The Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert opened its first exhibits in 1990, beginning its mission of engaging and educating young children in the Coachella Valley. In the three decades since, the Rancho Mirage museum has won multiple awards and welcomed more than a million visitors to interact with its distinct collection of exhibits and experiences.
Then came COVID-19.
After the museum was forced to close its doors in March 2020, employees made a concerted effort to pivot to virtual/online activities. As the lockdown dragged on, the museum’s board of directors made the difficult decision to lay off the entire staff.
It was around this time that Cindy Burreson became a member of the board—and within a couple of months, she was the named the CEO of the still-shuttered museum.
“I have always loved this place,” Burreson told the Independent. “I have two boys, and our family has always loved the museum. I’ve always had thoughts about things (the museum) could do to make it more exciting. … So I joined the board last November, and in December, we found the need for an interim executive director, because we didn’t have any staff at that time, and we needed somebody to run the day-to-day (operations). I volunteered to do so, because I was working part-time for my other job, and I said that I could do this job part-time as well—to keep operations going, pay the bills and just keep an eye on things.”
Burreson said 85 percent of the museum’s pre-pandemic revenue came from “earned income” such as admission fees.
“Once we had the doors closed due to the pandemic, we didn’t have those funds coming in,” she said. “We thought: What can we do to diversify our streams of revenue so that we don’t find ourselves in this situation again?”
Burreson said the board decided to not only focus on fundraising—but to also “reimagine” the museum, so it can better serve the valley’s families and children.
“Our exhibits have been here for a long time. They have stood the test of time for longer than their anticipated lifespan,” she said. “But more than a facelift, we needed to come into the current times and be reflective of current technologies and things that are on-trend and interesting to kids. So, working with the original (exhibit-creator) company, I presented a vision to the board, and we decided that was the direction that we wanted to move in.
“Of course, it would require even more fundraising in order to make it happen. I suggested to the board that, in order to really move the needle, they needed to bring somebody on full-time; me working part-time wasn’t going to cut it.”
Burreson threw her figurative hat into the ring, and the board hired her as the full-time CEO.
“Currently, I’m still the only one on staff, so I’m doing the whole kit and caboodle here,” she says.
If all goes according to plan, the museum could reopen its doors in late 2022. However, it will take a lot of money and work to get there.
“Right now, I’m focusing on the $3 million for (the reimagining of) the first building,” Burreson said. “… Another thing that we’ve learned in our research is that there isn’t a lot (to do) for the older kids—the in-betweeners and the high schoolers. Now, in addition to just reimagining the museum, we want to broaden our audience. So, the focus of buildings 2 and 3 will be to provide experiences for those older kids so that they’re not aging out (of our audience) at 8 or 9 years old, and to provide services that are attractive to those other ages. … But right now, I’m really just focusing on the $3 million. To have the three buildings done, I would comfortably say (the cost would be) between $4 million and $5 million.”
Burreson said the community will need to step up and offer support for the museum to reopen in late 2022.
“That’s why fundraising is so critical right now,” she said. “I am determined to stay on that timeline, because I want to be able to reopen in 2022. We all do. So, in order to do so, we just finished the schematic designs. We’re working on Building 1 currently. It’s going to have over 40 new exhibits and experiences. Then, we would continue on to Phase 2 and Phase 3. … (Building 1) would open back up in December 2022, and we would then start working on fundraising for the next phase.”
Burreson and the board are working with the museum’s original and continuing exhibit-creation company, Florida-based Hands On! Studio, on the new vision for the museum. It involves the creation of six new experience areas in the museum space, designated Explore, Express, Experiment, Move, Imagine, and Dream.
“We’ve been working on this since I came on,” Burreson said. “With the company, we put together our fundraising package. We came up with the exhibition-concept plan, and now we’ve finished schematic designs, so now we know exactly what is going to be included in the first building.”
Burreson said fabricators are hard at work—while staying on budget.
“We’re moving right along,” she said. “We’re on a weekly call to just keep moving the project forward. … I don’t want to stop, because if there’s a pause in the timeline, then that pushes back the opening date. So I’m just trying to fundraise like crazy to keep up with our payments-cashflow timeline, and keep moving toward our ultimate goal.”
As if those tasks weren’t enough to fill Burreson’s work days, the museum has been hosting donation drives in conjunction with other nonprofit organizations one Saturday per month since July. For that first one, the museum partnered with the United Way of the Desert to collect more than 200 books for the Raising a Reader program. In August, more than 60 cases of water were collected for the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission. In September, various items were collected for pediatric cancer patients being assisted by Shay’s Warriors and Desi Strong.
“I created the Little Kids/Big Impact initiative, because, obviously, we know that we’re not serving our community the way that we normally would,” Burreson said. “And, because we’re going to have been closed for (more than) two years by the time we reopen, we wanted to still be socially impactful. … I feel like it’s our responsibility to help raise and teach our future givers. It’s an opportunity for caregivers and kids to work together to make a difference in our community.”