Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Introducing Abbott Square Part 4: The Most Important Question to Ask in a Capital Campaign

This is the fourth in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.

When you embark on a big capital campaign for a community project, don’t ask how much the project will cost. Ask how much it’s worth.

When we started the Abbott Square project, we focused on how much the project would cost. We were brand new to capital fundraising, and we were nervous about what we could afford. We had no idea what it would take to do a big campaign. We knew we’d have to reach out to new donors who weren’t connected to the MAH. We’d have to find them, get them involved, and get them invested. It all sounded daunting—especially for an organization that had no development director when we started the project.

So we played it cautious. At first, we wanted to fix up the plaza and add some art. We put a $250,000 price tag on that. Then, we realized we wanted to do more, maybe add some food, definitely make spaces for performances, and improve the infrastructure for community festivals and events. That brought the price tag to $1,000,000.

And then I sat down with a major donor—someone I hoped would give a big gift to the project. She changed my whole way of seeing the project. She taught me two crucial things:
  1. The project price tag is what it’s worth, not what it costs. She said, “This project is worth more than a million dollars. Having a town plaza, a place to connect in the middle of downtown, a creative gathering place—that’s huge. That’s worth a lot more than a million dollars.”
  2. Mega-donors make decisions based on the value and price tag of the project… not the balance in their bank accounts. She said, “Here’s how I look at things. I’m considering a project and let’s say I’ve bought in. I want to pay for a percentage of the project - let’s say 15%. So if you tell me the project costs $1,000,000, I’ll give you $150,000. If you tell me it’s $5,000,000, I’ll give you $750,000.”
Her insights blew my mind… and sent our team back to the campaign drawing board.

We made a crucial shift from scarcity thinking (“What’s the least we could do? What’s the least we could pay?”) to abundance thinking (“What’s the most we could do? What’s the full value of this project?”). Inspired by our supporters’ big dreams for the project’s potential, we started thinking bigger, too.

That donor encouraged us to think about what it would take to make the best possible version of Abbott Square. She pushed us to crunch the numbers on a meaningful food experience. We started to pencil out what it would cost to fill the plaza with great events and art activities every week. We talked to other donors to gauge what they thought the project was worth.

We got to $5,000,000.

We didn’t get there by inflating the budget. We didn’t get there through cost overruns. We got there by finding people who dreamed of a creative gathering place, listening to them, believing in their aspirations, and matching the scale of the project to the value they told us was there. We raised all $5,000,000, ahead of schedule. (And that donor? She gave $800,000.)

Now when people talk with me about their capital campaigns, I don’t ask how much the project will cost. I ask how much it’s worth—to their donors, and more importantly, to their community.

If the project is worth as much or more than it costs, you’re in for a pleasure of a fundraising campaign. If it’s worth less than it costs, hit the pause button and ask yourself—why are we doing this? Who is it for? How can we make it something so valuable to our community that it will feel more than worth the cost?

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a response or question, you can join the conversation here.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Introducing Abbott Square Part 3: Community Participation Builds a Community Plaza

This is the third in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.

When we first started talking about redeveloping Abbott Square as a community plaza for downtown Santa Cruz, we ran into some basic questions. What amenities does it need? How will it feel welcoming and inclusive for different communities? Whose vision of downtown are we designing for?

We answered these questions through four years of community conversations. We kept meeting and involving new advocates with strong and differing perspectives. We built specific community processes appropriate to each step of the project development. Every step involved community participation. The result is a project dreamed up by our community, then harnessed, honed, and taken to completion by the MAH.

Here are three significant ways community participation influenced our project.

Community stakeholders made us confront the reality of divergent perspectives about downtown Santa Cruz. 

Going into the project, we saw the MAH’s location in downtown as a huge asset to the project. MAH staff and trustees see downtown as a vibrant retail, dining, and entertainment district, packed with diverse people. We started the Abbott Square project to bring more of the people visiting downtown into the MAH.

But when we started hosting formal community visioning workshops in 2013 with the Project for Public Spaces, we heard other opinions of downtown. We heard suburban moms describe downtown as dangerous, dirty, and unappealing. Businesspeople asked how we would keep out homeless people, drug addicts, and deviant behavior. Some people were downright incredulous that we could achieve our goals for a creative community plaza in downtown.

At first, I resisted and discounted these skeptics. I thought they had distorted perceptions of downtown. But over time, I learned to take their perceptions at face value. Their reality is not my reality... but it is real to them. And that led to two conclusions. First, that we should do what we can to address some community members’ real concerns about safety, cleanliness, and signals of welcome. We started designing ways to make Abbott Square a desirable “first landing place” in downtown—especially for families with children. And second, that while we want Abbott Square to be a welcoming community plaza downtown, we have to accept the reality that some people in our county will never come downtown. We are taking concerns about cleanliness and safety seriously. But we are focusing on people who are skeptical yet open to downtown, not those for whom that door is closed shut.

