Museum’s satellite model making waves

The main Children's Museum of Richmond location at 2626 W. Broad St. (Photo by Brandy Brubaker)

The main Children’s Museum of Richmond location at 2626 W. Broad St. (Photo by Brandy Brubaker)

A local nonprofit’s growth plan is catching on in the museum industry.

Children’s Museum of Richmond earlier this month opened a new satellite location in Fredericksburg – its third new branch in four years. And as the numbers roll in to show the expansion is good for the bottom line, CMOR’s blueprint for branching out has caught the eye of other organizations.

Karen Coltrane

Karen Coltrane

Karen Coltrane, CMOR president and chief executive, said she’s been contacted by at least 10 children’s museums across the county wanting to learn more about the business model. The staff from one museum even flew to Richmond to tour the sites.

CMOR was the first children’s museum to open a satellite, according to Coltrane and other accounts. The concept came about the same way many inventions do – out of necessity. The museum was seeking ways to combat stagnant attendance numbers at its main location at 2626 W. Broad St.

“We had done a lot to improve our main location and people loved it, but we just couldn’t increase our (annual) attendance above 230,000,” Coltrane said.

It was a risk – something nonprofits don’t necessarily like to take.

“It’s tough when your board says, ‘You want to open a satellite museum; can you give us some examples of others who’ve done it?’ And you have to say there are 300 children’s museums and none of them have done it,” Coltrane said.

The museum did its homework with a market study of local families with children 8 and under – its target audience. The results showed that while CMOR had strong brand awareness and favorable reviews, many families just didn’t come as often as they’d like because it wasn’t convenient to make the trip downtown.

There was only one real solution.

“We’ve got all this great stuff and people want to see it. We need to go to them,” Coltrane said.

Statistics, so far, back up the merits of CMOR’s plan. Adding two outposts nearly doubled its total attendance in 2013 – with 429,000 visits – making it No. 8 among the most visited children’s museums in the country, Coltrane said.

CMOR’s annual budget, based on anticipated revenue, jumped from $2 million before the satellites were created to $3.2 million in the 2013 fiscal year. It will increase again this year – to $4 million – with the addition of the Fredericksburg site, Coltrane said.

Seventy-five percent of CMOR’s budget is from earned revenue, and the rest comes from donations. The museum receives no government support.

The first expansion was a Short Pump branch that opened in West Broad Village in June 2010. In its first year, the location drew 130,000 visitors, while the main museum still maintained its 230,000 mark, Coltrane said.

CMOR’s satellites are smaller than the main museum and offer different exhibits, Coltrane said. Although the Short Pump and Chesterfield sites are close in miles to the main museum, they are centered in neighborhoods with large populations of families.

That gave the museum the confidence to head south to Chesterfield to the Winterpock Crossing Shopping Center in June 2012. That location saw 110,000 visitors in its first year.

After exploring options in Williamsburg, CMOR decided a northern march to Fredericksburg would be more logical. The spot, about 60 miles north of Richmond, opened May 10 to 600 first-day visitors, an attendance level on par with the other satellites, Coltrane said.

Dubbed Children’s Museum of Richmond Fredericksburg, the branch occupies 12,000 square feet at 1225 Jefferson Davis Highway in Eagle Village, a large mixed-use development.

The Children's Museum of Richmond opened a Fredericksburg branch in May . (Photo by Brandy Brubaker).

The Children’s Museum of Richmond opened a Fredericksburg branch in May. (photo courtesy of CMOR).

Dianne Krizan, president of the Minnesota Children’s Museum, said her organization opened a satellite location in 2012 after feeling out CMOR’s success.

“As part of our feasibility study, we contacted Karen in 2010 to learn about the satellite she had launched in Short Pump,” Krizan said in an email. “We had questions ranging from staffing to board governance to financial models. Karen’s advice definitely influenced how we structured our satellite.”

“TrendsWatch 2014,” a publication by the Center for the Future of Museums, cited CMOR’s satellite model as an example of museum entrepreneurship.

Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the center, an arm of the American Alliance of Museums, said she thinks more children’s museums will explore satellites.

“I certainly hope they look at the business model,” she said. “It shows a way to serve more kids … and it’s looking to be a good financial model.”


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