Amazeum director Sam Dean reflects on 10 years

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 870 views 

Sam Dean, executive director of the Scott Family Amazeum in Bentonville.

Sam Dean, executive director of the Scott Family Amazeum, recently celebrated 10 years as the Bentonville museum’s founding executive director. Accomplishments include the conception, planning and opening of the 50,000-square-foot museum and its community outreach and educator training programs.

The Toledo, Ohio, native moved to Northwest Arkansas in November 2012 for the top executive role and started the same month. The museum’s board of directors recruited him while he worked for San Francisco-based Exploratorium.

Dean, 49, has more than 25 years of museum industry experience, starting in 1995 when he worked at a planetarium during college. He stepped away from the industry to attend medical school but returned after realizing he could make a career of working with families and in science communications and learning.

“I loved the kind of learning that happens when families come together and explore based on their curiosity, and they vote with their feet,” he said. “They walk and follow their own interests through your space.”

His professional experience includes nine years at the Center of Science and Industry Toledo, one year at the Fort Worth (Texas) Museum of Science and History and five years at the Exploratorium.

While there, he worked throughout Arkansas, helping to build Tinkering Studios with the Arkansas Discovery Network. Northwest Arkansas wasn’t a stop on his state tour, but a friend told him about the area and opportunity.

“This project at that stage was a board of directors who had a dream that had momentum in this part of, not just state but country, where at that time I wasn’t aware of all of this energy that was built up here,” he said. “I came out here because it was a great opportunity — a chance to start something cool in an amazing community and make a big impact on a region hungry for family-friendly, science-rich programming.”

In 2006, the 501(c)3 nonprofit was chartered as the Children’s Museum of Northwest Arkansas. It was rebranded to the Scott Family Amazeum in the summer of 2013, named for one of the museum’s major fundraising contributors, former Walmart CEO Lee Scott and his family. Dean explained that the rebrand was to make it applicable to children, adults and educators.

Dean said his career highlight has comprised Amazeum’s work internally and externally, including providing the community with professional development opportunities for educators and after-school programming. The Amazeum has provided guests of all ages with hands-on experiences and activities in science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics (STEAM).

Whitney Yoder, president of the Amazeum board of directors, highlighted its broader regional impact.

“I see the Amazeum as the keeper of the creative learning environment for Northwest Arkansas,” she said. “That’s Sam’s vision to think beyond the four walls and what’s the impact to create a thriving ecosystem of creative thinkers and doers.”

The museum was on track to have one of its best years before the COVID-19 pandemic led to its closure from mid-March to July 2020. Dean said the industry lost about half of its workforce amid the pandemic.

While closed, Amazeum staff worked to continue to make a community impact and started to offer digital programming for school children. After reopening, he said staff relearned how to operate the museum with new cleaning procedures. He noted that staff continue monitoring COVID levels and are prepared to make necessary changes.

Dean said museum attendance has yet to recover from the pandemic fully but is on track to do so by summer 2023. He expects membership levels to recover in more than a year. Guests have returned, but some things, such as school trips, have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels.

Since the museum opened, it’s hosted 169,258 students for “Unfield” trips, according to a news release. It’s also participated in more than 500 offsite educational and outreach events.

Maddy Schultz, executive director of Ability Tree Arkansas, said that for at least the past four years, it’d provided Amazeum staff with professional development training for special needs children. It’s also collaborated on programs with the Amazeum for the past three years, with staff coming to Ability Tree’s Siloam Springs facility twice monthly.

The Amazeum has welcomed more than 1.66 million visitors since it opened on July 15, 2015. That includes member and guest visits, excluding camps, workshops or facility rental attendance.

In April 2019, the museum surpassed 1 million guest visits, exceeding initial attendance estimates by about four years. The museum welcomed guests from every U.S. state and multiple countries within four years of opening.

Dean looks to hit the 2 million mark in more than a year but before the museum’s 10th anniversary.

Sam Dean

As of Dec. 4, the museum has had 204,782 visitors this year. That’s up from 161,213 in 2021 and 102,312 in 2020. Attendance hit a peak of 272,141 in 2019. The museum’s second-highest attendance was in 2016, with 265,174 visitors.

Nearly 19,000 households have had a museum membership since 2015. Membership rose to 4,833, as of Dec. 3, up from 4,442 in 2021. However, it’s down from 5,020 in 2020, 6,057 in 2019 and 6,093 in 2018.

According to the museum website, memberships include an unlimited entry for family members. Memberships for a family of six range from $165 to $1,000 per year based on perks, including guest passes, single-use complimentary passes and events invitations. A membership for a family of four is $115 annually.

In June, museum admission increased by $1 to $11. Between July 2015 and January 2020, admission was $9.50. It increased by 50 cents to $10 in February 2020.

Dean said the Amazeum costs $22 to $23 per person to fund it. The museum earns about 50% to 60% of the needed funding and closes the gap with federal grants and contributions from donors and sponsors.

According to the museum’s most recent IRS Form 990, revenue rose to $3.73 million in 2019 from $2.44 million in 2018. The fiscal year for the most recent report ended on June 30, 2020. The report for the year ending June 30, 2021, is expected to be available in January.

The Amazeum has 85 employees, about twice as many as when it opened.

In 2023, Dean looks to learn about how the museum can continue to grow in its existing space and have conversations on the direction of its support of STEAM regionally. He expects to develop a master plan to guide the museum’s direction.

“We’re continually building the Amazeum as a team,” he said. “This region has so much energy and excitement in it. We have an organization that has so much energy and excitement. We have a community that is hungry to continue to grow with us.

“We’re ready to launch a campaign to look at some expansion, to provide more science-rich programming for the youngest of kids, to teens and adults… We’ll be looking at doing a building expansion on our campus and audience expansion… We’ve had highly successful adult nights. We’re excited to build on some of that work to continue to have teens and adults working on their creativity, working with tools – unleashing their imagination.”

Yoder explained that Dean’s vision and ability to dream have accelerated the museum’s growth, leading to a capital campaign.

“We’re only 7 years old, but we’re already to the point where we must continue to grow to keep up with what’s going on,” she said. “If we had anyone else at the helm who didn’t have that vision, we would be behind because of the way Northwest Arkansas is changing and growing so rapidly.”