Community stakeholders drove us to add food to the project in a big way. 

When we first pitched Abbott Square to community members as a MAH project, we heard the same thing again and again: “I like the MAH. I love art and performances and family festivals. But FOOD and DRINK is going to be the thing to bring me back again and again.”

This community preference gave me a healthy dose of humility. A plaza rooted solely in creative practice was not going to achieve our community goals. So we scaled up the food component.

We went from planning for one coffee shop and a small cafe to imagining a public market with five mini-restaurants and two bars. We invested way more time, money, and energy into adding food than we had planned. We entered into a major new partnership to build Abbott Square Market. While Abbott Square still has art, history, and community at its heart, I accept the reality that food is what will drive most people to the plaza.

Community stakeholders made this a community project. 

Every step of the way, we reminded ourselves that we could only build a community plaza with our community. We found ways to engage community members in every step of the development process. Rather than engaging people in one aspect or way, we developed new forms of participation as needed. The first workshops with PPS were quite formal. They generated a fancy (and useful) report. But they were just the beginning. Here are a few other ways we involved community members in Abbott Square development:
  • We held open design competitions for the two major public art components of Abbott Square. Community members served on juries, and we invited hundreds of museum members, donors, and visitors to weigh in on proposed designs. 
  • We invited Abbott Square advocates to host their own lunches or cocktail parties at the MAH to discuss the future of downtown with their friends. 
  • We created a set of coasters with the Abbott Square core components written on them: FOOD, ART, HISTORY, PLAY, COMMUNITY. Any time we met with people about the project, we invited them to sort the coasters in order of importance and discuss their rankings. And then we encouraged them to keep and share the coasters. 
  • Whenever possible, we held public presentations/celebrations of the project. Most involved a fundraising ask, but we always made sure to welcome donors giving $1 as well as those giving $10,000. There were several events where we received gifts across that full range. 
  • We empowered a teen intern to make a video featuring MAH visitors to generate support for the project (shown at the top of this post). 
  • We invited interested folks to attend major City and County hearings on the project and to offer testimony about the value of the project to them. 
  • We formed an “Operation Abbott Square” task force of business-minded volunteers to help us plan for operational changes at the MAH post-expansion into Abbott Square. 
  • We let people put their mark on the project. Before we tore out all the pavers, we invited people to “buy a brick” for a contribution of any amount, painting their name on it right then and there. We held a demolition party where people could draw and write their names on walls that were later destroyed. And when neighbors asked if they could take home pavers for their own construction projects, we always said yes.
How have you involved community stakeholders in your capital projects?

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a response or question, you can join the conversation here.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Introducing Abbott Square Part 2: Why We're Expanding in Public Space - and Why You Should Consider It Too

This is the second installation in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.

The MAH fundamentally has two jobs: we bring art and history out into our community, and we invite our community in.

Over the past six years, we’ve done a great job bringing the community into the MAH. Our audience has quadrupled in size, and the people walking through our doors increasingly reflect the age, income, and ethnic diversity of our County. We’re proud that the MAH is a thriving museum AND community center for Santa Cruz County, a place for people of all walks of life to connect around our shared creativity and culture.

Visitors tell us how much they love the MAH, saying things like, “I love that the MAH holds very welcoming, accessible, open-minded and open-hearted space where people from every walk of life can gather and (re)create community.” Or “I love the MAH because it is a truly participatory space where diverse groups can enjoy, express themselves, and learn from/about/with others.” Or “The MAH is a living invitation of out-of-the box, beyond-perceived-walls thinking.”

There’s a lot of love inside the MAH these days. But in the spirit of that last visitor comment, we feel it is our responsibility and our glorious opportunity to spread that love beyond our walls. If we only build community inside the building, we’re trapping ourselves and our visitors in a bubble. We want to break out. We want the MAH’s inclusive creative energy to ripple across our county. Our vision is to build a stronger, more connected community through art and history. If we really want to achieve that vision, we’ve got to get to work in all the places where people live, work, and play.

We’ve experimented with beyond-the-building engagement through projects like the Pop Up Museum, Evergreen Cemetery restoration work, and partner-led festivals. I’ve seen again and again how outdoor programming has impact beyond what can happen inside the museum. Some casual passers-by jump in to participate, and even when they don’t, they get a bit of a contact high from the fact that art is happening as part of their urban experience. The engagement may be less intimate and focused, but the opportunity for ripple effects is greatly increased. The impact outdoors is wider and wilder than anything that happens inside the walls of an institution.

