the way that you would offer as council or advice to a museum who’s saying, “Hey, maybe we ought to try this program, too.”
Carole Charnow: Yes. I think people are a little bit worried about the impact of the program on their bottom line, and I will say– we have about half a million visitors a year at the Children’s Museum. So our current EBT attendance, at about 15,000, represents about 3 percent of our annual attendance. We are very fortunate. We do have some sponsorship right now, for the EBT program, from the Highland Street Foundation. It doesn’t cover all our costs, but it helps mitigate some of the impact on the bottom line. I think that people need to understand that EBT card users have a lot more barriers than just price, to getting to any kind of cultural institution. Often, these are people who are living in difficult circumstances. They may be working in low-paying jobs, they may have multiple jobs, and I think that people need to not be concerned about the volume of people coming on EBT. I mean, we’re finding now– I haven’t had the figures for FY16, but we’re at about 15,000 and we’re 3 months from the year end.
Carole Charnow: So if you think of it, it may have built to its highest level. I mean, there’s– it– what we’re seeing, that’s really of interest, is that the EBT usage is now expanding outside of Suffolk County into the six or seven other counties immediately nearby, to Boston, and unfortunately, we’re seeing some of these counties are experiencing worsening poverty. So I really don’t think museums need to be that concerned about its impact on the bottom line, just because of the numbers. And I think that they should really feel good about making their institution accessible to these families who deeply appreciate it, who are so grateful to be able to have this opportunity for their children. So I– we have seen absolutely no downside to the EBT program. It’s been embraced with open arms by our board, by our staff, and our visitors are just over the moon. We’ve had virtually no complaints from visitors at all. So I think if they can call us, or any of the other institutions that are operating the EBT, they’ll really, really enhance their value to the community.
Anita Walker: What a fantastic program. Carole Charnow, another one of our creative minds out loud.
Carole Charnow: Thank you so much. It’s just been such a pleasure to be able to talk with you.
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