Tuesday, April 25, 2017

From Mine to Ours - Sharing Ownership of Our Expansion: Introducing Abbott Square, Part 8

MAH staffer Sandino Gomez extolls the virtues of Abbott Square.
This is the eighth in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.

When we started the Abbott Square expansion project, I knew it would change our facility. I knew it would change the museum visitor experience. I knew it would change our downtown.

But I completely missed something else it would change: our staff.

It's absurd in retrospect to think this project could change the downtown without changing our organization. But when we started Abbott Square, I saw it as a new program. I assumed it would grow alongside our existing work rather than reshaping it. We were developing something that departed from our core services, on a site that we didn’t currently activate, with money we didn’t yet have. It felt separate from the ongoing work of the organization. For the first two years, the board was deeply involved. The staff was not.

The Abbott Square development team started with one staff member and one trustee. I brought the community visioning and planning process. Peter Orr (the trustee) brought the business planning and operational know-how. For over a year, Peter and I built the plan, negotiated partnerships, crunched numbers. We worked with community partners, stakeholders, and trustees to hone the plan.

When the capital campaign started, the staff team grew from one to three. I hired a development director whose primary focus was the capital campaign. Our marketing and engagement coordinator expanded her role to produce campaign collateral. Working closely with trustees and community partners, we raised the $5,000,000 needed to make the Abbott Square a reality.

All our staff members worked fundraising events. They heard the pitch. They knew the broad strokes of the project. But internally, many staff (including me) treated the Abbott Square project as “my” project. I felt both excited and isolated by the project. I sat alone in the corner reviewing contracts and architectural plans. Abbott Square was still an idea conjured in site plans and fundraising brochures. It existed outside the real world of museum exhibits, events, and visitors our staff worked with every day.

For the first couple years, I was comfortable with this division of labor. I had my job; my colleagues had theirs. Since there wasn’t yet concrete work for them to DO related to Abbott Square, separation felt appropriate. In staff meetings, I treated Abbott Square as an inspiring distraction. Something to be aware of and informed about. Not something to focus on.

But as we started shifting from vision to action, we had to change this approach. Abbott Square wasn’t shaping up to be another project in a portfolio of MAH projects. It was changing our community, and it had to change our organization. I needed to desilo the project. I needed to open it up to our staff’s expertise. I needed to invite staff members to feel like owners of it.

Even once I understood this, I wasn’t sure when and how to shift. There were so many questions about Abbott Square where the answer was, “I don’t know yet.” There were so many parts of the project that took up a ton of my time but shouldn’t concern others. There were stressful moments—getting permits, settling the lawsuit—that could have been big distractions for our staff. I felt protective of their time. I wanted to insulate them from the strange world of the project. I wanted to wait until I could answer their questions with something other than “I don’t know yet.”

And so I waited.

It never felt like the right time to make the shift. I never felt like I had enough information for staff. I never felt ready to ask people to shift their attention to something that didn’t exist yet. I hated being unsure of dates and timelines. I kept telling myself we should wait a little longer.

But then two things happened that made me feel like I had to act. First, our Development Director moved on from the MAH when the campaign wrapped up. My main staff partner on the project was gone. And Intersection for the Arts fell into crisis.

Intersection is a San Francisco-based arts organization I had long admired. In the mid-2000s, under the leadership of Deborah Cullinan, they entered into a partnership with a real estate developer to move into a new building and transform their business model. The move was ambitious, innovative, and bold—everything Deborah was known for. Three years after the move, Deborah left Intersection to become the new CEO of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. She thought she was leaving Intersection in a strong position. Instead, within a year, it fell into financial crisis.

I know very little about Intersection’s move, meltdown, and subsequent regrowth. But I do know this: the financial crisis underscored the need for the whole organization to understand and embrace the move in all its complexity.

The Intersection crisis was a wakeup call for me. If Abbott Square launched as “my” project, or even as the board’s project, MAH staff might not be ready to lead it. They might not seize all the opportunities it presents. They might struggle to tackle the challenges it introduces.

And so I started opening up. I asked colleagues to partner with me on an operational vision. I invited them take the lead on several key elements. I got more comfortable saying, “I don’t know.”

The more I did this, the more it became clear that Abbott Square could and should have a transformative impact on our whole organization. About a year before opening, we did a major restructuring of our staff to meet the opportunity of Abbott Square. At first, I’d assumed two or three people’s jobs would be impacted by Abbott Square. Instead, everyone’s job changed. To treat Abbott Square as an expansion of the MAH and not an ancillary project, we all had to reset our idea of what the MAH is and what we do here.

