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While Arts Groups Struggle, Discovery Place Thrives

Declining grant money and budget shortfalls plague many of Charlotte's large arts groups. But one big cultural institution is in a different boat from the rest.

Call Discovery Place a "children's museum" and you'll get a quick correction from CEO John Mackay: "We're not a children's museum, we're a multifaceted organization that operates two children's museums, a nature center and a science and technology museum, which you're sitting in."

Sitting in Mackay's Discovery Place office you can hear the occasional groan of a mechanical cow – stationed just outside on Tryon Street - passing gas in honor of the summer exhibit "Grossology."

Across Charlotte, art museums are cutting back hours and exhibits and performing groups are scraping for cash. The Arts and Science Council is raising less and less each year through its annual workplace giving campaign – which means less money for arts groups that rely on those funds.

But Discovery Place had a surplus of half a million dollars last year, and Mackay projects a similar outcome for the fiscal year that just ended.

"We do pretty well - we work very hard and contain our costs," says Mackay.

Discovery Place does have some advantages its cultural-sector colleagues could envy.  For starters, it gets to keep 100 percent of the revenue from a city-owned parking garage next to the Uptown museum.  That brought in $600,000 last year. 

Couple that with gift shop revenues and the $5.7 million Discovery Place collected through ticket sales and memberships and Mackay says 70 percent of his expenses are covered before taking in a single charitable donation.

(Just for context, other big arts groups like the Symphony or the Mint barely cover a third of their costs –if that – through ticket sales and the like.)

Mackay's goal is to have 100 percent of expenses covered by "earned revenue" and use all charitable gifts to Discovery Place to "build capacity" such as Discovery Place Kids, which opened in Huntersville in 2010.

All year-round the place is crawling with parents pushing strollers and youngsters dashing from room to room experimenting with the hands-on exhibits.

Credit Julie Rose
Many families - like the Holdens from Charlotte - visit Discovery Place Kids in Huntersville several times a week.

  "This is our third time in the last week," laughs Stacy Holden. "My daughter likes to put on all little outfits and uniforms in the different rooms and play. I'm not sure why, but the restaurant is her favorite by far."

"Because you get to pretend like you're working and serving!" pipes up 6-year-old Makenzie Holden. "I like coming here better than going to the swimming pool and the store."

"We'd like to have at least two more Discovery Place Kids in Mecklenburg County," says Arts and Science Council interim President Robert Bush.  Negotiations are underway for a Discovery Place Kids in Pineville.

Almost three years in, Mackay says Huntersville is already selling enough tickets to break even. It makes sense: in arecentASCsurvey more than 80% of people said the main reason they don't go to museums or performances in Charlotte is traffic, parking or distance. So far, Discovery Place is the only one building outposts where those people live.  

"Particularly with families with really young children, we saw the opportunity to provide facilities that met their need without constantly putting their children into the car and driving into the uptown," says Mackay.

Discovery Place is in a better financial spot than most other cultural institutions in Charlotte, but Mackay has his worries.  A general decline in state, local and Arts and Science Council grants is forcing Discovery Place to step up its hunt for corporate donors. That's a shift from the days not so long ago when cultural groups were discouraged from hitting up companies already participating in the ASC workplace giving campaign.

Furthermore, Mackay chafes a little at being lumped into the fundraising bucket with arts groups like the opera or museum. They're out pitching the value of aesthetics and creativity to enrich lives. Mackay's Discovery Place pitch to donors is all about inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers. He'd welcome more fundraising freedom.

"I have a little different philosophy probably from some of my other colleagues about exactly the wisdom of putting all your eggs in one basket, so to speak," says Mackay.

But he demurs when asked if he'd be comfortable with the ASC going away: "I'm not prepared to answer that.  I think that's the role of the task force to see if together we can find new solutions for the current issues that we are confronted with.

He's referring to the Cultural Life Task Force, recently organized by the Arts and Science Council to track a sustainable course for the arts in Charlotte.

But while most of Mackay's counterparts are up at night worrying how their institutions will survive, his concern is how to keep Discovery Place growing.