The Movers And Shakers

Posted: October 12, 2008

If at some point in the last dozen years she has talked you into submission about the importance of children's museums, or twisted your arm to donate money until it hurts, you might forgive her.

More than any other single person, Nancy D. Kolb has shouldered the planning of, and proselytizing for, the Please Touch Museum's move to larger, splashier quarters.

Now that she has succeeded, Kolb, the museum's leader for the last two decades, is doing two things that might seem unusual: she's plotting her exit, and deflecting credit onto others.

After all, she argues, it was Portia Sperr, the Montessori educator, who started the museum in 1976 in a corner of the Academy of Natural Sciences. "She gave us a very rock-solid foundation that allowed all of us to take this thing to a level previously not possible," says Kolb, president and chief executive officer.

There was Dorrance H. "Dodo" Hamilton, she of the generous hats and more generous purse, who gave the venture its first million dollars "back when it was a sketch on the back of a napkin." Her largesse has grown now to $7.5 million, making her the largest private donor to the $88 million project.

Others stepped in at arguably even more critical moments.

The idea of moving the museum almost died in 2002 with the collapse of the Penn's Landing development to which Please Touch had attached itself. Kolb was fearful about the reaction of one local funder, the William Penn Foundation.

In fact, the day the project's demise hit the papers, Kolb did get a concerned call from William Penn. But what she also got was an offer for an emergency grant of almost $500,000 to help fund staffing while the project regrouped.

At another organization, she says, the board would have fired her - not because she was at fault when the city's larger deal with Simon Property Group dissolved, but because the museum had spent $10 million pursuing the Penn's Landing deal - money it would never see again - and conventional wisdom says the CEO takes the blame.

Yet board chair Elizabeth B. Cartmell, former chair L. Gie Liem, and board member Jay H. Shah were anything but punitive, she says; instead, they immediately regrouped.

Kolb admits the work of moving the museum to Memorial Hall is not done. The building has major ongoing capital needs. And to make the jump, the Please Touch board took out a $60 million loan.

"Are we nervous about the debt? Sure we are," she says. Still, "[w]e have a great deal of confidence that the museum will be extraordinarily successful. It's a numbers game, and the alternative was to not do it. We need to finish the fund-raising campaign, and we will."

Recognizing that her personality is built more for a building phase and less for operating, Kolb, 67, is ready to step down. "The skill set of the kind of person who is needed now is completely different," says Kolb, who arrived at Please Touch in 1988 after serving as director of the Bureau of Historic Sites and Museums of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

She would have retired earlier, she says, but she wanted to see the museum through its move. She now is in the process of doing a slow hand-off to her likely successor, Laura H. Foster, who has worked at the museum since 1991 and currently holds the title of executive director.

Kolb's list of others who played key roles in the museum's transition to the big league goes on and on, and includes John T. McDevitt, who oversaw construction at Memorial Hall, and Willard Whitson, who developed the exhibits design.

"I am very cognizant of the fact that I'm standing on the shoulders of an awful lot of people right now," Kolb says.


Contact culture writer Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his blog at http://go.philly.com/

artswatch.

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