The restructuring was tough, time-consuming, and necessary. We rewrote job descriptions, reoriented teams, and redistributed work. Now, we have a staff team who think of MAH + Abbott Square as one big entity which we are all responsible for.

This transition work is far from done. There are still aspects of the project I have a hard time letting go of. Every day, I have to tell a colleague “I don’t know” when I wish I could give them a definitive answer. But I’m trying to be honest about these items as they arise. Our goal is that when we open this summer, the operation of the expanded MAH is in the hands of our whole team. I think we’re getting there.

I still wonder what would have happened if I hadn't had that wakeup call. I still wonder when the perfect moment was to start this transition. Should I have started sooner, so more staff members co-owned the nascent vision? Should I have waited longer, so staff could do their best work on existing programs and not waste energy on uncertain outcomes? When we’re in this situation someday with the next big project, what will we do?


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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Introducing Abbott Square Part 7: How Getting Sued Ruined My Vacation and Taught Me about Stress

This is the seventh in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.


My husband and I had just come back from a glorious four-day trek through the Pasayten wilderness in the fall of 2015. We were reconnecting with family at dinner when the email came in. My museum was being sued over the Abbott Square project.

All the energy I’d restored on our hike came crashing down around me. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t calm down. I didn’t have the tools to make it right.

Before Abbott Square, I thought I knew how to manage stress. I come from a family of hard-driving women. I love intense challenges and the bursts of stress that come with them. I see stress as a motivating factor, a catalyst for action. Even in tough situations, I find ways to push through, solve the problem, make a decision, and get zooming again.

When the Abbott Square project started, a trustee told me: “this is a marathon, not a sprint.” And while I heard him, I didn’t listen. I thought I’d be fine. I didn’t take the time to learn how to retrain my energy for the long haul.

Four years and too many sleepless nights later, I’m still slowly, painfully learning. Abbott Square laid bare the fact that I’m only good at managing stress in situations where I have a lot of control and can work my way out of the stress. I can’t apply hustle to resolve a lawsuit. I can’t push through a lack of communication from a regulatory agency. When it rains, we can’t pour concrete.

It turns out this isn’t a marathon at all. It’s a group road trip where you don’t always get to have your hands on the wheel.

I wish I could tell you that I’ve figured out ways to manage this kind of “group road trip” stress. I haven’t. I’ve learned some small things: how to stop obsessing when it’s not my turn to drive, apply my energy more judiciously, and be more protective of time away from work. The lawsuit was instructive because it had rules, like a game. In the most stressful of situations, I learned to play my turn and stay in my role. A year later, we settled the lawsuit. We were zooming again. But I still had—and have—more sleepless, obsessive nights than I’d like.

I’ve been told that the hardest things to change are the things you feel naturally good at. Until you’re pushed to the limit, you don’t see them as areas for growth. And once you're at that limit and decide you need to grow, it’s hard to abandon patterns that have felt successful for so long. I’d always told myself that I knew how to make stress work for me. Now I’m a little more humble and cautious. If I want to grow and work on even bigger projects, I’ve got to feel okay about those times when my hands aren’t on the wheel.

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a response or question, you can join the conversation here.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Introducing Abbott Square Part 6: Two Prioritization Techniques We Used to Negotiate a Great Lease

This is the sixth in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.

Imagine this situation: you’re about to negotiate a long-term partnership for a massive expansion project. Money is on the table. Values are on the table. Everything’s on the table. How do you decide what to prioritize?

18 months ago, I entered lease negotiations with real estate developer, John McEnery IV, who our board had selected to develop the food component of Abbott Square. John would run Abbott Square Market, a multi-vendor food and drink business, adjacent to the plaza, adjacent to the museum. John would manage the food, the MAH would manage the museum, and we would co-manage the plaza. That’s all we knew going into negotiations.

There were lots of big unresolved questions. How much money would we each bring to the table? How much would John pay for rent and how should we structure it? Who would manage construction? Who would steer the design? Who would pick the food vendors? Who would be responsible for what in the plaza? When would the market be open and under what conditions?

I was overwhelmed and under-confident. I needed a way to focus. I needed a way to get direction from our board and staff on what was inviolate and what was negotiable. I needed the board’s leadership without having all of them involved in every little deal point.

