14 Questions with Port Discovery’s New President & CEO Carter Arnot Polakoff

Carter Arnot Polakoff President & Chief Executive Officer

Exciting news, fans of play! Port Discovery has a new ‘Captain’ at the helm: Carter Arnot Polakoff, a former intern and founding staff member, is Port Discovery’s new President & CEO.

We sat down with Carter, who started her career at Port Discovery before the Museum first opened to the public back in 1999 and then rejoined the Museum family in 2020 after more than 20 years at Baltimore School for the Arts, for a fun Q&A session as she transitions to her new, exciting role as President & CEO of Port Discovery Children’s Museum.

Learn more about Carter and her vision for the Museum below.

You’ve had an interesting history at Port Discovery, starting off as an intern and founding staff member and then coming back more than 20 years later – only a few months after the COVID pandemic began – to Port Discovery. What’s something that sticks out about your time at the Museum?
The staff! Everyone who works at Port Discovery is there because they believe in the mission and understand the importance of play in a young child’s life. There isn’t one person inside our museum who isn’t passionate about our mission and making sure families have a the “Best. Day. Ever” is a feeling we all share when we open up the doors each day.

How do you see Port Discovery’s role as children and families try to recover from all that COVID has meant?
Play is one of the most essential and important things for children to have access to. It allows them to use their creativity, develop their imaginations, and develop important social and emotional skills – plus lots more. Kids need this sort of outlet now more than ever – they’ve been through an almost two year period where it’s been hard to play, to connect with others, and to learn. It’s been pretty traumatic for them – and for their families and caregivers. It’s important that Port Discovery is here and ready to provide kids and families with opportunities to play and have fun, to spend time together, to connect with others, and to rebuild important social skills. It’s also important that we give kids and families an outlet to express themselves and heal from all they’ve been through.

What things do you see in Port Discovery’s immediate future?  
A LOT! We really have a lot going on at Port Discovery – and a lot ahead as well. One of the things I’m really excited about is the new ideas and programs we will be introducing to our community over the next several months. We have a new VP of Education and Innovation, Rachel Demma, and a team of education and play experts that are working incredibly hard to dream up new ideas and deliver programs and experiences that will really make an impact on our community. We are also about to embark on a large capital project to renovate our 10,000-square-foot atrium to be a really exciting, functional and fun space for guests and event rentals. The plans for the new space are incredible!  

There’s a pretty big ship that’s front and center when you walk into Port Discovery named the S.S. Friendship. What would be the name of your boat if you had one?
S. S. Smile. Writer William Arthur Ward said, “A warm smile is the universal language of kindness.” I can be pretty funny sometimes and I absolutely love to make people smile and laugh. Your body releases three hormones that make you feel good when you smile. They include dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin. These signal to your body that you’re happy, and in turn, you feel happier. I want everyone to have a smile on their face when they come to Port Discovery. 

What does your typical day look like? What do you like to do during your downtime?
I work a lot during the week from the second I wake up until the second I go to sleep. But – I have a lot of fun doing it. I love what I do, and I always find ways to add some silliness and fun to even my longest days. That being said, I am not afraid to take a good nap on a Saturday afternoon or spend time outside either on a walk or in the garden. I also have a small group of women who I like to exercise and play with on the weekends, and that always makes me happy. 

Speaking of making even your longest days good ones, what’s something that always makes your day better?  
When I see kids and adults playing together, it truly makes my entire day brighter and better! At Port Discovery, our programs and experiences are centered around the 2Gen approach so we focus on creating programs that support parents and children jointly. We aim to create experiences that encourage children and the adults in their lives to interact, to play together, and to learn together – and while they’re doing it, they are making memories that will last forever. In laymen’s terms, we want grown-up to put down their phone and really play with their kids when they are in the museum. Have fun together, relax together, play together, and enjoy one another. Play can be incredibly healing not only for kids but grown-ups too! 

You believe strongly in the power of memories. What is one of your favorite childhood memories?
I am an only child so the majority of my memories involve weekend outings with my mom and dad. My mother is an artist so we were always working on an art project of some kind which, in hindsight, was such an incredible gift.  

What’s the closest thing to real magic?
Giggling- at any age – is pure and real magic in my opinion! 

What motivates you?
My husband. Sam is the hardest-working person I know; he is incredibly passionate about whatever he is working on. I don’t ever think I ever would have learned to work so hard or be so focused on Baltimore City if he wasn’t my partner. There is no one more supportive of me than Sam and we share an incredible passion for making Baltimore City a better place to work and live. I hope some of our passion for life has rubbed off on our two boys as well and that they will be equally as socially engaged and interested when they are older.  

What’s a silly hidden talent that you have? What’s one talent that you’d like to have – but aren’t quite so good at yet?
When my family and I need to get away and have some fun, we go to upstate New York to a place on the St. Lawrence River. It’s a place where we can play, relax and enjoy time together. While I’m there, I love listening to the loons. And when no one else is listening (or at least I don’t think they are!), I practice calling them using my voice….and they respond!!! I’d call that my hidden talent – but also a talent that maybe I’m not very good at.

What is your favorite podcast?   
I listen to a lot of podcasts at the moment when I am walking our family’s dog Hogan. Right now, I listen to “Smartless” every Monday, and I am also a sucker for Joan Garry and her non-profit advice morsels on the “Leadership Lab.”

What’s one ability that you believe everyone should possess?

What is one skill you’d like to learn?
I am the worst hula-hooper that you have ever seen. Every time we go out into the community, we take the hula-hoops and without fail a little kid asks me to hula-hoop with them….and the kids aren’t shy about telling me how bad I am at it!  I would like to learn to hula-hoop and then watch out world here I come!  

What is one thing that keeps you up at night?  
Just one?!?!?

More About Carter Arnot Polakoff

As the President & CEO of Port Discovery Children’s Museum, Carter Arnot Polakoff believes strongly in the power of childhood memories and the impact that a day of play can have.  After staring her career as an intern and then founding staff member at Port Discovery, Carter spent more than 20 years planning and coordinating collaborative education and artistic programs and creating deep relationships with civic organizations and nonprofits, and earning a reputation as one of Baltimore’s top fundraisers, leaders and mentors. After rejoining the Port Discovery team in 2020, Carter’s passion for play, learning and families only grew stronger, proudly leading her to earn the role of President & CEO of Port Discovery Children’s Museum.

Carter lives in Baltimore City with her husband Sam, her teenage sons Nate and Samson, and dog Hogan. She is a graduate of Goucher College and is also a 2019 graduate of Baltimore’s flagship civic engagement program, The Leadership. When Carter isn’t working, you’ll often find her playing at Port Discovery, enjoying time with friends and family at community events and festivals, or relaxing near a riverbank.