So we’re going big by expanding into Abbott Square, the under-utilized plaza on the MAH’s front doorstep. The “why” behind Abbott Square evolved over time, with four main reasons at the core:
  1. marketing and audience development
  2. meeting community needs
  3. achieving our mission / strategic alignment
  4. strengthening our business model
When we started the project four years ago, the primary reason to expand into the plaza was about marketing and audience development. Abbott Square physically connects the MAH to the main drag of downtown Santa Cruz. Four years ago, we were in the early stages of expanding and diversifying MAH programming, and we saw Abbott Square as a key physical connection between the growing museum and the vibrant creative life of downtown. Furthermore, we learned from a Latinx-focused ethnographic study that outdoor programming was particularly appealing to local Latinx families. We wanted to reach more people, and more diverse people, and we saw Abbott Square as a great place to do it.

Once we started community conversations about the potential for Abbott Square, the “why” shifted to community desire for a town square. While locals were interested in the MAH, they were MUCH more interested in having a downtown gathering place. We don’t have a town square in Santa Cruz, and people feel the acute lack of creative public space. What started as being about the MAH became more about the community. Community members’ expressed needs and desires drove the planning of Abbott Square and led to major decisions we would not have made if this project was “just” a MAH extension (more on community involvement in next week’s post). While this was exciting, it was also a bit disconcerting. At times, it felt like we were taking on a new sister project to the MAH in Abbott Square, as opposed to an expansion of our existing work.

To my grateful surprise, that sense of separation resolved itself as the MAH's strategy evolved in alignment with the project. While we were designing Abbott Square with community members, we were also strengthening the MAH’s overall commitment to community-driven programs. Three years ago, we wrote a new MAH theory of change with an impact statement to build a stronger, more connected community. We knew this impact could only happen if we expanded our work further beyond our walls.

Through the lens of our new theory of change, suddenly Abbott Square was core to our overall institutional strategy. Just as we have opened the MAH up to more diverse people, perspectives, art forms, and historical narratives over the past few years, now we are physically opening our facility with new offerings that are accessible and appealing to a much wider audience—including thousands of people who might not ever set foot in a museum. The people who enjoy Abbott Square’s whimsical Secret Garden, locally-rooted public market, and free outdoor performances will all experience the MAH—whether they also visit exhibition galleries or not. This intersection is not entirely a coincidence—the MAH and the Abbott Square project grew up together—but it was reassuring to realize that the community’s interest in Abbott Square was in our strategic best interest, too.

And finally, a fourth “why” was key throughout planning: Abbott Square was designed to generate revenue and maximize use of our real estate assets. The MAH has an unusual business model in that part of our revenue comes from managing Abbott Square plaza and an adjacent commercial office building. By incorporating a food market in the ground floor of that building (something community members urged us to do as part of the project), we are hopefully building a sustainable revenue source into Abbott Square. At the same time, we’re transforming a “high income, low mission impact” asset into a “higher income, high mission impact” asset. Hopefully.

I firmly believe that more creative institutions should be in the public space business. If we care about building community, we can’t just do it within our walls. We live in a time—especially in the United States—when people are more divided than ever. Space is contested, privatized, and segregated. Working on this project has opened me up to the incredible opportunities we have to claim public space for our communities and for the values that underlie our work.

Many people call this work “creative placemaking.” The idea is that creativity—not just sculptures or murals but events, art-making, art-sharing, commerce—can help turn an intersection or a riverfront or a concrete wedge into a place with a story and an identity. Creativity and culture connect us to place and to each other.

Yes, art is place making. But art is also future making. Art rejects the limitations of what we are and what we have been. It inspires us to imagine what we will be.

I want to imagine a future of downtown Santa Cruz in which creativity, commerce, and community are all welcome. I want to imagine a future in which the spirit of welcome and inclusivity that permeates the MAH spreads throughout our whole town.

We’re trying to build a slice of that future in Abbott Square. What future do you want to build in your community?

Monday, March 06, 2017

Introducing Abbott Square: A Multi-Part Series on the MAH's Expansion into Creative Public Space

I love the sound of jackhammers in the morning.

My organization, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH), is in the home stretch of a major expansion project. Over the next two months, as we head towards opening, I want to share some of the stories of this project and the process behind it.

This is not your typical museum expansion. When the construction is complete, we will have added zero square feet of gallery space. No new classrooms. Not an ounce of storage space, office space, nor exhibit prep space.

