DuPage Children's Museum seeking new leader, considering future home
It's a time of transition for the DuPage Children's Museum in Naperville, even if the institution stays put despite talks of redevelopment affecting its property and others in the area.
The museum's president and CEO for the past five years, Sarah Orleans, is leaving late this year after the board finds a new leader through a national search.
Museum board Chairman Mark Trembacki said the search panel will seek someone with Orleans' "undeniable passion" for early childhood education, who can carry on the work of providing high-quality learning through play.
"When Sarah arrived in 2014, she was clear in her time horizons and how long she was prepared to stay," Trembacki said. "We're going to be sad to see Sarah leave because of the incredible work that she's done. It's a new chapter for the organization."
Five years ago, Orleans said, the museum was in need of rebuilding and repositioning to stabilize its finances and ensure its place in the community. Despite a flood in January 2015 caused by a burst pipe -- requiring the museum to close for eight months and relocate to a temporary space in Aurora -- Orleans said the facility is now "in good financial shape, growing and serving more of an audience than we've ever served."
In fact 329,186 people visited the museum during its 2017-18 fiscal year, with 167,817 coming from DuPage County. Visitors from Naperville led with 66,896, followed by Aurora with 24,492 and Wheaton with 13,126.
As the museum searches for Orleans' successor, leaders also are pondering its future location in talks with the city that began in earnest in September. Because the museum's property at 301 N. Washington St. is among 13 acres of city-owned sites slated for redevelopment near the Metra station, city council members want to determine whether it will stay or move before seeking more detailed designs for the 5th Avenue project.
But because the museum is renting its space from the city until 2030, it does not have to go.
Discussions have identified several sites the museum could consider and have estimated $25 million as a midpoint within a range of how much it might cost to make the move.
"We have a strategy that is not dependent on our location," Trembacki said. "We're very happy where we are, here. This has been our home for 20 years. Naperville is our home."
Under Orleans' leadership, the museum has increased its focus on accessibility, welcoming more families who otherwise might not be able to afford the museum as well as families of various cultures and children with special needs. A Family Access program offering "play to learn" sessions at libraries and $20 memberships for participants has added 1,911 memberships and increased the "play IQ" of parents to "wonder together" with their children, Orleans said.
"The most important thing is that we're healthy and viable and here for all children," she said.
If the museum moves as part of 5th Avenue redevelopment, officials say the site should become commuter parking. Several city council candidates suggest the facility relocate to the old Kmart along East Ogden Avenue because it could allow the museum to expand and revitalize a strip mall with large vacancies and little activity.
But Trembacki said it would be premature to comment on the viability of particular sites.
The museum could lose its proximity to downtown Naperville restaurants and destinations if it moves, but could gain new ways to offer more classrooms and outdoor space, Trembacki said.
The current building, a 48,000-square-foot facility, has the potential to be expanded to 60,000 square feet. And stay or go, Orleans said it's critical for any museum to reinvest in new programs and exhibits, such as a new Daniel Tiger exhibit on display now or an update to the Young Explorers areas for the littlest visitors that's planned to be complete later this year.
"That's where a museum can get in trouble -- when you're not able to build new exhibits," Orleans said. A museum needs to have "something wonderful and bright and new that people can come and see, and they also come for the familiar and expect them to be well maintained."
What's familiar to the DuPage Children's Museum and its dedicated visitors is the colorful space at 301 N. Washington, but discussions continue about whether that will remain its home.
"We are looking forward to coming to some final decisions," Orleans said.
The museum board meanwhile is working with Kittleman, a nonprofit executive search firm based in Chicago, that will cast a national net for leadership.
"It's all very exciting about what the future holds," Trembacki said. "This is an amazingly resilient organization."