There’s only one person more excited than the kids about next weekend’s grand reopening of downtown Mesa’s Arizona Museum for Youth — director Barbara Meyerson.
At the mere mention of the reopening, scheduled for 9 a.m. Saturday, Meyerson’s eyes light up and the Chandler resident gets absolutely giddy.
Perhaps it’s because Meyerson has been with the museum since the very beginning in 1978, from its first incarnation in a Poca Fiesta storefront to its current location, a former Bashas’ grocery store. The former New York art teacher was there last year when the staff lugged the museum’s contents to a temporary location on Main Street so that crews could add 12,000 square feet to the existing 17,800-square-foot space. And she’ll definitely be there on Saturday when the museum — not new, but definitely improved — opens its doors for the first time in two years.
It’s been a "wild ride," Meyerson says.
She’s survived with her sanity, thanks to her "talented, creative staff and massive amounts of chocolate chip cookies." But despite the hard work and all the late nights fretting about budgets, contractors and the like, Meyerson says the payoff will be huge.
"I just can’t wait for the sounds of kids to fill this building once again. I’ve spent my entire adult life watching kids learn, watching their eyes light up. It’s addictive."
DO, LEARN AND CREATE
The Arizona Museum for Youth’s philosophy is based on the notion that kids learn in different ways — some are visual learners, for example, and others audio learners. That’s why the museum features educational videos, touchable exhibits, storytelling and hands-on activities.
The beauty of art, says Meyerson, is that it speaks to each learning style.
"No matter what kind of learner you are, there’s nothing you can’t learn through the arts. When we grow up, we’re afraid to touch things, but kids want to touch everything. Art encourages kids to do and to learn and to create. It keeps their imaginations fresh and alive — that’s something so many adults have lost."
Meyerson says one of the most rewarding aspects of her job is seeing kids sprawled out on the floor — next to their parents — coloring and creating.
"There are so many adults who don’t go to museums. So it’s neat to see their kids drawing them into it."
Meyerson also says that, during her 25 years with the museum, which draws about 60,000 visitors a year, the youngsters have taught her some very important lessons — lessons, she says, that aren’t lost on parents, either.
"They’ve taught me to be myself, to remain honest with myself and to keep the ‘awe’ in things. They’ve taught me I’m never too grown up to say ‘wow.’ "
BETTER, BIGGER AND YOUNGER
Although the museum started out as a private venture (it was the brainchild of a group of Mesa residents who received funding from Jack Whiteman, the late CEO of Mesa’s Empire Southwest), it was purchased by the city in 1987.
"That means we don’t have to be profitable," Meyerson says. "Which is good."
She adds that the museum — which is a true Arizona destination, attracting families from as far away as Tucson — is a perfect fit with the new Mesa Arts Center, slated to open in spring of 2005.
"Mesa is a city that says arts are for everyone — no matter your age. That’s wonderful."
The museum’s renovations were part of a 1995 bond election. And while Meyerson says she and her staff had to cut a great deal from their original plans ("we made cuts, held our breath and luckily got a bid"), she’s thrilled with the result — a "better, bigger and younger" museum.
About 500 square feet has been added to the existing gallery, and administrative operations are now housed on a second floor ("the second floor which didn’t exist before," Meyerson says with a laugh).
Also, next spring Meyerson and her staff will unveil the final addition to the museum — ArtVille, a special exhibition area aimed at children 5 and younger.
"All of the research in the last 10 years has told us that children learn at a younger age than we previously thought. Also, we’ve noticed more and more kids under the age of 5 coming to the museum. So we really needed to have a special place devoted to those younger learners."
And while Meyerson doesn’t want to divulge too many details, she says ArtVille — slated to open at the end of February — will be a "little town that helps kids learn color, shape, texture and lines."
"I can’t tell you anything else, because I don’t want to ruin the surprise. But, we’re all really excited; it’s going to be great."
A DREAM COME TRUE
Several weeks ago, Meyerson had a "real syrupy moment."
"I was the last one here, so I went downstairs and just walked around the gallery and it just hit me how amazing this all really is," she says. "I just walked around with this silly grin on my face."
For Meyerson, it truly is a dream come true.
As a 12-year-old, she volunteered at a museum in New York.
"I was very fortunate. I was a volunteer in an art museum during a time when children didn’t go to art museums.
"And somehow, there was this group of people who said, ‘that’s not really smart. We should let children in.’ And I was just this precocious 12-year-old and my eyes opened like saucers. I just knew this was something amazing, this was a place I had to be."
Several years later, Meyerson fondly recalls being presented pearls by her parents for her 16th birthday.
"My father handed me a string of pearls, which is what you gave your daughter at that time for her 16th birthday. And he said, ‘These are from your mother and I, though we know you’d much rather have your own museum.’ I was 16, and they just knew.
"So needless to say, as soon I got this job, the first thing I did was call home to New York. I just said, ‘You’ll never believe it . . .’ "