Instead, we're spending five million dollars to take our museum outside. We're transforming an underutilized downtown plaza next to the MAH, Abbott Square, into a creative town square. We're gutting an adjacent office building to host a new public market with five mini-restaurants and two bars. We're planting gardens, painting murals, chalking out performance stages, and hanging market lights. The goal is for Abbott Square to become a new creative heart of our county, a town square that brings together art, history, food, play, and community.

I've spent about half my work-time on Abbott Square over the past four years. It has been an incredible learning experience. I've immersed myself in the politics of public space, the idiosyncrasies of public-private partnerships, the opportunistic mindset of real estate development, the thrills of capital campaigns, the complications of merging current and future operations, and the creative possibilities of community co-design. I've made a lot of mistakes. There were lots of sleepless nights. I look forward to sharing some of these stories with you.

I'm a project junkie. Every time a big project approaches completion, I feel pride, excitement--and a tinge of loss. I love the uncertain energy that pulses through unfinished work. The tough decisions. The creative debates. I love the sound of jackhammers in the morning.

With the concrete flying and opening day fast approaching, I'm taking a step back to capture this project in writing. I don't want Abbott Square to be under construction forever. But I do want to keep the conversation open by sharing and discussing its story with you.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Five Reasons to Come to MuseumCamp 2017

Dear friends,

 We're about a month from the deadline to apply for MuseumCamp 2017 at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH). Here are five reasons YOU should apply this year...

  1. Dive into co-creative project design. A month before MuseumCamp, the MAH is opening a new exhibition, Lost Childhoods, co-developed with foster youth, youth advocates, and artists in our community. You'll tour the exhibition with the team, discuss its impact, and explore the process behind it. This project is experimental, complicated work. Foster youth are central to every decision and direction. Artists are striving to follow their direction to beautiful ends. Dozens of youth advocates and partners co-own the process and are bringing their own dreams, talents, and connections to the work. At MuseumCamp, we'll pull back the curtain on Lost Childhoods' process and product. We'll brainstorm how to partner with your community on projects that ignite social action. 
  2. Meet amazing colleagues and counselors. MuseumCamp attracts creative changemakers of all stripes and backgrounds. Last year Camp welcomed academics, museum folk, librarians, poets, artists, bike advocates, engineers, and one American Ninja Warrior. This year's applicants include social scientists, activists, entrepreneurs, educators, and artists. We've got two incredible outside counselors--Ebony McKinney and Mike Murawski--and more partners coming onboard. You want to meet these people. You want to learn with them. MuseumCamp will help you build a diverse network of inspiring compatriots for your own personal journey to creative change. 
  3. Build - and share - a creative action plan for change. The central activity of MuseumCamp is a whole-camp project where we work in teams to make something. (Check out past projects here.) This year, we're building a creative change toolkit. As a team, you will design it. After Camp, the MAH team will turn it into a beautiful product for you to keep. You'll create it, use it, and share it with others around the world. 
  4. Find out what happens when a museum breaks out of its building. Later this spring, the MAH is opening a major expansion in Abbott Square, the plaza adjacent to the museum. Abbott Square will be a creative heart for the city, offering free events, workshops, performances, and playful programs in partnership with community groups. At MuseumCamp, you'll be among the first to experience it. If you or your organization are considering doing more work in public space, this is a great opportunity to learn more firsthand. 
  5. Relax, recharge, and explore. Swim with sea lions. Ride a 100-year old wooden roller coaster. Sleep in a museum. All optional. All incredible. All at MuseumCamp.  
You can apply for MuseumCamp until March 15. Now's the time. Let's do it.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Thou Shall Not Paint the Concrete: Guest Revelations by Don Hughes

I started my museum career as an exhibit designer. There are many heroes I look up to in that field. But I reserve for Don Hughes that particular blend of admiration and fear that comes when encountering uncompromised brilliance. Don has been the head of exhibits at the Monterey Bay Aquarium for thirty years. He is a genius designer out of central casting: an artist, mercurial, funny, emphatic, honest, unflinching, with a disarming weakness for babies.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a giant in our field, just as Don himself is a giant in the world of museum design. While I don't always agree with the Aquarium team's work, I always learn from them. Don is leaving the Aquarium, and he wrote this list of revelations on design to pass on to the next generation at that organization. He shared it with me, and he agreed that I could share it with you.

Thou Shall Not Paint the Concrete 
The Monterey Gray Revelations, as revealed to Don Hughes over three decades

One: Thou shall protect the original architectural design. 
The building and the exhibitions have a unique and historically successful relationship. Maintain this success by replacing worn or failing elements with materials as similar to the original as possible. Uphold the Aquarium’s overall industrial vernacular aesthetic.

