Citizen Staff Writer
Home prices are way down, 401(k) tumbles have negated many a near-term retirement and jobs are vaporizing left and right. But people are going to the Tucson Children’s Museum in growing numbers.
That doesn’t surprise Michael Luria, who became the museum’s executive director April 18 after serving six years on its board, the last four as president and president-elect.
During his board tenure, attendance has mushroomed from 59,470 in 2003 to 95,204 in 2008. Attendance this year is up 10.4 percent.
“I keep one eye on the present, to make it more fun,” Luria said. “And the other eye on the future: What does the Children’s Museum look like in three, four, five years?”
In the “present,” a new coat of paint went onto the 1901 facade in recent weeks; the wall blocking the view of the Carnegie Library building that houses the museum came down last year; Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle’s Toys will become the museum’s gift shop on May 21; summer camp is being revived; Monsoon Mondays will keep the museum open until 8 p.m. on Mondays from Memorial Day to Labor Day after one- and two-month trials the past two summers; and two new exhibits are in the works for fall.
For the future, Luria wants a new museum facility, a quest he’s pursued since 2006, when the Legislature approved extending the Rio Nuevo tax increment financing from 2013 to 2025. Luria was the board member most keen to get a new children’s museum in the lineup for the now-sidelined Rio Nuevo Tucson Origins complex.
He still remains eager to build a new museum twice the size of the present one, which is squeezed into the confines of an early 20th-century library. But he acknowledged that is in a “holding pattern” now because the City Council has put Tucson Origins on the back shelf.
“Having a new facility would create endless opportunity for type, size and variety of exhibits we could have,” he said, especially traveling exhibits that are too large for the museum’s current space.
Luria describes this as a “year of change” for him.
He turns 40 on May 25. He started the year as the face (and owner) of Terra Cotta restaurant and now he’s the full-time face (and executive director) of the Children’s Museum, transitioning from interim executive director, the post he assumed Nov. 17.
The “interim” melted away after he, his father, Don Luria, and stepmother, Donna Nordin, closed Terra Cotta on Jan. 31, giving Michael Luria the clear schedule to devote to the museum requested by board members.
“If you look at the context of where we were seven years ago, we did a pretty good job,” Luria said. “If you look at other children’s museums, it’s not that we aren’t doing a good job but that others are doing a better job.”
Luria attended a Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums meeting in 2006, and from that day on all of his travels involve visits to children’s museums, 18 so far. Other board members also have added children’s museums to their travel itineraries.
He just returned from an Association of Children’s Museums meeting in Philadelphia, where the Please Touch Museum boasts 165,000 square feet in its new home at historic Memorial Hall, which was built in 1876. It moved into the new space in September.
“That’s 10 times our size,” he said. “The thought I hope I helped plant (with board members) is, as good as the museum is, there’s more that we can achieve to have exciting, international facilities that are fun.”
Luria also was impressed by the Children’s Museum of the Desert in Palm Springs, Calif., and the Creative Discovery Museum in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Palm Springs museum prides itself on being a “magical place . . . in a cheery, bright and inspiring environment,” executive director Lee Anne Vanderbeck said.
Chattanooga offers hands-on exhibits with “a friendly staff that loves to play and have fun,” executive director Henry Schulson said.
Luria and his wife, Maya, have two children, 12-year-old daughter Kelsey, and 8-year-old son Max, but his children didn’t draw his attention to the museum. Neighbor Pete Torrez, a real estate investor, was on the museum board and he tapped Luria in 2003 to get involved for two reasons: Luria operated a successful business, Café Terra Cotta, and he had two kids.
Six years later, Torrez credits Luria with helping turn a deficit of $139,000 on $414,000 in revenue in 2001 into $9,353 net income on $719,000 in revenue in 2008.
“I couldn’t be more thrilled that he was chosen,” said Torrez, who served two terms on the museum board earlier this decade. “I think he is the ideal candidate. He is well-connected and he knows how to get things done. He knows how to cultivate relationships.”
Evelyn Carswell-Bing was co-founder of the Children’s Museum in 1986 and chaired its board of directors for the first few years. “He would be my ace student,” said Carswell-Bing, a retired associate professor of early childhood education at the University of Arizona. “I have seen executive directors come and go. The thing I found about Michael immediately is when he made a decision, he always followed through. More important to me, he looked at the museum as a children’s learning center as opposed to another activity.”
Luria spent his entire adult life and late adolescence at Café Terra Cotta, which dropped the “cafe” after a 2004 fire. When it opened in 1986, he was a busboy and then transitioned to the business side and working the room.
By 1992, Luria had become operations manager for the two Terra Cottas – one at St. Philip’s Plaza and the other in Scottsdale. He organized construction of the cafe’s last home on Skyline Road, which opened in 2001, the same year the Scottsdale cafe closed.
Reopening after the 2004 fire led his parents to step back and Michael essentially became the primary owner. Post-fire lunch numbers declined and last year Terra Cotta became dinner-only, just in time for a sliding economy.
“In early January, we as a family, we decided to close,” Luria said. “We had a horrible fall. December was a telling month for us. January was not good, the season isn’t going to be good.”
Terra Cotta closed Jan. 31.
“Meanwhile,” Luria continued, “the (museum) board was making plans for a search. (The executive director) position was posted about 45 days. People understood how committed I was. I had some board members encouraging me to apply. In some ways, it’s a very natural transition because I’ve been so involved with the museum.”
MICHAEL LURIA’S TOP GOALS FOR CHILDREN’S MUSEUM
1. Enhance educational programming
2. Broaden museum accessibility for those in need throughout our community
3. Install new hands-on exhibits
4. Strengthen collaborative relationships in the community
IF YOU GO
Tucson Children’s Museum
200 S. Sixth Ave.
• Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday except for Monsoon Mondays, which start May 25 and run through Sept. 7. The museum will be open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. with $1 admission after 5 p.m.
• Regular admission: $5 children and senior citizen, $7 adults
MOST POPULAR EXHIBITS
1. Mind Your Own Body
2. Build It
2. (tie) Dino World
1. Build It
2. Mind Your Own Body
3. Dino World/ Fire Engine