The kidscommons children’s museum has named former Columbus Parks and Recreation Director Ben Wagner as its executive director.
Museum board president Sara Jacobi praised Wagner’s passion for the community and said he had spent his professional career helping make Columbus a place where families and children can thrive.
“It’s the beginning of an exciting new chapter at kidscommons,” Jacobi said. “The board and the staff are delighted to be moving forward with Ben Wagner in this leadership role.”
Wagner expressed positive feelings about his new job.
“If you name five things that make Columbus stand out, kids-commons is going to be on an awful lot of those lists,” Wagner said. “I’ve always been lucky enough to have jobs where I can give back and help kids and families, and this job is another opportunity to do that.”
Wagner had worked in three different roles for the city Parks and Recreation Department over the past four years. Previously, he had leadership roles at Foundation For Youth and the Columbus Youth Camp.
“Ben is going to be a fantastic asset for the kidcommons,” said City Councilman Ryan Brand, a former Parks Board member. “The experience he will bring to their organization is incredible.”
Board member Erin Hawkins, marketing director for the Columbus Area Visitors Center, said Wagner was an early candidate and was the clear choice after the museum board conducted a nationwide search following the resignation of Amy Kleinert.
“First and foremost, the board charged the search committee with finding someone who is really imbedded in and connected to the community,” Hawkins said. “Apart from his extensive organizational leadership and experience with maintaining facilities, which is always a challenge for us, his enthusiasm and ideas made him stand out from other candidates. He blew them out of the water.”
Board member Tim Coriden, a Columbus attorney, said the challenge with any museum is to keep exhibits fresh, and Wagner came to the table with ideas to accomplish that.
“You want kids to want to go back and families to come back and you want them to leave wanting more,” Coriden said. “We will be pulling from Ben’s ideas to make it not just fresh but to continue to grow it. With his help, we think we are in a good position to do that.”
Wagner said one goal he would like to achieve involves utilizing his experience and training in outdoor education to provide opportunities to expand kidscommons programming outside its walls.
“Throughout my career I have been fortunate to work with numerous school groups facilitating environmental and experiential education programs,” Wagner said.
Hawkins said it was Wagner’s diverse experience that moved him to the top of the candidate list.
“Some of our exhibits are so loved that they take a lot of wear and tear, and that’s where Ben’s facilities experience will come in,” Hawkins said.
Building support for museum
Kidscommons was founded in 1998 and moved to its current location at 309 Washington St. in 2005.
The museum focuses on families with toddlers to early teens and last year set a record with 48,000 visitors.
Kidscommons operates with 17 full- and part-time employees and utilizes more than 200 volunteers each year.
The museum features 12,000 square feet of interactive exhibits on three floors. Its newest exhibit, City by Design, allows children to be the architect, urban designer and builder of their own city of the future.
More than half of kidscommons visitors come from outside Bartholomew County.
The museum is funded through a combination of grants, private funding and donations and admissions. The organization’s biggest fundraiser event is its annual Carnivale, which generated $80,000 in contributions this year.
Wagner knows garnering support for the museum will be an important part of his new job and says his experience will benefit him in that role. In his roles with parks and recreation, he helped the city’s Park Foundation raise more than
$4 million in the past five years.
“People look at kidscommons as something that improves quality of life, and there are a lot of people who are willing to give to that,” Wagner said. “It’s always a challenge, but I am optimistic that there are a lot of supporters out there and hopefully there will continue to be.”
The kidscommons board just completed an extensive planning process and identified strategies and goals but has not determined how best to achieve them.
“Ben is going to lead us on a lot of that, in terms of what we are offering and what we should be offering,” Hawkins said.
Wagner said he plans to create a shared vision for kids-commons with input from the staff, board members, stakeholders and the community.
“The reality is that we need to learn from others what they want and what Columbus needs,” Wagner said. “A lot of the marketing is word-of-mouth, so I want to see people who have just come from the museum go to their friends and tell them they’ve got to come see this museum.”
Wagner resigned as the city parks department’s marketing coordinator effective May 30. He had served as director of the department until Dec. 30, when he was reassigned by Mayor Kristen Brown. Wagner will begin his new role with the children’s museum June 16.