Two: Thou shall provide negative space to rest the eye. 
Well-meaning staff want to fill empty walls with important and meaningful messages. Prevent this. Our enduring design is simple and clean. It embraces the modernist philosophies of Less Is More and Form Follows Function.

Three: Thou shall not restrict views of the bay. 
The building’s exterior is understated Cannery Row. The interior is polished industrial with rich appointments and allows for many views of Monterey Bay. Our building does not compete with the bay; it complements its natural beauty and power.

Four: Thou shall keep the regional focus. 
The greatest stories ever told are always about place. The Aquarium is the most recent tenant of a location that humankind has used for thousands of years. Visitors flock to us to see live plants and animals from this place. Departing from this holy vision leads to damnation.

Five: Thou shall have no greater god than visitors. 
Thou shall treat visitors like royalty, but thou shall not overestimate their interest or attention span. Visitors are not as interested as we like to think they are. Like life, communications with visitors is short, but staff’s list of meaningful, critically important topics to share is long—too long. Edit them. 

Six: Thou shall look like a museum and behave like an attraction. 
The Aquarium is confident. It doesn’t need to shout or brag. Our visitor experience is subtle, elegant and understated, not bold and in-your-face. We look more museum-like than Disney-like, and that makes us unique in a world of attractions. Like Disney in the world of theme parks, we set the standard for the world of public aquariums. Here, every visitor deserves a perfect visit, without out-of-order signs or beta-test experiences in the public space. We learn from our visitors, but not at the expense of their onsite experience.

Seven: Thou shall beware of tacky idolatry. 
No penny crushers, flashy sales signs in the bookstores or cafe, no anthropomorphism or theme park-like costumed characters, no photo booths or other fads posing as content. Cast out those who want to squeeze more and more money from visitors. Dwell in the straightforward and honest presentation of nature. But don’t take thyself too seriously—use humor, and do not preach.

Eight: Thou shall heed the words of the prophets. 
The Aquarium is on a peninsula not an island. Embrace the wisdom of Mickey’s Ten Commandments and Judy’s Visitors’ Bill of Rights.

Nine: Thou shall remember the words of our father. 
“The objective is not to maximize attendance and revenue, but to do the best possible exhibits. Have the highest quality program you can have; spend the money it takes to do that; everything else will follow.” —David Packard, September 25, 1989

Ten: Thou shall know all rules and revelations are created to be broken. 
The garden will change; it must. But resist the temptation of self-esteem. You are but a caretaker. Amen.

p.s. from Nina: Do check out Judy Rand's Visitors' Bill of Rights and the accompanying speech that goes with it. Judy is a tremendous exhibit developer, writer, comedian, teacher, and champion for museum visitors everywhere.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Two Opportunities at the MAH: MuseumCamp and an Incredible Job

Dear Museum 2.0 friends,

I want to share two great opportunities to get involved at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History in 2017.


Each summer, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History hosts MuseumCamp, a professional development experience that is part retreat, part unconference, part adult summer camp.

MuseumCamp will be August 9-11, 2017. This year's theme is CHANGEMAKERS. We will host 100 diverse people who are making change in the world, our communities, and our institutions for 2.5 days of fun, fellowship, and active learning. Whether you are dreaming about change, making it happen, or have faded battle scars to share, we want you here this year.

The 2.5 days include lightning talks from campers, team design bursts, movement and meditation, delicious food, and late-night conversations. There will also be a deep dive into the MAH's new issue-driven exhibition pilot, Lost Childhoods. You can sleep at the museum. You can swim with sea lions. You can--and will--learn things about yourself and your work that surprise and enrich you.

We're proud that MuseumCamp brings together a very diverse group by design--campers are 50% people of color, and 50% people from outside museums/visual arts institutions. You do NOT need to work in a museum to attend... and we especially want you to apply if you are making creative change in the civic, social, political, environmental, or economic sphere.

We will accept applications through March 15 and inform people of selections in April. Space is extremely limited and the process is competitive. I encourage you to apply soon. And please, spread the word - especially to friends who identify as a gender other than female, people of color, people over 50, and people who DON'T work in arts/museums.

While MuseumCamp has a registration cost (sliding scale $150-$250), we work with sponsors to underwrite scholarship requests. Most sponsors are amazing companies serving museums, libraries, performing arts organizations, and grassroots community organizations. Do you want to help provide financial aid for this amazing event? If so, you'll be in good company. Thanks in advance for considering it.


We are thrilled to announce a one-year contract position at the MAH for someone to help us transform the way we involve community partners in creating and activating exhibitions to address social issues.

