Kids need more than play, says head of nationally
acclaimed Children’s Museum of Houston
Since Tammie Kahn (MBA ’95) became executive director of the Children’s Museum of Houston in 1995, the institution has risen to the pinnacle of the family-museum world.
But Kahn is happier sharing her six-point plan for lighting up the minds of children than ticking off numbers about budget and attendance growth spurts.
Still, the figures are as impressive as the passions of this Wichita Falls native. In 2009, the museum inaugurated a $35 million expansion that doubled its viewing space and created seven new permanent exhibits. Earlier this year, Parents magazine named it the No. 1 children’s museum in America.
The person universally credited with the museum’s ascent to stardom is the personable and articulate Kahn, who traces her affinity for community service back to her ’70s days at the University of Texas, when civil rights, Vietnam and Watergate were altering the national psyche.
Kahn had planned to become a lawyer until Watergate turned her off politics. Early in her Houston career, she worked on the Shell account for the prestigious Ogilvy & Mather ad agency and as associate director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. In the early ’90s, she decided to pursue her MBA at the University of Houston’s business college, now known as the C. T. Bauer College of Business.
Recently, we spoke to Kahn, who is married to real-estate developer Barry Kahn and has two grown daughters, about her time at UH and her vision for the Children’s Museum. (For the record, during her tenure, the organization’s annual operating budget has jumped from about $1.9 million to $10.8 million, while yearly attendance is up from 300,000 to 850,000.)
How did you go from advertising to museums?
The Museum of Fine Arts was looking around for somebody who was incredibly cheap, who would work hard, who understood a little bit about marketing and promotions, so I got to work there. I loved working there for 10 years.
Why did you want to get your MBA?
In the mid-’80s during the big bust in Texas, there were so many people who were suffering. I think being a young mother, you tend to be very empathetic with people who share similar objectives and dreams in life but who are being prohibited from realizing them. I actually wanted to get an MBA because I was hell-bent on creating a new form of affordable housing. I hadn’t gotten a business plan together that would work, and I knew I wanted to serve women and children particularly.
Why did you pick UH?
Rice University was really geared at that time toward very young people who had just been out of school a couple of years. St. Thomas had inconvenient hours [big laugh]. And UH’s executive MBA program was tailored for people who had more work experience, which I certainly did at that point.
How did it go at UH?
It was a matter of survival [laughs]. That was what I was really trying to do. … Because the workload is intense and it is demanding and the quality of the student is exceptional. You learn so much not only from the professors but also from the class members.
What happened to your affordable housing idea?
I couldn’t make the numbers work, honestly, and I didn’t want to start up a small non-profit to try to make it work. … But I recognized that there were so many other initiatives, and when the museum was looking for a director, it was just as I was graduating.
What are some of your proudest accomplishments at the museum?
Close to 50 percent of attendance is free or significantly reduced. We have a really phenomenal grass-roots system of outreach that connects to homeless shelters, libraries, any place where people are in stressful domestic situations, including low-income households. We make sure they have access to the museum, and that’s critical.
We believe everything should connect back to what is going in the classroom, and you’d be surprised: A lot of museums don’t feel like they need to do that. … We also recognize that this is a multi-cultural, multi-lingual city, and we are really proud of the fact that 40 percent of attendance here is Latino, 27 percent is African-American, 26 percent is Anglo, and the rest is Asian.
Finally, how does it feel to be named No. 1 by Parents magazine?
It is certainly gratifying to see years of vision and hard work by our board and staff be recognized nationally. But every day, this team of dedicated people put their hearts and souls into making this place fulfill its promise to Houston’s families. We really do try, every day, to transform our community through the innovative, child-centered learning we provide.
By Wendell Brock