Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Year One as a Museum Director... Survived!

Today is my one-year anniversary as the executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. A year ago, I put my consultant hat on the shelf and decided to jump into museum management (a sentence I NEVER would have imagined writing five years ago).

It’s been a wild and wonderful year—without question, my most challenging and stimulating yet. We went through a dramatic financial turnaround and redefined our relationship with our community through a series of experimental participatory projects and new programmatic approaches. We have come out the other end with dramatic increases in attendance (62%), membership (30%), and financial stability (priceless). We have new support from foundations and individuals who care about innovation in audience engagement—and even more importantly, participants who are excited to experiment with us. People are showing up, getting involved, and sharing their enthusiasm in droves. Personally, I’ve learned to work in whole new worlds, from fundraising to management to community development. It is incredibly rewarding work. I feel lucky.

I'm open to any questions you want to raise in the comments. In the meantime, here are some of the...

  • Redefining our role in the community. I’ve always been interested in the social mission of museums, and I feel strongly that the MAH will be successful if we are not only a great cultural or learning organization but a great community organization—one with compelling relevance to the issues that matter most in Santa Cruz. I’m proud of our partnerships with the Homeless Service Center, Second Harvest Food Bank, UCSC, the Chamber of Commerce, and other organizations that are at the heart of the Santa Cruz identity. I look forward to more strategic partnerships that support community development broadly in our county.
  • Just doing it. We didn’t go through an extensive planning process followed by deliberative, careful steps forward. We had a vision, a short list of goals for the first year, and an energetic (if underfunded) attack. Over the past year, we’ve developed several planning methodologies and approaches to our work—such as our exhibition philosophy and community program development process—and we did it iteratively through a series of experiments. We tried and tested and played and worked our way forward, and we’re still doing it. It is, as Kathleen McLean puts it, “museum as prototype,” and it is exhilarating, thoughtful work for all of us.
  • Using the F word. When I arrived, the MAH was incredibly close to the brink financially—we had less than one week of cash in the bank. In the early days, I would say to donors and to the media that the museum was failing and that we needed their investment and commitment to turn it around and thrive. This narrative worked well in the press—especially when we had early impressive results—but it was demoralizing and offensive to some of the staff and volunteers who had worked hard to deliver the best museum experiences possible in the years prior. Staff members led us in reframing our language to talk about the museum as transforming from a “traditional model to a 21st century model” instead of failing and then succeeding.
  • Conflating financial trends with financial position. When I came, I saw an institution that had a multi-year pattern of operating in the red. We had to reverse the trend, and I made drastic, immediate cuts and changes to cut expenses. Everyone made sacrifices. I thought it was the only option. We had layoffs and all remaining staff took 20% salary cuts across the board (which were restored over the following six months as we raised an operating reserve). Then, the turnaround happened faster than I expected, and I now see the situation a little differently. Maybe instead of thinking about needing to turn around the monthly cash flow, I should have thought about the net cash required to put us on more stable ground. If I were in this situation again, I might make the same choice, but I think I’d put more options on the table in the decision-making.
  • Not acknowledging enough the stress that comes with disruptive change. While I think I did a decent job communicating my vision for the turnaround and changes with staff, I did a poor job responding to the spoken—and mostly unspoken—stress that came with it. While effective as a tool for rapid change, “embrace the chaos” is not a comfortable management strategy. I credit everyone on our team for adapting and leading with extraordinary enthusiasm and optimism.
  • The central role of event-driven experiences. From day 1, I believed that we needed to focus in our first year on creating new participatory events to engage the community. My theory was that visitors would be introduced to the museum through events and then return for daytime visits to the galleries. Instead, we find that they do return—for more events. 85% of our visitors attend through events. Events generate media, focus public attention, and catalyze social energy. The jury is still out on how we will negotiate the relationship between events and casual visits when it comes to hours, pricing, and resource allocation—but this is something we will definitely keep exploring.
  • The cumulative effect of participation. I often talk about audience participation as a deployable tool—one among many—to enhance engagement. While I still think of it that way, at the MAH, we’re seeing some of the surprising effects of lots of participatory techniques all under one roof. Our message to the community about getting involved, coupled with policies that encourage flexible collaboration and stations throughout the building that invite participation is generating striking levels and types of co-creative activity in all arenas. It's comparable to the difference between a place with a few interactives and an interactive science center--it changes the way people engage and who comes. I’m not suggesting that every institution can or should move in this direction, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it in action and I’m struck by the distinction.
  • The speed and extent of the community response. We still have a long way to go to make the MAH the “thriving central gathering place” of our vision statement. But it’s kind of amazing how quickly our role in the eyes of community members changed. Visitors, members, donors, volunteers, and the media have been effusive about what they describe as the “new energy” at the museum. I didn’t imagine that would happen in such a short time frame, and I think it’s going to help all of us—staff, board and community members—continue the conversation about how to keep the energy going.
  • The possible determinism of cultural geography. I used to say that participation can work in all cultures and institution types—it’s just a matter of finding the right type of participation for that community. While I still believe this, I am frequently struck by how “Santa Cruz” a lot of our story is. Free hugs for new members, collaborative sculpture projects, fire festivals… these things could work in lots of places, but I’m not sure they would evoke the same interest, passion, and almost universal enthusiasm that we enjoy. I talked about this with international museum friends at AAM and they had mixed responses—some bought the Santa Cruz niche concept, others didn’t. Again, the jury is out.
Here’s to the coming year, which will hopefully be as full of learning, engaging, and experimenting as this past year. And more sleep. That would be good too. 
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