The Dialogue Catalyst will be part of a new exhibition model that connects art to social action. You’ll lead the activation, documentation and evaluation of the issue-driven exhibition Lost Childhoods about challenges facing transition-age foster youth. You'll work with our amazing group of community advisors (C3) to extend the exhibition throughout our community during its run.

Based on the Dialogue Catalyst's work, the MAH intends to implement this model in future issue-driven exhibitions. The Dialogue Catalyst will make a toolkit that documents the project--and we want to share it with cultural and community organizations around the world so they can create issue-driven exhibitions, too.

The right person is a great event manager, creative collaborator, open communicator, clear writer, and possibilitarian thinker.

We're looking for someone immediately. It could be you. Apply now

Monday, January 09, 2017

Against Participation

At first, I thought it was a joke.

A colleague at UC Santa Cruz asked me to participate in a social practice symposium called Against Participation. Hosted by a sound art collective, Ultra-red, the 2015 event promised "to investigate listening as a political activity and to interrogate the stakes of participation in neoliberalism."

I read this sentence many times without comprehension. Because I really respect the person who invited me--with apprehension--I said yes.

I walked into Against Participation with my hackles up. I assumed the event would fly in the face of my deep value for community participation. I imagined an academic conversation stuffed with arcane, impenetrable vocabulary. I feared I would be laughed at and not understand why.

Instead, I had a powerful learning experience--one I'm still grappling with over a year later.

When should you choose not to participate in an experience? When should you turn down the invitation to share your voice? How should you make these decisions in an imperfect world where every host is using you for something, and every voice is in danger of being manipulated, misunderstood, or subverted?

I'm embarrassed to say I hadn't really thought about these questions before the Against Participation symposium. I thought a lot about where to participate--where I can have the most impact. But I didn't think about whether to participate.

I'd always thought that participating disproportionately benefited the participant. I'd always assumed that more representation is better than less representation, more press is better than less press, more sharing and engaging is better than the alternative. I'd assumed it was my responsibility to represent myself well, and if I failed, it was a matter of my communication, not a system set up to disempower or distort my words.

But Ultra-red reminded me that many environments function as distortion machines. There are many ways for voices to get chopped and twisted. Sometimes, choosing NOT to participate is a powerful statement that protects ownership of your voice and story as your own.

The problem, of course, is when you choose not to participate, most people don't see it as a noble protest. Most people don't notice at all. The absence of your voice doesn't take up as much space as its presence. And so we have to choose: to be distorted or to be overlooked.

I hear about these tensions often from colleagues struggling to participate in hostile workplaces. I've met too many young, talented people of color who want to work in museums but feel belittled, tokenized, or unsupported in their careers. Should they keep fighting to engage and transform the systems that knock them down? Or should they opt out, find friendlier environments, and stop participating in discriminatory spaces?

I grapple with these questions personally when I decide what invitations to take, where to spend my time, where to share my voice. For example, I get frequent media requests, including about museum-related news items that I know little about. Should I comment on whether museums should acquire artifacts related to police violence against African-Americans? In that case I said yes--even as I felt unsure of whether I was the right participant in that space. In other cases--like when I was asked to write a "fun" etiquette guide on how to visit museums--I said no. I knew it wasn't a piece that invited me to participate in a meaningful way.

And yet, someone else will write that breezy etiquette guide. Someone else will say yes to the invitations we reject. Someone else will take that job. Someone else's writing will be on the wall. Were those opportunities missed?

When do you participate, knowing your participation may serve others for reasons different from your own? When do you refuse, knowing your non-participation may be overlooked entirely?

The 2016 US election dredged up these questions for me once again. It reenergized me about focusing my limited time, energy, and creativity on the participatory opportunities that fuel me and my dreams. It pushes me to block out certain participatory forums that distract, exhaust, or limit me. I'm reminded now of how non-participation can be a source of fuel as well as a lack.

Sometimes transformative participation is possible. Sometimes not. How do you choose?

Monday, December 19, 2016

Growing Bigger, Staying Collaborative - 5 Tools for Building Non-Bureaucratic Organizations

One of my organization's core values is radical collaboration. We believe that partnerships build a stronger museum and a stronger community.

We work with over 2,000 regional partners each year to develop exhibitions, festivals, programs, and projects. But radical collaboration with our community only works if we also collaborate internally as a team.

Five years ago, this was easy. We were seven people in a room, laser-focused on making the MAH a community gathering place and cultural center. We all collaborated to develop programs, strategies, and community partnerships. We sat next to each other, pulled each other into ad hoc meetings, introduced each other to new collaborators, and got things done together.

