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Tony Maroulis: Happy 10th birthday to the Eric Carle museum

In an apple orchard perfectly suited for “A Very Hungry Caterpillar,” The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art opened to great fanfare on Nov. 22, 2002.

Eric and Bobbie Carle, along with founder director Nick Clark, cut the ribbon, and the beautiful white building set in a little slice of paradise was open to the public. That weekend nearly 10,000 people came through the doors to see the art of picture books venerated as high art and danced in the parking lot tent to the kiddie-punk sounds of Dan Zanes and Friends.

I’ve probably written this over and over, but it’s one of those things that I’m proud of — my family moved up here because of the Carle. Nora took a job with the organization in early 2002, and was part of the launch team. I loved those early days. Everyone on staff was like family, with Eric and Bobbie, who lived close by in Northampton, the proud parents. There were ups and downs, and lots of long hours, but what a great group of people so dedicated to the founder’s dream and making it a reality.

My first job in Amherst was as a stay-at-home-dad, and so the Carle became my second home. My boss, little Sofia, dictated the rhythm of our days, and the Carle was one of our frequent stops, often sandwiched between visits to Groff and Mill River parks and before long, sleep-inducing rides to Montague. Megan Lambert was the Carle’s librarian at the time, and we were one of her groupies, stopping in to catch a storytime at 10 before a scribble or two in the art studio and a visit with mama in the cafe or the main office. Those were some of the best days of my life; I wish I could capture them in a jar and store them forever.

Over the last decade, the Carle has been covered by scores of publications, and has garnered international press and celebrity. Buoyed by the big first weekend, the museum saw 90,000 visitors in its first calendar year, but since has averaged between 40,000 and 50,000 each year since. It is a magnet for Japanese and German tourists, and one of the biggest draws in the Pioneer Valley. The Carle was Amherst’s first addition in a decade of arts and museum expansion and explosion, in which we saw the formation The Emily Dickinson Museum, the opening of the Amherst Cinema, the re-opening of the Amherst College (Beneski) Museum of Natural History, and the accreditation of the University of Massachusetts University Museum. All together, Amherst-based arts organizations see a combined 250,000 visitors each year.

Those numbers mean revenue and economic opportunities. The tourists they attract are new revenue sources, bringing an infusion of money to our area. And the arts organizations employ dozens of full- and part-time professionals who contribute greatly to the life of our town and region. The Carle’s leadership was instrumental in forming Museums10, which was the springboard to the Hampshire Country Regional Tourism Council.

Over the years, my family’s relationship with the Carle has changed. Nora left in 2008 for consulting and our former art gallery. My days are now filled with Chamber of Commerce-related concerns and taxiing the kids to and from practices. Sofia and Mickey have gotten a little too old for storytime. But I don’t think I have.

These days I’m there for business. I’m instantly brought back to those years when I was a young, unsure parent, holding hands with my now 12-year-old framed by the monumental Eric Carle abstracts that color the main hall. Being in the museum was always a comforting, hopeful experience, and one that I imagine thousands of frazzled dads and moms over the past 10 years have appreciated and savored.

Happy birthday to the Carle! Congrats to the wonderful and dedicated founders, staff and volunteers of this amazing organization — both past and present — and may there be many more.

Tony Maroulis is the executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce.

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