Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Year Three as a Museum Director... Thrived.

LinkedIn has a new feature where people can congratulate each other on work anniversaries. It has some of the same feel as the disconnected affection of people wishing you a happy birthday on Facebook, with professional reflection baked in. Seeing so many cheerful one-liners in my inbox made me think about how different my work situation is today than the last time I reflected on it in public in 2012, at my one-year anniversary.

I've now been the executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History for three years. I arrived in 2011 with the explicit directive to execute a turnaround. Three years later, we're out of turnaround and into growth mode. Over the past three years, we've tripled our attendance, doubled our budget, and, most importantly, established deep and diverse relationships with community members, artists, and organizations across Santa Cruz County. This year was a year of building, challenging, and strengthening.

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

  • Making space for distributed leadership. When I look back at some recent projects that I'm most excited about (like this teen program), I realize that I had very little to do with their conception or execution. What I did was make space for my brilliant staff members to tackle their dreams. I helped them find funding and partners and time to make amazing work happen. We talk a lot at our museum about empowering our visitors, collaborators, interns, and staff by making space for them to shine. I know our organization will keep thriving because we keep expanding who can bring leadership to the table. 
  • Building an amazing team. Of course, space-making works when you respect your colleagues and know they can do killer work. We have an incredible group of people working together at the MAH right now. I've never worked in such a supportive, energized, active environment. We work hard to name and build our culture in many ways. Institutional culture is something I never really understood before and I am now completely fascinated by how it can shape work.
  • Making co-creation sustainable and powerful. Participatory work can be very labor-intensive. We have prioritized opening up to as many partners as possible through collaborative structures that scale. In a town of 65,000, we're collaborating with over 2,000 residents per year: teen punk bands, professional paper-makers, genealogists, food justice activists, and everyone in-between. We've developed program formats and tools that allow us to slot in and support partners without constantly reinventing the wheel. We're seen as a trusted and desirable partner to diverse cultural practitioners in our community. And now, we're investing in strategic outreach to prospective collaborators who come from backgrounds and communities that aren't already involved.   
  • Naming our goals and our culture. We have shifted from a time of explorative chaos to a time of putting down roots. We have a better sense of how we work, what we are trying to achieve, and who we are. A lot of that is institutionalized through naming. We wrote a new mission statement. We wrote engagement goals. We wrote values statements. We're working on a theory of change. These documents help us talk to ourselves and to others about what we are doing and how we can do it better. They aren't intended to force fit our work to aspirational language; instead, they are intended to make transparent that which is existing but ephemeral. When we name what we do and why, we can be more open, authentic, and accountable in our work, especially with community partners.
  • Naming fears, too. As we shift from turnaround to growth mode, I have a lot of worries: that we will lose some of our collaborative magic, that getting bigger will mean getting less effective, that maturing will mean losing touch with what is most relevant. I know that all of these are healthy, creative tensions that come with change and growth. I'm trying to operate from a position of hope and not one of fear. And when I'm afraid, I try to be honest and open about it and to invite everyone on our team to help write our collective future in the most positive way possible.

  • Taking criticism too personally and letting it impact my emotional health too much. I learned this year that really, truly, not everyone is going to like what we are doing. I can't harbor secret hopes that everyone will like it or that I can change their minds with goodwill. Now, when people tell me they don't like something, I try to have an out-of-body experience where I separate the "it" from "me." I find when I do this, I can more rationally examine their critique and whether it is something I should respond to/act on. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn't. Either way, it helps me stay focused on the work and not on the emotional stress.
  • Letting myself ignore glaring problems that still exist. A donor walked into the museum a few weeks ago, someone who supported me from day one, and she asked me, "why is this lobby still so cold and uninviting?" I jumped in and started talking about how we are designing furniture for it, that we've been focusing on injecting warmth in gallery spaces, that it is energized and peopled during events... She cut in and said, "that's all well and good, but if you are standing outside thinking about whether to come in and you don't KNOW about all that stuff, and all you see is this awful dead lobby, why would you come in?" She is right. We have to change it. In any work environments, there are things that we fix right away, and then there are other things that are just a bit too tricky or unpleasant. And so we wait, and we put them off, and eventually, we pretend they aren't problems. They are still problems. We can't become inured to them. We have to fix them. 

  • As we grow, how can we do as much growing as possible outside the museum's walls? We're investing a lot in a public plaza project outside of the museum. We're exploring ways to become embedded in other parts of the civic landscape, ranging from social service providers to public transit. I firmly believe that a community-engaged museum is a web of interactions. We need a strong core, but we also need beautiful, strong radiations and intersections.
  • How do we prioritize social bridging in contexts that privilege bonding? We've pivoted heavily towards a goal of promoting bridging experiences that bring together diverse people and cultural practices across differences. We've gotten pretty good at doing this at museum programs, but it gets more complicated when we are working with a bonded group like a homeless center or a school tour. We want to do the sensitive cultural work of being good guests in others' spaces, but we also want to make sure that our engagement in their spaces creates intersections and bridges across multiple groups. We're going to start doing a lot more rigorous research and experimentation in this area in the months to come.
  • How do we share our bifurcated story as both a place to engage with art and history AND a place that builds community? Obviously, these things are interrelated, but they are not identical--especially when it comes to communication. Right now, we have a double life online. One on side are the conversations we have with our visitors, which mostly focus on engagement experiences. On the other side are the conversations with funders, fellow practitioners, and community partners, which mostly focus on larger goals and experiments. It's clear from visitor and member comments that they are also interested in the bigger picture, but it's not obvious how we can share that bigger picture alongside the "come on Friday night for X" kind of messaging. This is more than just a question of email--it's a question of how we can best involve our energized participants in the deep work that underscores everything we do. 
Here's to another amazing year. I feel so lucky to work in my community. To work for my community. To see change happening because of the work we are doing. I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be.
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