So we did two exercises—with board and staff, separately—to develop our priorities. I suspect these exercises might be useful in any complicated project. It is in that spirit that I share them with you.

MISSION/MONEY MATRIX

Nonprofit folk are familiar with this 2x2 grid, with mission fulfillment on one axis and financial sustainability on the other. Nonprofits use this grid to analyze program performance and to explore ways to shift UP towards higher mission fulfillment and/or RIGHT towards higher profitability.

In the case of the Abbott Square Market negotiation, we used this matrix to get a basic sense of our goals. We'd been leasing the site of the future Market as commercial office space for years: solidly profitable, with no mission impact. That (red) dot was our starting point.

We gave board and staff members this diagram and asked them: when the Abbott Square project is complete, where do you want this dot to go? Do you want us to make the same amount of money but increase the mission impact? Would you sacrifice some money for greater mission impact? Would you sacrifice some mission potential for more money?

They drew their dots, building consensus around the blue dot shown. The project had to increase mission impact. And it had to do as well--or better--than the office building financially.

So we structured the rent in a “base with kicker” format. The museum is guaranteed a monthly base rent that is stable and comparable to what we were receiving when the space was leased for offices. But if the Market does better than a certain threshold, we get more money - a kicker - above the base. That's the dotted line potential for the revenue to increase.

YOUR TOP THREE PRIORITIES

In the months leading up to the lease negotiation, trustees and staff voiced lots of different priorities for the project. Some focused on the need for Abbott Square to be as welcoming and inclusive as the MAH. Others cared about it being clean. Still others wanted local food vendors. And so on.

We couldn’t succeed in negotiations if everything was a top priority. There had to be some things we could trade to get other things that mattered more.

So I wrote up ten distinct priorities we’d heard throughout the process and invited board and staff members to each pick their top three.

We tabulated all the top priorities by votes to generate a ranked list. While trustees and staff had different top priorities, the cumulative priorities were clear. We were able to split the original ten priorities into five “must-haves” and five non-essential preferences. You can see them in this chart. The must-haves on the left, and the negotiable non-essentials on the right.

Unsurprisingly, the five must-haves were the ones that hewed closest to the MAH mission. But they were not the ones people talked about the most in the months leading up to this exercise. Once we had to prioritize, some sexy, much-discussed ideas—like celebrating local food—gave way to core MAH values—like celebrating cultural diversity.

Focusing on five priorities gave me focus and freedom. I could focus on what was important, and I had the freedom to pursue and protect those important elements in whatever way I felt best. In many ways, the five “non-essentials” were even more helpful than the must-haves, because I knew I could deal them away as needed.

In the end, we signed a contract that answered all the big questions about how to manage the project. Any contract would have done that. But the answers hewed to the priorities articulated through these two exercises. No matter how small the deal point, I knew I could use these big priorities as a guiding light. And board and staff knew that I was acting on their collective wisdom and our shared vision for success.

What techniques have you used to set priorities for a big, complicated negotiation?

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a response or question, you can join the conversation here.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Introducing Abbott Square Part 5: What a Board is For

This is the fifth in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but for my first couple years as nonprofit executive director, I was mystified about the board of trustees. Beyond the legal requirements, I didn’t understand what it was for and why it was necessary. It took an ambitious expansion project--Abbott Square--for me to learn how a great board makes the impossible possible.

I came to the MAH at a time of transition and turnaround six years ago. The board that hired me included many dedicated, exhausted people who were ready to move on. We expanded the board, bringing new energy and diverse thinking into the room.

I liked my board. I admired them. But I still didn’t know what the board was for. I thought of the board as a benign, friendly force. I saw them as supporters, advisors, fundraisers, and champions. I expected them to provide guidance to keep the organization on the right track, like bumpers on bowling lanes. But I also saw their role as responsive to my actions as the executive director. I didn’t want them getting too involved in our programmatic changes. I wanted their support, participation, and advice, but—when I’m being really honest with myself—not their leadership.

All that changed when we started the Abbott Square project in 2013. Suddenly, I was way out of my comfort zone. I knew a bit about community planning, creative placemaking, and business planning, but that was it. I knew nothing about capital campaigns, real estate development, contract negotiations, nor city permitting processes. I didn't need a little advice; I needed deep partners to explore what the project could be and how it would work.

