Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Change Ahead: I'm Shifting from Local to Global in 2019

I have some big news to share. In mid-2019, I will transition out of my role as the executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH) to focus full-time on leading OF/BY/FOR ALL, an emerging global movement to build more inclusive community institutions. We're planning for a slow and thoughtful transition; you can read more about it on the MAH website. Here on this blog, I wanted to share more of the personal side of this decision and what it means for me.

It has been my great privilege to lead the MAH since May of 2011. When I started as executive director, I was 29 years old. I knew nothing about management. Nothing about fundraising. But the museum needed a new direction, and the board took a risk on me. I knew something about community participation. I knew something about taking risks and making space for others to do so. I knew that Santa Cruz County - my beloved chosen home - was full of creative, curious people eager to connect in a new kind of institution. And so we made the MAH that institution, full of diverse, brilliant humans coming together to build a stronger, more connected community.

The MAH today is profoundly different from the museum I was hired to run in 2011. The budget is up 4x, full-time staff is up 6x, and visitation is up 9x. We've built a community plaza, hosted hundreds of community festivals, and co-created exhibitions that spark action on social issues. We now have a wholly community-rooted model, working with over 2,000 local partners annually to plan, produce, and share exhibitions and events. Our visitors and partners reflect the diversity of our community. And the reason they participate is not fundamentally to learn about art or history. People come into the MAH every day to make art. To make history. And to do it together, with friends and strangers alike.

I like to joke that both our biggest advocates and our biggest critics say the same thing about the MAH: "that museum is a community center." They're right. Our incredible staff and partners make it so every single day. I couldn't be prouder.

So why would I start to make plans to leave at this time of strength and beauty? Over the past year, I've worked with the MAH board to incubate OF/BY/FOR ALL, a global movement to help more organizations do the kind of community-involved work we do at the MAH. When OF/BY/FOR ALL started, we imagined it would grow big one day. We had no idea how quickly that day would come. In the past year, OF/BY/FOR ALL has gone from a good idea to a full-fledged nonprofit startup. I'm thrilled that so many people around the world want to work with us to build more inclusive institutions. I'm full of gratitude for the amazing staff at the MAH who have made it possible for me to spend more time online and on airplanes. But I see that this won't be sustainable for too much longer. I see the incredible potential for both the MAH and for OF/BY/FOR ALL, and I believe that each will soon need focused, committed leadership.

This sent me into an honest assessment of my own skills and passions and where I could do my best work. I'm an entrepreneurial, experimental, opportunistic leader. Those skills made me a great fit to turn around and grow the MAH to the amazing place it is today. But I see that these same skills could make me a liability to keep the MAH strong and growing. I've learned and grown a lot as a manager and leader as the MAH has evolved. But the institution is growing beyond my "zone of genius" as a risk-taking spacemaker. The MAH doesn't need someone to break it open and rebuild it. It needs someone to deepen and strengthen it.

I love the MAH, and I want it to have the best executive director possible. I know that person is out there--that leader who is brilliant on depth and structure, committed to community impact and inclusion. Maybe it's you - or maybe it's someone you know. When we post the job announcement in a few weeks, I hope you'll help share the opportunity. I truly believe it's the best museum director job in the world.

This was not an easy decision to make. I'll be leaving a place that has become home for me. I have brilliant colleagues who make our office joyful, zany, and loving. They teach me new ways to be true to our community every day. I have the best board, full of thoughtful, diverse community leaders. And then there are the people walking in every day ready to get involved, their pockets spilling over with passion and ideas. I love how open the MAH feels and how open it has made me.

But I also see what a big opportunity lies ahead for me with OF/BY/FOR ALL. I see what a big opportunity exists for the next director of the MAH. I have often thought of my job at the MAH as that of a spacemaker. I create and hold space for our community to flourish in all its creative and cultural diversity. With OF/BY/FOR ALL, I'll be able to take that spacemaking to a global stage, helping empower organizations and communities all over the world to grow stronger together. I'm moving forward with hope towards that abundant future for our community, our museum, and our world.

Monday, November 12, 2018

How Hello Museum Builds Intimate Community in one of the Biggest Cities in the World

When I tell stories about how the MAH builds community, I emphasize the importance of deep partnerships and relationship-building. We connect with people both professionally and personally, at the museum and on the street. Colleagues from bigger cities often ask: is this approach relevant to us? Can this kind of intimacy and informality work in a sprawling metropolis? This weekend, I got my answer in Seoul--the 18th biggest city in the world--at Hello Museum.

Nestled in a forest of high-rise apartment buildings, this small museum connects children and families with contemporary art. Like the New Children's Museum in San Diego, Hello Museum creates building-wide interactive exhibitions with artists, on themes like nature and #NoWar. But while Hello Museum originally opened as a "children's contemporary art museum," that's not the tagline they use today. Now, they call themselves a "small neighborhood museum"--in the middle of a city of 9.8 million people.

Hello Museum embeds neighborliness in every aspect of its work, starting with its name. I assumed the name was an invitation for children to say hello to contemporary art. But director and founder Ysaac Kim explained that it's not about people connecting to the museum. It's about them connecting with each other. As she said, "I noticed that children these days are taught not to talk to strangers, not to say hello to them. So we made this museum as a place where you can say hello."

Walk into Hello Museum, and you'll encounter a million touches that create a sense of intimacy and community. Everyone takes off their shoes on entry, which creates a homey feel. As we padded in, the front desk was manned by a visiting artist. In a warren of small rooms without doors, parents sat chatting on the floor as their children swirled through art installations made from everyday objects. There were plants and books everywhere.

We wandered up the stairs, slipped on slippers and sunhats (provided on a friendly shelf), and enjoyed a small rooftop garden with waterplay and painting areas. Up on that roof, our world of paints and plants felt tiny in contrast to the skyscrapers looming all around. It felt like a place to be human in a concrete and steel world.

While Seoul is very different from Santa Cruz, Hello Museum felt like a sister to the MAH. The warm, sociable spirit felt the same. Visitors easily and happily collided and said hello to one another. Staff members and teenage volunteers brokered conversations and play. At one point, Ysaac effusively greeted a woman visiting with her child. As they hugged and laughed, they explained to me that the mother was a friend - and part of a company that had sponsored this exhibition opening. It reminded me of every time I've given a tour of the MAH and run into a friend or partner along the way.

Like the MAH, Hello Museum brokers new "hellos" through local partnerships and visitor participation. They try to be of, by, and for their community (which is why I was visiting). For example, on our way into the museum, Ysaac pointed out tiny textile factories dotting the neighborhood run by "grandmothers." In Hello Museum's maker space, children worked with scraps donated by these seamstresses. On the floor, children sat and slid on denim cushions, sewed by the grandmothers out of cast-off jeans donated by museum visitors. After the exhibition closes, these community-made denim cushions will keep doing good in the community. Hello Museum is donating them to a local animal shelter that needs warm cushions to insulate dogs and cats from cold concrete floors.

Ysaac and her team at Hello Museum have created something small, beautiful, and powerful. Seeing this hive of creativity and human kindness made me realize that this kind of museum may even be more valuable in a big city than a small one. In a city that is rapidly growing and changing, they've created a place to come together and play and create things and make friends. A place to slow down and say hello.

Hello Museum taught me that intimacy and community-building is a choice. It's a choice to keep things simple. To work with neighbors. To design spaces that feel human and warm. A choice that any small museum, no matter how big the city, can make.