Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Memo from the Revolution: Six Things I've Learned from our Institutional Transformation

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to give one of the closing talks at the Theater Communications Group annual conference in Dallas. TCG is the industry association for non-profit theaters, the way AAM is for museums. Given TCG's multi-year Audience (R)evolution initiative, I took the opportunity to write a new talk about what revolution has looked like at our small museum in Santa Cruz.

This is not a transcript of the talk - just the highlights that I hope will be useful for you. You can download all the slides here.

First, a quick recap on our revolution. Over the past two years, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History has undergone a significant transformation of program, audience, and resources. When I came to the museum in May of 2011, we were on the brink of closure financially. At the same time, our community relevance was limited. There was a small, dedicated group of people who knew and loved the museum, and then a larger community that barely knew we existed.

With our backs against the wall and a new vision statement positioning the museum as a "thriving, central gathering place," we started a revolution. Our revolution is predicated on three big ideas:
  1. Art and history are something you do, not just something you learn about. By inviting people to actively participate with us in co-creating programming, we empower them as creative agents, cultural producers, and people for whom the museum is a relevant, compelling partner.
  2. Being a strong community hub requires bringing people together across difference, encouraging bridging experiences instead of targeting a specific audience. When we work with diverse collaborators, from opera singers and ukelele players to knitters and graffiti artists, we catalyze new partnerships and relationships that make our community stronger and more cohesive.
  3. We believe in fearless experimentation. It is only by trying things out, challenging our assumptions, and analyzing the results that we can adapt and thrive in a changing world.
In our first year of this new approach, we had extraordinary results. Our attendance more than doubled. Our busiest day more than tripled. And we went from five years in the red to running a generous surplus that got us on the path to financial stability. Best of all, the response from our community was incredible--a diverse range of individuals and local press is effusive about the new vitality, public value, and engagement in the museum.

Here are six things I've learned from this transformation that might be helpful to other would-be revolutionaries.

A revolution is not an exercise in concentric circles. Imagine you run an organization with a small set of resources (purple circle) and you want to expand to a larger pool of resources (yellow circle). When an organization grows in an evolutionary way, it primarily focuses on expanding its resources. More audience. More money. This kind of work is not risky because the center of it--the programmatic core--doesn't necessarily have to shift. You just get bigger. In contrast, in a revolution, the center of the circle shifts, often quite dramatically. Even if your new resource pool includes most of the people and funds that you originally had, the programmatic core of the transformed organization is likely way outside of the original purple circle. You have to be willing to jump off the ledge and recenter your programming where you believe your future audience and resources will reside. This is often the hardest part of institutional transformation--being willing and able to listen to the voices that are NOT inside your organization. If someone has been turned off by your organization or is not engaged, incrementalism won't reach them. You have to start where they are, with a whole new premise, to get them involved.

Focus on what matters. Why do political activists hammer on singular, simple messages? Because focus wins the day. If you are starting a revolution to make your facility more welcoming, your programming more edgy, or your audience more diverse, you have to focus JUST on that. Pick one or two goals and repeat them ad nauseum with your team. Don't let secondary concerns delay you from moving forward aggressively to make these things happen. A simple example at our institution had to do with making the facility more welcoming. We heard again and again that the museum was cold and uncomfortable. So we started getting couches donated. The couches didn't match. They looked junky. But they gave visitors a comfortable place to sit, and we started hearing that people felt welcomed in a way they hadn't before. Over time, we are getting more attractive couches that reflect a unified design aesthetic. But we weren't going to wait to solve people's comfort problem until we had the money or the design. We started with couches.

Be rigorous. Especially when working in an experimental or unorthodox way, it can be easy for it to look like you don't have a coherent strategy behind the work you do. Why are there these ugly couches? Why are you holding a pop up museum in a bar? In our case, we've gotten very focused on developing strategic frameworks to back up our approach to community participation, social bridging, and experimentation. We use a clear logic model to relate our activities to their intended outcomes and impacts (here's more about what a logic model is). This allows us both to explain ourselves to external funders and to have clear internal criteria for how we plan and evaluate our projects to ensure that we are moving towards our big institutional goals and vision.

Exploit your size. There are unique advantages to every budget level. Big organizations seem comfortable with this--they make big plays based on their scale. But many small organizations seem to spend too much time trying to emulate big organizations rather than exploiting the opportunity to be more personal, more idiosyncratic, and less bureaucratic. No one opens a small coffeeshop and thinks, "we'll really be successful if we are just like Starbucks." The whole point is to not be Starbucks. Instead of apologizing for the "lack of professionalism" of small institutions, we should celebrate the ways that our programming can lead to stronger engagement on an individual level. My first year at the MAH, I would often say that we are a "no money, no bullshit" operation. We may not have funding for your project, but we won't tie it up in red tape either. You want to have an artist collective sleepover at the museum? Sure. Want to give visitors sledgehammers and invite them to help make a giant metal sculpture? Sounds great. Want to give free admission spontaneously as a gift to visitors who need it? No problem. Just as a large organization can exploit its resources, we can do the same in a different way as a small organization.

Help it spread. At some point, you may personally feel like you no longer want to be a revolutionary, that your time as a risk-taker is over. That's fine. At that point, consider becoming a "space-maker" who provides other people in your organization with the support and the cover to be able to take risks to further the work. I occasionally meet creative directors who note that "all the new ideas have to come from my desk." When I hear that, I realize that those are leaders who are not ready to make space for other risk-takers on their team. The only way that a revolution can shift from a personal goal to a movement is by making space for lots of people to get involved. I first learned about this paradigm of risk-takers and space-makers from Beck Tench, and it has helped me as a manager ever since.

Remember why you got into this. The reason that we do this revolutionary work is in service of a bigger mission--in my case, to help people transform their lives and our community through active participation with art, history, creativity, and culture. Whatever your personal focus, it's worth thinking about whether you are working on a problem that you consider to be truly important. I have been inspired in this thinking by a brilliant speech by mathematician Dick Hamming about what it takes to be a great scientist. Hamming commented that, "The average scientist, so far as I can make out, spends almost all his time working on problems which he believes will not be important and he also doesn't believe that they will lead to important problems." Selling tickets is not an important problem. Building a building is not an important problem. Find a problem that is truly important, and you will find a revolution worth fighting for.
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