And so I turned to my board. There was the farmer who built the business plan with me. The retired judge who guided us through complicated lease negotiations for the market. The designer and the city councilman who saw the full creative potential of the site. The fundraisers who honed our campaign structure and outreach plan.

Every step of the project, board members extended our reach and improved the project. They provided superb expertise matched by thoughtful enthusiasm that money couldn’t buy. And they took ownership alongside me of the key decisions, budget allocations, and struggles along the way.

The most important thing they took co-ownership of was the courage to see the project through. When I asked them if I should be spending half my time on this expansion, they said yes. When I asked them if we could raise $5,000,000, they said yes. When I asked them if it was worth the pain, they said yes.

If they hadn’t been there to say yes, I would have said no at some point. I probably would have pulled back or shrunk the project at key stress points. We might not have completed the project at all.

This project taught me that a great board is not one that supports the staff and buys into the Executive Director’s vision. A great board supplements the staff and expands the vision. They take you places you could never go by yourself.

If you want to reach beyond your limits to achieve your mission, you need your board. They are the people who will push you over the edge, pull you up when you stumble, and make the organization soar. Sure, our organization could manage without a board of trustees. But we can only fly because of them.

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a response or question, you can join the conversation here.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Introducing Abbott Square Part 4: The Most Important Question to Ask in a Capital Campaign


This is the fourth in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.

When you embark on a big capital campaign for a community project, don’t ask how much the project will cost. Ask how much it’s worth.

When we started the Abbott Square project, we focused on how much the project would cost. We were brand new to capital fundraising, and we were nervous about what we could afford. We had no idea what it would take to do a big campaign. We knew we’d have to reach out to new donors who weren’t connected to the MAH. We’d have to find them, get them involved, and get them invested. It all sounded daunting—especially for an organization that had no development director when we started the project.

So we played it cautious. At first, we wanted to fix up the plaza and add some art. We put a $250,000 price tag on that. Then, we realized we wanted to do more, maybe add some food, definitely make spaces for performances, and improve the infrastructure for community festivals and events. That brought the price tag to $1,000,000.

And then I sat down with a major donor—someone I hoped would give a big gift to the project. She changed my whole way of seeing the project. She taught me two crucial things:
  1. The project price tag is what it’s worth, not what it costs. She said, “This project is worth more than a million dollars. Having a town plaza, a place to connect in the middle of downtown, a creative gathering place—that’s huge. That’s worth a lot more than a million dollars.”
  2. Mega-donors make decisions based on the value and price tag of the project… not the balance in their bank accounts. She said, “Here’s how I look at things. I’m considering a project and let’s say I’ve bought in. I want to pay for a percentage of the project - let’s say 15%. So if you tell me the project costs $1,000,000, I’ll give you $150,000. If you tell me it’s $5,000,000, I’ll give you $750,000.”
Her insights blew my mind… and sent our team back to the campaign drawing board.

We made a crucial shift from scarcity thinking (“What’s the least we could do? What’s the least we could pay?”) to abundance thinking (“What’s the most we could do? What’s the full value of this project?”). Inspired by our supporters’ big dreams for the project’s potential, we started thinking bigger, too.

That donor encouraged us to think about what it would take to make the best possible version of Abbott Square. She pushed us to crunch the numbers on a meaningful food experience. We started to pencil out what it would cost to fill the plaza with great events and art activities every week. We talked to other donors to gauge what they thought the project was worth.

We got to $5,000,000.

We didn’t get there by inflating the budget. We didn’t get there through cost overruns. We got there by finding people who dreamed of a creative gathering place, listening to them, believing in their aspirations, and matching the scale of the project to the value they told us was there. We raised all $5,000,000, ahead of schedule. (And that donor? She gave $800,000.)

Now when people talk with me about their capital campaigns, I don’t ask how much the project will cost. I ask how much it’s worth—to their donors, and more importantly, to their community.

If the project is worth as much or more than it costs, you’re in for a pleasure of a fundraising campaign. If it’s worth less than it costs, hit the pause button and ask yourself—why are we doing this? Who is it for? How can we make it something so valuable to our community that it will feel more than worth the cost?

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a response or question, you can join the conversation here.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Introducing Abbott Square Part 3: Community Participation Builds a Community Plaza

This is the third in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.

When we first started talking about redeveloping Abbott Square as a community plaza for downtown Santa Cruz, we ran into some basic questions. What amenities does it need? How will it feel welcoming and inclusive for different communities? Whose vision of downtown are we designing for?

