Friday, May 06, 2016

Year Five as a Museum Director: Good to Grow

Five years ago, I left the consulting world to take the helm at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH) at a time of crisis and change. We went through a dramatic turnaround. We started bootstrapping growth. Now, we're on the doorstep of a major expansion. It's exciting and tiring and rewarding as ever.

As I did at the one-year and three-year mark, here are some of the things I'm most proud of, mistakes I've made, and questions on my mind as we head into the next five years.

  • Building a rigorous strategic framework under our creative, community-based work. In my first few years, it was all about getting the programming moving, experimenting, and exploring the possibilities with our community. Three years ago, we decided to put in the work to create foundational documents--a new mission statement, values, engagement goals, survey methodology, and most importantly, a theory of change--to ground our work in shared language and priorities. The theory of change has been invaluable as a "playbook" that we use to guide programming decisions, evaluation protocols, and marketing messages about our impact. We're finally able to systematically make data-driven decisions, rooted in a shared understanding of our intended outcomes and impact... and it feels amazing. 
  • Leading a successful capital campaign for an expansion that will fundamentally change our organization. We have spent the past three years planning and raising money for a project to build a creative town square for our city on the front porch of the museum. Abbott Square will include free outdoor public seating, a public food market, and several areas for free art and cultural activities. I'm excited about Abbott Square for a million reasons, but I'm PROUD that our supporters and our board especially embraced the idea that growth means going beyond our walls and bringing art and history to the streets. 
  • Working with amazing colleagues, trustees, and community partners to make our institution more inclusive. My first few years, we focused on increasing attendance. Over the past two years, we've focused instead on how we can ensure that people of all walks of life in our community feel welcomed and included at the MAH. We're investing in cultural competency and board and staff development. Learning more about the specific cultural assets and needs of underrepresented groups in our community. Inviting those groups into partnership and leadership in our programming, exhibitions, staff & volunteer team, and institutional decision-making. Tracking and adapting to our successes and failures. We see the change happening--our visitors are now representative of the age and income diversity of the County, and we've made significant advances in terms of ethnic/racial diversity. We still have a long way to go and a lot to learn. But we are on the path. 
  • Going big with our board and community partners. For the first couple years at the MAH, I honestly didn't understand how valuable a board can be. I understood their basic responsibilities, but I didn't understand the possibilities of how they could contribute. That has changed. The more ambitious we've become as an organization, the more I value the ways board members' experience and expertise extends our capabilities. I turn to trustees to help make tough decisions. I depend on them to push us further. The same is true of our community partners. We've increased the diversity and depth of ways that creative collaborators help guide our work. The bigger our goals, the more important it is that we learn how to identify and recruit talented partners, volunteers, and supporters, and engage them to their maximum potential.

  • Not communicating clarity as often as I should. I'm someone who is more comfortable communicating energy than clarity. My base personality is a cheerleader waving pom poms in multiple directions. A lot of my missteps with colleagues over the past couple years--ones that sent people in the wrong direction, sowed confusion, or exhausted people--were due to my lack of discipline about staying on message. I've learned that I have to stick to the same cheer--and share it with others--longer and with more consistency than is my inclination. The more clarity I provide as the leader, the more everyone can move forward together with confidence.
  • Resisting change that worked for others but not for me. As the MAH grew, colleagues started asking for more structure: clearer lines of reporting, more consistent processes, job descriptions that didn't change every few months. I stressed out over these changes, worrying that they would introduce bureaucratic creep to a nimble, creative organization. I now believe that these concerns were mostly my own personal fears. I bridle under too much structure. I like change. But what works for me personally is not necessarily what is best for our organization. I had to learn--slowly--not to force my personal values onto reasonable needs of our institution. I had to learn that I still belonged at the organization as it matured, and that as its director, I needed to adopt some approaches and procedures that don't come naturally to me. It's easy as the boss to mold everything in your image. It's also really stupid. I'm learning that.
  • Not understanding the full costs of a capital campaign. I thought we did a decent job setting up our campaign to cover associated staff costs along with capital costs. But now that the campaign is at its end and Abbott Square is under construction, it's clear that we have to make additional investments to meet the opportunity that this expansion affords us. While I thought a lot at the start about how we would fund the ongoing costs of operating the new town square, I didn't think enough about how that new town square would require changes to our "base" museum operation.

  • How can we intertwine community engagement and fundraising? We involve many diverse, creative, community-loving people in our work as programmatic partners and donors. The thing is, we usually separate the two groups. If you volunteer your talents to an exhibition or program, you live in community engagement-land. If you donate money, you live in fundraising-land. We're now recruiting a leader for a new department of Development and Community Relations with a goal of bringing all these talented, valuable partners together in one community of support. I'm curious and hopeful as to what kind of positive change this can create. (And if this sounds like your kind of challenge, please apply for the job!)
  • What field are we in? Over the past few years, I've shifted from spending most of my professional learning time with museum folk to spending it with people who are involved in public service and community activism--some in the arts, some not. Around the MAH office, we often struggle to figure out what conferences will be most valuable and what professional alliances to build. We seek to build a stronger, more connected community through art and history. I'm not sure how to most usefully characterize this work--community development? creative placemaking?--and how all of us those of us doing this work around the world can best ally to learn, share, advocate, and grow together.   
Thank you for continuing to be part of this journey through your comments, questions, critiques, and support as part of my professional community. I learn so much through writing and engaging with you.

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