The new 30,000-square-foot Children’s Museum & Theater of Maine appears as a beacon at Thompson’s Point in Portland. The successful completion, commemorated in a June 24, 2021, ribbon-cutting attended by Gov. Janet Mills, was led by Julie Butcher Pezzino, the organization’s executive director. Pezzino arrived at the organization in 2019 and led it through the completion of a $15 million capital campaign that resulted in simultaneously opening the brand-new building, tripling staff and dramatically increasing visitor capacity, all while navigating the pandemic.
The Children’s Museum & Theater of Maine exists to inspire discovery and imagination through exploration and play, with a focus on science learning, community engagement, performing and visual arts, and early childhood education.
Most recently, Pezzino led the successful application for an American Rescue Plan grant of $150,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts to aid recovery from the pandemic. She’s led the organization to greater diversity in hiring, board of directors recruitment, programming and community partnerships.
Before arriving in Portland, she was executive director of Grow Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. She has been a principal consultant for Butcher Consulting, working with nonprofits nationwide. Pezzino serves on the board of directors of Full Plates, Full Potential.
Mainebiz: What brought you to Portland?
Julie Butcher Pezzino: I ran Grow Pittsburgh for eight years and left because my husband and I had a young family. We loved Pittsburgh. It was a great place to start our careers. But we were ready to be in a place where we knew we’d stay a while. Portland hopped on the map pretty quickly. My husband’s family has been coming to Maine for generations. Every summer we’d drive through Portland and thought it looked like a fun and interesting town.
MB: What led to you Children’s Museum & Theater of Maine?
JBP: I hadn’t been seriously looking for another executive director job. But Suzanne Olson, the longtime executive director before me, was retiring. She and the board, advisory council and staff had done incredible work to get the organization to a jumping-off point for launching this major capital campaign publicly. I knew there was work ahead of us, and also huge growth potential. The organization is an important economic driver and cultural tourism and hospitality entity for the state, and for children and families. That attracted me to the job.
MB: What did you bring to the table?
JBP: The organization I ran in Pittsburgh was only 3 years old when I came on. I grew the budget from hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions of dollars. So I brought experience in catapulting an organization to a new level of management and program deployment. Even though the Museum & Theater has a 100-year history, I saw that the opportunity for growth was significant.
MB: What was the construction project’s status when you arrived?
JBP: The dream for the new building started when the Children’s Museum and the Children’s Theater merged in 2008. It was clear we would outgrow our facility. By the time I came onboard, we had raised about $7 million. We needed what ended up being $15 million to complete the project. We had purchased the land at Thompson’s Point, but no construction had started.
MB: What was involved in getting to completion?
JBP: Soon after I arrived in the fall of 2019, we sold the Free Street building to the Portland Museum of Art, raising enough money to procure a construction loan from Gorham Savings Bank, which then triggered the start of construction in late 2019. Major gifts from individuals, foundations and corporations catapulted us into the public phase of the campaign in February 2020.
Photo / Tim Greenway
Children’s Museum & Theater of Maine is now a high-profile destination on Thompson’s Point in Portland.
MB: What’s your leadership approach?
JBP: I have a team-focused approach. We’re all stronger together when we get many voices around the table. That’s the organizational culture I wanted to keep building. It included everything from working with the bank and our amazing construction partners, to the funding side to our board of directors and fundraising committee, which is led by Barbee Gilman, who is singlehandedly responsible for a good portion of the millions of dollars we raised. We came together as a team and leaned on the expertise and advice of the incredible business community in Portland and in Maine.
MB: Any activities behind the scenes that made the facility a reality?
JBP: It’s hard to imagine a bigger surprise than a global pandemic. As an organization, we relied on in-person activity as a major revenue generator. The biggest behind-the-scenes challenge was figuring out how to do all of this with this heavy layer of uncertainty surrounding everything. Thankfully, the corporate and foundation community, along with many individuals, stepped up in a major way to help us through a very tough time operationally.
MB: How did you approach that challenge?
JBP: We constantly faced the possibility that construction would be shut down in the state of Maine. It never happened, but we saw it happening in other states. We were trying to raise money at a time when nobody could meet in person, and so much of that work is connected to relationships. We were closed for 15 months. I had to furlough a number of people because we lost 100% of our earned revenue stream. All of our team members, myself included, spent several months working full-time at a reduced salary. Those 14 people we were able to retain during the pandemic. My gratitude to them is endless. On top of that, we were still trying to provide programming, online learning and YouTube videos, from people’s homes.
MB: Have your numbers bounced back?
JBP: Before the pandemic, we had over 25 FTEs. Now we’re up to 21 FT and 28 PT team members. We have a full fledged aquarium in the new facility. We didn’t have aquarium-focused staff at the old facility. We have a full theater. At the old facility, the theater was a space in the basement. So the staff we need to make the building hum is significant.
We opened June 24, 2021, with certain capacity restrictions, and sold out every session through Labor Day. Demand is high, which is great for the state of Maine. It’s an indication that not only are families with young children coming here and visiting, but also families with children are coming here and not leaving. We have more members than ever in the organization’s history, over 4,000 families. We’re focused on continuing to build out our programming and partnerships.
MB: What do you love about being in this field?
JBP: One of the things that has been so wonderful, and has only been bolstered by the pandemic, is the deep commitment to children’s learning through play, to children’s resilience, especially in this challenging time, especially for parents and caregivers and anyone trying to support a child through the pandemic. The deep commitment of everyone, our advisory council, board of directors and most especially our staff, who come to work every day because they love children and want to see them succeed and be happy and resilient. To me, that’s one of the joys.
As a mom of young kids myself, I understand first-hand how challenging these times have been. Being able to provide an outlet and educational opportunity for parents and caregivers and their kids is hugely rewarding. It says something really positive about the city of Portland and the state of Maine that the first thing you see when you drive into the city is the Children’s Museum & Theater of Maine.