We answered these questions through four years of community conversations. We kept meeting and involving new advocates with strong and differing perspectives. We built specific community processes appropriate to each step of the project development. Every step involved community participation. The result is a project dreamed up by our community, then harnessed, honed, and taken to completion by the MAH.

Here are three significant ways community participation influenced our project.

Community stakeholders made us confront the reality of divergent perspectives about downtown Santa Cruz. 

Going into the project, we saw the MAH’s location in downtown as a huge asset to the project. MAH staff and trustees see downtown as a vibrant retail, dining, and entertainment district, packed with diverse people. We started the Abbott Square project to bring more of the people visiting downtown into the MAH.

But when we started hosting formal community visioning workshops in 2013 with the Project for Public Spaces, we heard other opinions of downtown. We heard suburban moms describe downtown as dangerous, dirty, and unappealing. Businesspeople asked how we would keep out homeless people, drug addicts, and deviant behavior. Some people were downright incredulous that we could achieve our goals for a creative community plaza in downtown.

At first, I resisted and discounted these skeptics. I thought they had distorted perceptions of downtown. But over time, I learned to take their perceptions at face value. Their reality is not my reality... but it is real to them. And that led to two conclusions. First, that we should do what we can to address some community members’ real concerns about safety, cleanliness, and signals of welcome. We started designing ways to make Abbott Square a desirable “first landing place” in downtown—especially for families with children. And second, that while we want Abbott Square to be a welcoming community plaza downtown, we have to accept the reality that some people in our county will never come downtown. We are taking concerns about cleanliness and safety seriously. But we are focusing on people who are skeptical yet open to downtown, not those for whom that door is closed shut.

Community stakeholders drove us to add food to the project in a big way. 

When we first pitched Abbott Square to community members as a MAH project, we heard the same thing again and again: “I like the MAH. I love art and performances and family festivals. But FOOD and DRINK is going to be the thing to bring me back again and again.”

This community preference gave me a healthy dose of humility. A plaza rooted solely in creative practice was not going to achieve our community goals. So we scaled up the food component.

We went from planning for one coffee shop and a small cafe to imagining a public market with five mini-restaurants and two bars. We invested way more time, money, and energy into adding food than we had planned. We entered into a major new partnership to build Abbott Square Market. While Abbott Square still has art, history, and community at its heart, I accept the reality that food is what will drive most people to the plaza.

Community stakeholders made this a community project. 

Every step of the way, we reminded ourselves that we could only build a community plaza with our community. We found ways to engage community members in every step of the development process. Rather than engaging people in one aspect or way, we developed new forms of participation as needed. The first workshops with PPS were quite formal. They generated a fancy (and useful) report. But they were just the beginning. Here are a few other ways we involved community members in Abbott Square development:
  • We held open design competitions for the two major public art components of Abbott Square. Community members served on juries, and we invited hundreds of museum members, donors, and visitors to weigh in on proposed designs. 
  • We invited Abbott Square advocates to host their own lunches or cocktail parties at the MAH to discuss the future of downtown with their friends. 
  • We created a set of coasters with the Abbott Square core components written on them: FOOD, ART, HISTORY, PLAY, COMMUNITY. Any time we met with people about the project, we invited them to sort the coasters in order of importance and discuss their rankings. And then we encouraged them to keep and share the coasters. 
  • Whenever possible, we held public presentations/celebrations of the project. Most involved a fundraising ask, but we always made sure to welcome donors giving $1 as well as those giving $10,000. There were several events where we received gifts across that full range. 
  • We empowered a teen intern to make a video featuring MAH visitors to generate support for the project (shown at the top of this post). 
  • We invited interested folks to attend major City and County hearings on the project and to offer testimony about the value of the project to them. 
  • We formed an “Operation Abbott Square” task force of business-minded volunteers to help us plan for operational changes at the MAH post-expansion into Abbott Square. 
  • We let people put their mark on the project. Before we tore out all the pavers, we invited people to “buy a brick” for a contribution of any amount, painting their name on it right then and there. We held a demolition party where people could draw and write their names on walls that were later destroyed. And when neighbors asked if they could take home pavers for their own construction projects, we always said yes.
How have you involved community stakeholders in your capital projects?