Now, our staff is three times the size it was five years ago. This growth has strained our internal ability to collaborate in two ways:
  • Sometimes, we fail because we are too collaborative. The tools and techniques that worked for us when we were seven people in a room don't work for twenty. We can't invite everyone to the meeting. We can't get input from everyone on each decision. We waste time, increase confusion, and get less done.
  • Sometimes, we fail because we are not collaborative enough. As we grew, we built teams with distinct leaders and goals. Some staff spend all their time on project that are invisible to others. There are some community partners who are effectively "owned" by one staff member, which limits opportunities for that partner across our institution. 
So this year, we worked hard to build new tools to strengthen our commitment to radical collaboration--within the context of our larger, more mature organization. Here are my top five:

SLACK. In just one month, using Slack has had an immediate, significant impact on our team. Slack is a combination messaging/file-sharing tool intended to replace internal email and intranets. Conversations are grouped into channels (for projects, teams, initiatives, etc.). We've used Slack to completely eliminate internal email. It reduces email, increases clarity of who does what, and reinforces collaboration. Every channel in Slack is public by default. That means any staff member can check out what's going on in any of our teams or projects. You can pose a question to a channel without inducing reply-all headaches. It's impossible to accidentally leave someone out of a decision where their input matters. Frontline part-time staff are part of the conversation. We celebrate each others' wins digitally without clogging anyone's inbox. And from a workflow perspective, we can separate communication with colleagues (in Slack) from community partners (in email).

SALESFORCE. Like most museums and nonprofits, we have a donor database. For years, we had an expensive, clunky, black box that only some people had access to and fewer knew how to operate. It was like grandpa's car in the garage--you had to know all the tricks to get it to run. This year, we made the leap to Salesforce. Our data catalyst, Karen Bush, who ran grandpa's car like a champ, is leading our transition to a cloud-based, open database that feels like a fleet of shiny vespas. What does Salesforce have to do with collaboration? Opening up our database enables more of us to work together to solicit, acknowledge, and thank donors. And--crucially for us--we aren't just using Salesforce for donors and members. We're using it for creative collaborators too. Instead of each staff member tracking their own community partners, we're building a shared database of all the partners who contribute time, money, and talent to the museum. When I meet with a donor who plays in a jug band, I don't keep that information to myself or blast an email to the community programs team. I log that donor's talent in Salesforce, so our community programs staff can find him next time they are looking for musicians. Salesforce is part of a much bigger strategy for us around partner engagement. A shared database enables staff to share our partners' talents and interests with each other, so we can matchmake great opportunities for everyone.

SHARED GOALS. One of the hardest things for me as the director of a growing organization is learning how to lead a larger team. When we were a small team, I had direct access to everyone, and we could turn on a dime. I could stand up in the office, announce a meeting, lead a discussion on an issue, and we could head in a new direction immediately. Now, even booking that initial meeting would take time. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. I'm leading a bigger crew now, and we can get bigger things done. But it means we have to build goals and communicate clarity in new ways. We're about 6 months into trying a system for this called OKRs (objectives and key results). The basic principle is this: we set big objectives for the organization. Each team sets objectives that roll up into those big shared goals. We set "key results"--measurable indicators--of achieving those objectives. The OKRs are publicly shared, measured, celebrated, and discussed. We're still working out the kinks in the system, but the basic idea (that we set goals for a period and everyone can see how their work contributes to those goals) is powerful. And it's forcing me to be more disciplined in my leadership... which should enable us to accomplish bigger things.

OPEN OFFICE. Two years ago, in the midst of growth, we split from one office to two to reduce crowding. But the negatives of this split outweighed the positives. People felt disconnected from each other. We weren't celebrating wins together like we used to. So when we prepared to add three new positions in 2016, we made a counterintuitive decision: we moved back into one office. There are more people in it than ever, but it feels good. People feel empowered to put on headphones or go offsite when they need quiet focus, but when we're together, we're together.

HONESTY. For a long time, I had a split consciousness about our growth. On the one hand, I was thrilled about our ability to expand our community impact with a bigger team. At the same time, I feared that growth would mean bureaucratic sludge. I feared that growth would squash our creativity and community focus. That people would feel confused or left out. That I would not be a good leader to 20 people the way I was to 7. The reality is that growth has meant more structure. It's been critical to invest in systems like Slack, Salesforce, and OKRs to bring people together and keep us moving forward as a team. It's also been critical to choose to do things like the open office when we think it will strengthen our collaboration.

Being intentional and honest about growth has kept us strong. We keep reasserting our core value of radical collaboration and find new ways to live that value. At the same time, we're honest about changes in how we collaborate. Not everyone is part of every decision now. There's an org chart. These things help us do our work. They also diminish the sense of creative freedom that marked the MAH a few years ago. That's OK as long as we are honest about it.

