Thursday, April 14, 2011

Goodbye Consulting, Hello Museum of Art & History!

Dear Museum 2.0 readers,

I have some exciting news. As of May 2, I will be the executive director of the Museum of Art & History at McPherson Center in Santa Cruz, CA (here's the press release). This is a big change for me--professionally and personally--and I'm thrilled and humbled by the opportunity to take on this position in the city I call home. I hope you'll forgive a self-oriented post explaining why I'm doing this.

First, a reassurance--I'm not ending the blog. I am closing down my consulting business at the end of April, but the Museum 2.0 blog will continue, and I intend to write as freely and directly as I have in the past. Because of the increased workload I expect in the months to come, as well as the likely possibility that we will start a Museum of Art & History blog, I'm lowering my Museum 2.0 commitment to one post per week. Since 2006, I've slowly reduced from three posts weekly to two and now to one. But I will not be going to zero. I promise. I will do what I can to ensure the blog continues to present well-written, diverse projects and ideas, both from me and guest authors.

OK, now on to the interesting part.

Why am I doing this?

There are three reasons that I am absolutely ecstatic about this change.
  1. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity to serve the community I love in an institution that has a new strategic plan to become a multi-disciplinary hub for community engagement.
  2. I have been looking for a way to transition to working in Santa Cruz instead of traveling constantly.
  3. I strongly believe that participation is more about operation than development. The best way I can really push my own participatory practice and thinking is to operate an institution and work with a community I care about over time.
I've had these personal goals for a long time, but I wouldn't have guessed a year ago that they would lead me to this job. Throughout 2010, I was deep in planning an experimental cafe/exhibit space to address all three of these desires for a change. By November of 2010, I had a business plan for the cafe and intended to start raising money in 2011. And then I started learning about the situation at the Museum of Art & History (MAH) in downtown Santa Cruz.

The more I learned about the Museum, the more I talked with people about it, the more I saw that it was a better fit for my goals than the cafe. Again and again, I'd have discussions with community leaders--from the city, the library, downtown businesses--that made clear the incredible potential for the MAH to have transformative impact on the cultural life of the city in a way that a small business could not. I wanted to be part of that, and I can't wait to get started.

Here are a few things that make the MAH an exciting museum to me:
  • It's small.
  • The content is multidisciplinary, with a collection that includes both local history and contemporary art. There's even a historic cemetery for good measure.
  • The building is gorgeous and centrally located in a well-trafficked pedestrian area of downtown.
  • The trustees, staff members, volunteers, and supporters are dedicated people who both love the museum and appreciate the seriousness of the challenges it faces. They're eager to make the institution more dynamic and welcoming.
  • The exhibition and educational programs are excellent and staff members are interested in increasing community participation and pursuing experimental methods.
  • While the museum has low visibility in some parts of the community, its overall image is positive. Many people I've talked with who have never visited or heard of the museum are curious and eager to get involved.
This is not to say it's going to be easy. Like museums of all kinds, the MAH has faced serious challenges in the past few years with regard to community relevance and financial sustainability. But in my conversations with staff, trustees, and the larger Santa Cruz community, I have become convinced that we are ready to overcome these challenges with some bold thinking and action. Last year, MAH trustees and staff members wrote a new strategic plan that positions the museum as a "thriving, central gathering place" that serves as the "intersection of art, history, ideas and culture" for the diverse folks in our county. I know as well as anyone that rhetoric about community engagement can get tossed around without follow through, but I see these phrases as mandates for action and I will take them seriously. I wholly intend to push as hard as we can to live up to what I see as a very exciting vision--one that I believe will lead us to both community and financial success.

I also believe that small and mid-sized museums are the leaders when it comes to innovation, particularly around participatory engagement. One of my frustrations working as a consultant is that I spend most of my time working with big organizations that function at a scale that requires a certain amount of automation and anonymity in the visitor experience. That's not to say my colleagues in large museums aren't well-intentioned--they are--but I'm eager to spend my days in a place where we can guarantee a personal interaction with everyone who walks in the door. I suspect that there are some new ways of working we may develop--around membership, communications, and guest service in particular--that might be very different from the industry standard. I believe that small museums are underrepresented in the national conversation, and I suspect they will be the true leaders in a cultural renaissance of the small and nimble.

Finally, on a more personal level, I love Santa Cruz. When we moved here four years ago from Washington D.C., I knew we were moving somewhere nice. But I didn't know how much I would come to love the city, the mountains, the beach, and the people--hippies, surfers, students, anarchists, artists, geeks, farmers, dreamers of all kinds. People here are serious participants--creatively, civically, intellectually, and athletically. When I think of the kind of people who like to participate actively in culture, I think of the people in my community. I believe that the MAH is ripe to become a leading "museum 2.0" in a city that is eager to embrace the change.

This is going to be a time of serious learning for me, and I am going to need your help. I can't list all the people who have already helped me better understand the MAH, the job of a museum director, and some of the challenges I'm likely to face. I hope you'll get involved in some way and help us take this museum to the next level. We'll need interns. We'll need advice. We'll need partners. We'll need donors. Most of all, I hope you will continue being the critical, caring, thoughtful community I can rely on to help me grow as a cultural professional. I promise to return the favor by sharing our story--experiments, successes, and failures--as it unfolds.

With affection,
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