Volkswagen is giving $1 million to the Creative Discovery Museum’s capital campaign in one of the biggest gifts to the downtown Chattanooga attraction since it opened 25 years ago.
“That gift is a game-changer,” said Henry Schulson, the museum’s executive director. He said the donation helps put the museum on a path toward hitting its $10 million goal for the Ignite Discovery campaign.
Tom du Plessis, president and CEO of Volkswagen Chattanooga, said the museum is a staple in the community and has been committed to educating and inspiring children for the last two-and-a-half decades.
“We are proud to invest in their future, and look forward to collaborating on the creation of the STEMzone,” he said about a new exhibit where the money primarily will go to focus on science, technology, engineering and math.
The gift comes at a time when the museum, as other attractions, has had to limit attendance since reopening after the economic lock down due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Schulson said the VW donation, the largest non-endowment gift to the museum since its opening, won’t be used for operating expenses. Rather, the museum official said, it will go to the capital effort that will finance renovations, updated and new exhibits, expanded outreach programs and a more vibrant urban space on its 321 Chestnut St. plaza.
He said the museum probably will lose between $800,000 to $1 million this year due to the pandemic.
“We’re going to take a financial hit this year,” Schulson said. He said the museum qualified for federal coronavirus-related aid and has a credit line along with an endowment, noting it has laid off about 44 part-time staffers.
“We’ll be able to get through this year,” Schulson said. “Looking to next year, the goal is a balanced budget or slight deficit. It will be very tight.”
With the VW gift, the museum is at $7.1 million in its capital campaign that kicked off in January but was suspended in March after the pandemic hit. The museum resumed the campaign in September, Schulson said.
He said the museum, which reopened in June, has seen a steady increase in attendance. During October, its numbers are at about 50% compared to the same month a year ago, Schulson said.
Schools are one area he doesn’t expect to see coming back soon, but the museum is doing outreach and developing a virtual initiative.
“It may take a year before schools come back to the museum,” Schulson said, even though the museum is undertaking rigorous cleaning during the day, requiring masks for visitors age 5 and above, and limiting attendance to about 20% of typical numbers.
“Eventually, we’ll get back to normal,” he said. “A lot depends on a vaccine and effective therapies to treat [the coronavirus].”
His sense, Schulson said, is that the museum “won’t get fully back next year.”
However, concerning renovations and updates, the museum is