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a response or question, you can join the conversation here.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Introducing Abbott Square Part 2: Why We're Expanding in Public Space - and Why You Should Consider It Too

This is the second installation in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.

The MAH fundamentally has two jobs: we bring art and history out into our community, and we invite our community in.

Over the past six years, we’ve done a great job bringing the community into the MAH. Our audience has quadrupled in size, and the people walking through our doors increasingly reflect the age, income, and ethnic diversity of our County. We’re proud that the MAH is a thriving museum AND community center for Santa Cruz County, a place for people of all walks of life to connect around our shared creativity and culture.

Visitors tell us how much they love the MAH, saying things like, “I love that the MAH holds very welcoming, accessible, open-minded and open-hearted space where people from every walk of life can gather and (re)create community.” Or “I love the MAH because it is a truly participatory space where diverse groups can enjoy, express themselves, and learn from/about/with others.” Or “The MAH is a living invitation of out-of-the box, beyond-perceived-walls thinking.”

There’s a lot of love inside the MAH these days. But in the spirit of that last visitor comment, we feel it is our responsibility and our glorious opportunity to spread that love beyond our walls. If we only build community inside the building, we’re trapping ourselves and our visitors in a bubble. We want to break out. We want the MAH’s inclusive creative energy to ripple across our county. Our vision is to build a stronger, more connected community through art and history. If we really want to achieve that vision, we’ve got to get to work in all the places where people live, work, and play.

We’ve experimented with beyond-the-building engagement through projects like the Pop Up Museum, Evergreen Cemetery restoration work, and partner-led festivals. I’ve seen again and again how outdoor programming has impact beyond what can happen inside the museum. Some casual passers-by jump in to participate, and even when they don’t, they get a bit of a contact high from the fact that art is happening as part of their urban experience. The engagement may be less intimate and focused, but the opportunity for ripple effects is greatly increased. The impact outdoors is wider and wilder than anything that happens inside the walls of an institution.

So we’re going big by expanding into Abbott Square, the under-utilized plaza on the MAH’s front doorstep. The “why” behind Abbott Square evolved over time, with four main reasons at the core:
  1. marketing and audience development
  2. meeting community needs
  3. achieving our mission / strategic alignment
  4. strengthening our business model
When we started the project four years ago, the primary reason to expand into the plaza was about marketing and audience development. Abbott Square physically connects the MAH to the main drag of downtown Santa Cruz. Four years ago, we were in the early stages of expanding and diversifying MAH programming, and we saw Abbott Square as a key physical connection between the growing museum and the vibrant creative life of downtown. Furthermore, we learned from a Latinx-focused ethnographic study that outdoor programming was particularly appealing to local Latinx families. We wanted to reach more people, and more diverse people, and we saw Abbott Square as a great place to do it.

Once we started community conversations about the potential for Abbott Square, the “why” shifted to community desire for a town square. While locals were interested in the MAH, they were MUCH more interested in having a downtown gathering place. We don’t have a town square in Santa Cruz, and people feel the acute lack of creative public space. What started as being about the MAH became more about the community. Community members’ expressed needs and desires drove the planning of Abbott Square and led to major decisions we would not have made if this project was “just” a MAH extension (more on community involvement in next week’s post). While this was exciting, it was also a bit disconcerting. At times, it felt like we were taking on a new sister project to the MAH in Abbott Square, as opposed to an expansion of our existing work.

To my grateful surprise, that sense of separation resolved itself as the MAH's strategy evolved in alignment with the project. While we were designing Abbott Square with community members, we were also strengthening the MAH’s overall commitment to community-driven programs. Three years ago, we wrote a new MAH theory of change with an impact statement to build a stronger, more connected community. We knew this impact could only happen if we expanded our work further beyond our walls.

Through the lens of our new theory of change, suddenly Abbott Square was core to our overall institutional strategy. Just as we have opened the MAH up to more diverse people, perspectives, art forms, and historical narratives over the past few years, now we are physically opening our facility with new offerings that are accessible and appealing to a much wider audience—including thousands of people who might not ever set foot in a museum. The people who enjoy Abbott Square’s whimsical Secret Garden, locally-rooted public market, and free outdoor performances will all experience the MAH—whether they also visit exhibition galleries or not. This intersection is not entirely a coincidence—the MAH and the Abbott Square project grew up together—but it was reassuring to realize that the community’s interest in Abbott Square was in our strategic best interest, too.

