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Making Museums Cool: Edwina Meyers and Gail Velez

Edwina Meyers and Gail Velez share a mutual passion for education and the arts, which they believe should be accessible to all children and adults, regardless of economic status or means.

Together Meyers, the director of External Affairs for the New York City Administration for Children’s Services, and Velez, the founder of Family Publications, a print and online resource for parents and teachers, discovered the disturbing fact that lowincome families, hindered by financial barriers, often missed out on the rich educational rewards offered by museums and other cultural institutions. Focus groups also revealed that such parents believed that those institutions held no meaning for them.

That newfound knowledge led the women to start Cool Culture, a non-profit program that connects low-income families from diverse backgrounds with more than forty museums, zoos, and botanical gardens in New York by educating them on why it’s hip, fun, and smart to take advantage of all that the city has to offer. “The idea had been brewing for three years, and we knew the only thing that could happen was we’d succeed or we’d fail,” says Meyers. Velez echoes her partner’s sentiments, “I don’t know how we did it, but we did.”

Their brainchild provides 24,000 qualified families with free entry passes and quarterly pamphlets detailing program listings, events, transportation information, and affordable lunch options, which help to eliminate any barriers to planning a visit. Cool Culture also offers practical tips and advice to parents and caregivers on how to make the most of each trip, thereby enabling them to interact and learn with their young children, which is an invaluable development tool. Visits help foster verbal literacy, vocabulary development, and critical thinking skills.

Early backers of Cool Culture, which started a year-round program in 1999, included the American Museum of Natural History, the Sony Wonder Technology Lab, and Edward Jay Goldberg, a senior vice president of government and consumer affairs at Macy’s, which provided a $10,000 grant.

While most cultural institutions are eager to welcome this underrepresented population, many lack the resources and community presence to market to their facilities and programs effectively. Cool Culture has been a welcome asset for these groups, which also recognize that by making their venues more accessible, they’re building loyalty among future generations of museum visitors.

“There’s a fulfillment in being able to put something together that works and that benefits everybody,’’ Meyers says. “It’s a win-win situation.’’