Suzanne Olson, the longtime director of the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine, who arrived when the institution was unstable financially and will leave with it on the cusp of its largest expansion, will retire in June. She has directed the museum for almost 19 years, and a search for her replacement will begin immediately.

“Retirement is something I have been thinking about and talking with the board about for several years,” Olson said in an interview Monday. “I felt the time wasn’t right earlier, but the museum is in good position right now and things are in place. This allows someone with plenty of transition time to come in and have a great new job.”

The organization is in the midst of dramatic changes as it prepares to vacate its longtime home at 142 Free St. in downtown Portland. It has completed a strategic plan, begun a $13.75 million fundraising campaign and hopes to break ground this spring on a 30,000-square-foot building with a 100-seat theater at Thompson’s Point. The new director will oversee the fundraising campaign, construction of the new building and the move from downtown, said board president Chris Dougherty. The new three-story building will open in 2020.

“We are going through generational changes at the organization,” Dougherty said. “The new executive director will inherit this past legacy and move it forward. They will take the dynamic change that we are experiencing and advance the vision.”

Dougherty declined to discuss the salary range of the job.

Olson will work full time until the end of June, then serve the organization as a consultant during the transition to a new executive director. She came to the job with 30 years of experience as a middle-school teacher and administrator, and her tenure was marked by exhibitions and installations about inclusion, diversity and sustainability. About 115,000 kids and their families visit the museum each year. With the move to Thompson’s Point, attendance is expected to double.

The museum, which was founded in 1976 by the Junior League of Portland, operates with a budget of about $2 million annually. When Olson began working there in May 2000, the budget was about $700,000. The museum moved downtown from Stevens Avenue several years prior to that and was struggling with deficits, Olson recalled.

“The board was working very hard to keep it afloat, and our immediate goal was financial stability,” she said. “We’ve worked very deliberately toward that. I worked for a long time in public schools, where you had a budget and you’d better meet it. I also grew up in a family where if you didn’t have it, you didn’t spend it,” she said. “How to do a lot with a little has been our mantra for a very long time. That was a big part of our early work,”

Suzanne Olson, the longtime director of the Children’s Museum, said, “Retirement is something I have been thinking about and talking with the board about for several years.”

Under her direction, the museum merged with the Children’s Theatre of Maine in 2008, combining the missions and resources of two of Maine’s leading cultural institutions dedicated to children and their families.

Barbee Gilman, who co-chairs the capital campaign, said the fundraising effort is off to a good start, with several large gifts. In November, Bank of America announced it was making a leadership grant of $250,000. “That gift far surpassed what we were expecting and has helped leverage other gifts in the community,” Gilman said. “The response is very encouraging. We have received wonderful support from foundations, corporations and others. It’s great to share our story. A lot of people are aware of our organization, but not every aspect of our work.”

The fundraising campaign is still in what Gilman called the “quiet phase,” with the museum approaching individuals and organizations with existing relationships to ask for money. The campaign will shift to a public phase in the spring or later in the year, after the museum breaks ground at Thompson’s Point for its new building.

The museum owns the building at 142 Free St. and is trying to sell it, with an asking price of $3.4 million. The sale of the building is key to the fundraising campaign, Dougherty said. “We own the building free and clear, so that’s a nice piece of financing. Once we sell it, that’s a big piece of how we pay for this project,” he said.

The museum also owns the 1.1-acre parcel at Thompson’s Point where it will construct a new building.

Olson said she was most proud of the progress the museum has made during her tenure to reflect Portland’s changing demographics with exhibitions and events. “Portland 20 years ago was becoming this richly diverse community in a state that did not have a lot of diversity,” she said. “The opportunity to bring families together to get to know each other through their children has been a powerful piece and, for me, one of the most satisfying pieces to being the director.”

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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