And finally, a fourth “why” was key throughout planning: Abbott Square was designed to generate revenue and maximize use of our real estate assets. The MAH has an unusual business model in that part of our revenue comes from managing Abbott Square plaza and an adjacent commercial office building. By incorporating a food market in the ground floor of that building (something community members urged us to do as part of the project), we are hopefully building a sustainable revenue source into Abbott Square. At the same time, we’re transforming a “high income, low mission impact” asset into a “higher income, high mission impact” asset. Hopefully.


I firmly believe that more creative institutions should be in the public space business. If we care about building community, we can’t just do it within our walls. We live in a time—especially in the United States—when people are more divided than ever. Space is contested, privatized, and segregated. Working on this project has opened me up to the incredible opportunities we have to claim public space for our communities and for the values that underlie our work.

Many people call this work “creative placemaking.” The idea is that creativity—not just sculptures or murals but events, art-making, art-sharing, commerce—can help turn an intersection or a riverfront or a concrete wedge into a place with a story and an identity. Creativity and culture connect us to place and to each other.

Yes, art is place making. But art is also future making. Art rejects the limitations of what we are and what we have been. It inspires us to imagine what we will be.

I want to imagine a future of downtown Santa Cruz in which creativity, commerce, and community are all welcome. I want to imagine a future in which the spirit of welcome and inclusivity that permeates the MAH spreads throughout our whole town.

We’re trying to build a slice of that future in Abbott Square. What future do you want to build in your community?

Monday, March 06, 2017

Introducing Abbott Square: A Multi-Part Series on the MAH's Expansion into Creative Public Space

I love the sound of jackhammers in the morning.

My organization, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH), is in the home stretch of a major expansion project. Over the next two months, as we head towards opening, I want to share some of the stories of this project and the process behind it.

This is not your typical museum expansion. When the construction is complete, we will have added zero square feet of gallery space. No new classrooms. Not an ounce of storage space, office space, nor exhibit prep space.

Instead, we're spending five million dollars to take our museum outside. We're transforming an underutilized downtown plaza next to the MAH, Abbott Square, into a creative town square. We're gutting an adjacent office building to host a new public market with five mini-restaurants and two bars. We're planting gardens, painting murals, chalking out performance stages, and hanging market lights. The goal is for Abbott Square to become a new creative heart of our county, a town square that brings together art, history, food, play, and community.

I've spent about half my work-time on Abbott Square over the past four years. It has been an incredible learning experience. I've immersed myself in the politics of public space, the idiosyncrasies of public-private partnerships, the opportunistic mindset of real estate development, the thrills of capital campaigns, the complications of merging current and future operations, and the creative possibilities of community co-design. I've made a lot of mistakes. There were lots of sleepless nights. I look forward to sharing some of these stories with you.

I'm a project junkie. Every time a big project approaches completion, I feel pride, excitement--and a tinge of loss. I love the uncertain energy that pulses through unfinished work. The tough decisions. The creative debates. I love the sound of jackhammers in the morning.

With the concrete flying and opening day fast approaching, I'm taking a step back to capture this project in writing. I don't want Abbott Square to be under construction forever. But I do want to keep the conversation open by sharing and discussing its story with you.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Five Reasons to Come to MuseumCamp 2017

Dear friends,

 We're about a month from the deadline to apply for MuseumCamp 2017 at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH). Here are five reasons YOU should apply this year...