The biggest mistake I made as we grew was not to proactively address my personal fears and hesitations about growth. I resisted building better structures. I didn't own up to their necessity, impact, and tradeoffs. Now, I own it. Now, instead of resisting growth, I'm learning how to make structure work for us--so we can continue to grow in ways that are gloriously, radically collaborative.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Let's Be Bridge-Builders

Two construction workers on the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, 1935When you hear the word "community," what do you envision? I see people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, ages, and income levels. I see them laughing together. Learning together. Taking care of each other.

Most of us don't live this dream--yet. Most of us experience community in isolation, moving through a small cluster of bubbles: Work. School. Neighborhood. Soccer. We spend most of our days with people who look like us, who share our culture, background, and class.

In the wake of the 2016 US election, I've been thinking a lot about the bubbles in which we live. Bubbles protect, empower, and insulate us. But they can also lock us into fear, judgment, and insecurity.

When we break out of these bubbles and build bridges across our differences, we build stronger communities. We bridge through experiences that bring together people from all walks of life, in shared celebration, respect, and learning. Research shows that social bridges decrease racism, increase public safety, and improve community health. Building bridges makes communities more equitable. Bridges shrink gaps in housing, health care, and quality of life. And they makes all our lives richer as we expand beyond the bubbles of our personal experiences.

That's why our museum, the MAH in Santa Cruz, focuses on social bridging. Rather than operating in a bubble of “art people” or “history people,” we strive to connect ALL people in our county. Our unique value is not in targeting people but bridging across differences. Our staff are matchmakers for unlikely partners across the county: engineers and folkloric dancers presenting at monthly festivals. Artists and activists exhibiting their work. Homeless adults and history buffs improving a historic cemetery. Business leaders and street performers designing a new community plaza on the museum's front porch.

These projects help people build bridges--and community. Museum visitors tell us that "meeting new people" and "being part of a bigger community" are two of the things they love most about our museum.

I take no satisfaction in the extent to which this election demonstrates how important and impoverished social bridging is in the United States. I take hope, courage, and perseverance from the knowledge that we can do it. More of us. More deeply. More often.

We've got some work to do. Cultural institutions, and museums in particular, have traditionally been bubbles of privilege. Our walls kept more people and ideas out as they let in. But we have the capacity to turn those walls into doorways. We have the potential to use the diverse, generative ideas within our walls as building material for bridges beyond our walls.

Building bridges doesn't mean capitulating or compromising. It means standing on one edge of a canyon and making a sincere effort to connect to people on the other side. Not to colonize them. Not to become like them, or ask them to be like you. Not to apologize for who you are. To build a bridge. To get to know them. To understand more about what life is like on their side. To cross over and intersect, on their turf and yours--until it becomes our bridge, and our canyon.

If you are curious about bridge-building, I encourage you to:
  • Read. Check out Bowling Alone and Better Together, both by Robert Putnam. These books frame the concept of social bridging and offer both inspiring and dismaying examples from different sectors. Check out social psychology texts on "intergroup contact." Follow any of the many wonderful online resources produced by bubbles that are not your own. 
  • Learn more about the divides in your community. Be honest about what ledge you stand on, and learn what you can about those on the other side. Don't waste your energy learning about divides that you can't or won't bridge. Learn about the ones you can affect. Learn about the people down the street about whom you know nothing. They read different news stories than you, go to different coffee shops than you, dream different dreams than you. Learn about them.
  • Figure out what you can do to join the informal union of bridge builders in your community. Who's doing the work? To what end? Do people in your community need bridges to celebrate together across differences? To tackle a big issue? To talk things out? To look each other in the eye without fear?
In our community, we build bridges through art and history. We bring people together in joyful art-making, celebrating simple pleasures of passing the paintbrushes and singing along. We bring people together in multi-vocal storytelling, listening to each other's tales of where we came from and where we dream to go. We bring people together through the creative friction that comes when one art form or cultural tradition rubs up against another. We curate diverse audiences the same way we curate diverse exhibitions--because it's ultimately the people and their conversations about the objects that matter most.

We build bridges in full knowledge that rubbing up against new ideas and people is uncomfortable. It's not as marketable or profitable as reinforcing the existing bubble. But our comfortable bubbles lie to us. They are mirrored on the inside. They keep us from seeing the whole world. They can make us selfish and fearful.

I believe that culture workers can be bridge-builders. It's not easy to step off your ledge onto an uncertain bridge. It's even harder to invite others to do so. But when we do, we see more clearly. We open our hearts to the beautiful, breakable world. We build the bridges that form the backbone of the compassionate, complex, collective communities we deserve.