A Conversation With Steve Long


The new executive director of CMEE on rethinking the museum, finding donors and reaching the “tweens”


What was your former position? How does this position differ from your old one?

I was the Vice President of Collections and Education at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and, in that capacity, I was head of our Education Department, which includes the Tenement Museum School Programs, public tours, and other public programs, as well as the museum’s curatorial department and artifact collections. I had been there for 14 years. I started as an intern, became a tour guide, and then eventually got to the position I was in and wanted to grow from there.


What strengths do you bring to CMEE as the new executive director?

I think that the reason that CMEE hired me was that I had helped the Tenement Museum grow. We were an institution that, when I started there, had about 20,000 to 25,000 visitors. I was part of the team that helped develop our programming to the point that now, this year, there are over 140,000 visitors. I also had a track record with the staff that I worked with in building a team and developing programs that were highly acclaimed. I think also the idea that the Tenement Museum had a social vision appealed to the Board of Trustees. With the Children’s Museum, I think it’s great to have children learn through play, but I think that CMEE can do a lot more than that. Children bring a lot more to our lives than just being able to learn through play. I’m interested in exploring how children can be a resource and act as volunteers, mentors and stewards. It’s more than just play.


What does a children’s museum encompass to you?

That’s the thing that really appeals to me, the challenge. I’ve heard that from a lot of people, and I’d like to explore how to tackle that. I want to try to figure out how CMEE can become a place to serve older kids. Generally children’s museums don’t serve the tweens. If you look at almost every other children’s museum in the country, they cut off at ages 7, 8, 9 and 10 at the oldest. I think we need to be responsive to community needs. I’m interested in listening to kids who are 9, 10, 11 and 12 even and find out what we could do here to engage them. Maybe it’s changing the exhibition programming. Maybe it’s asking tweens to become junior docents, to have them be the mentors and the teachers to younger kids. First and foremost, we want to ask tweens what they want.


What led to the money problems at CMEE? Does it have anything to do with the economy or more with the competition for fundraising and the aging out of supporters?                                                                       

Well, CMEE opened with a construction loan, so it’s always been challenged financially. It wasn’t as if we opened our doors with a huge endowment to pay programming costs. What’s made it particularly acute this year it seems has been the economy.


Is there any discussion on changing focus or redesign?

When I took this position, I talked to a lot of other museum directors for their advice. They said, “Don’t change anything for the first three months.” I think this was wise advice because I’m new to the community. I’ve been going out and talking to people who are community leaders and people who are stakeholders at CMEE. I want to hear from them to find out what are the needs, as they see them, of children and families in this community and how can they imagine a museum filling those needs. I’ve also been interested in hearing what their perception of CMEE is. I don’t think enough people know about the programs that we provide, such as the scholarship programs and daycare programs.


How do you plan to reach out to the community?

We’ve been talking to funding stakeholders and also discussing things with future contributors. We are in the process of implementing a plan to diversify our funding streams.


Where do you think your strong financial supporters lie and how will you attract them?

What I’m looking for are people who are interested in supporting a museum that makes a difference in people’s lives. I come from a history museum. A lot of history museums’ missions are to collect, preserve and interpret things. I always thought, “How do you get up in the morning and feel like you’re making a difference?” CMEE is making a difference, and will expand the kind of difference it can make in the future. I think that our funders, present and future, are part of that. I’m interested in building reciprocal relationships so that people feel like not only are they contributing financially to the institution, but also they are getting something out of it.


Interview By Catherine McNamara