  1. Dive into co-creative project design. A month before MuseumCamp, the MAH is opening a new exhibition, Lost Childhoods, co-developed with foster youth, youth advocates, and artists in our community. You'll tour the exhibition with the team, discuss its impact, and explore the process behind it. This project is experimental, complicated work. Foster youth are central to every decision and direction. Artists are striving to follow their direction to beautiful ends. Dozens of youth advocates and partners co-own the process and are bringing their own dreams, talents, and connections to the work. At MuseumCamp, we'll pull back the curtain on Lost Childhoods' process and product. We'll brainstorm how to partner with your community on projects that ignite social action. 
  2. Meet amazing colleagues and counselors. MuseumCamp attracts creative changemakers of all stripes and backgrounds. Last year Camp welcomed academics, museum folk, librarians, poets, artists, bike advocates, engineers, and one American Ninja Warrior. This year's applicants include social scientists, activists, entrepreneurs, educators, and artists. We've got two incredible outside counselors--Ebony McKinney and Mike Murawski--and more partners coming onboard. You want to meet these people. You want to learn with them. MuseumCamp will help you build a diverse network of inspiring compatriots for your own personal journey to creative change. 
  3. Build - and share - a creative action plan for change. The central activity of MuseumCamp is a whole-camp project where we work in teams to make something. (Check out past projects here.) This year, we're building a creative change toolkit. As a team, you will design it. After Camp, the MAH team will turn it into a beautiful product for you to keep. You'll create it, use it, and share it with others around the world. 
  4. Find out what happens when a museum breaks out of its building. Later this spring, the MAH is opening a major expansion in Abbott Square, the plaza adjacent to the museum. Abbott Square will be a creative heart for the city, offering free events, workshops, performances, and playful programs in partnership with community groups. At MuseumCamp, you'll be among the first to experience it. If you or your organization are considering doing more work in public space, this is a great opportunity to learn more firsthand. 
  5. Relax, recharge, and explore. Swim with sea lions. Ride a 100-year old wooden roller coaster. Sleep in a museum. All optional. All incredible. All at MuseumCamp.  
You can apply for MuseumCamp until March 15. Now's the time. Let's do it.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Thou Shall Not Paint the Concrete: Guest Revelations by Don Hughes

I started my museum career as an exhibit designer. There are many heroes I look up to in that field. But I reserve for Don Hughes that particular blend of admiration and fear that comes when encountering uncompromised brilliance. Don has been the head of exhibits at the Monterey Bay Aquarium for thirty years. He is a genius designer out of central casting: an artist, mercurial, funny, emphatic, honest, unflinching, with a disarming weakness for babies.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a giant in our field, just as Don himself is a giant in the world of museum design. While I don't always agree with the Aquarium team's work, I always learn from them. Don is leaving the Aquarium, and he wrote this list of revelations on design to pass on to the next generation at that organization. He shared it with me, and he agreed that I could share it with you.


Thou Shall Not Paint the Concrete 
The Monterey Gray Revelations, as revealed to Don Hughes over three decades

One: Thou shall protect the original architectural design. 
The building and the exhibitions have a unique and historically successful relationship. Maintain this success by replacing worn or failing elements with materials as similar to the original as possible. Uphold the Aquarium’s overall industrial vernacular aesthetic.

Two: Thou shall provide negative space to rest the eye. 
Well-meaning staff want to fill empty walls with important and meaningful messages. Prevent this. Our enduring design is simple and clean. It embraces the modernist philosophies of Less Is More and Form Follows Function.

Three: Thou shall not restrict views of the bay. 
The building’s exterior is understated Cannery Row. The interior is polished industrial with rich appointments and allows for many views of Monterey Bay. Our building does not compete with the bay; it complements its natural beauty and power.

Four: Thou shall keep the regional focus. 
The greatest stories ever told are always about place. The Aquarium is the most recent tenant of a location that humankind has used for thousands of years. Visitors flock to us to see live plants and animals from this place. Departing from this holy vision leads to damnation.

Five: Thou shall have no greater god than visitors. 
Thou shall treat visitors like royalty, but thou shall not overestimate their interest or attention span. Visitors are not as interested as we like to think they are. Like life, communications with visitors is short, but staff’s list of meaningful, critically important topics to share is long—too long. Edit them. 

Six: Thou shall look like a museum and behave like an attraction. 
The Aquarium is confident. It doesn’t need to shout or brag. Our visitor experience is subtle, elegant and understated, not bold and in-your-face. We look more museum-like than Disney-like, and that makes us unique in a world of attractions. Like Disney in the world of theme parks, we set the standard for the world of public aquariums. Here, every visitor deserves a perfect visit, without out-of-order signs or beta-test experiences in the public space. We learn from our visitors, but not at the expense of their onsite experience.

Seven: Thou shall beware of tacky idolatry. 
No penny crushers, flashy sales signs in the bookstores or cafe, no anthropomorphism or theme park-like costumed characters, no photo booths or other fads posing as content. Cast out those who want to squeeze more and more money from visitors. Dwell in the straightforward and honest presentation of nature. But don’t take thyself too seriously—use humor, and do not preach.

Eight: Thou shall heed the words of the prophets. 
The Aquarium is on a peninsula not an island. Embrace the wisdom of Mickey’s Ten Commandments and Judy’s Visitors’ Bill of Rights.

Nine: Thou shall remember the words of our father. 
“The objective is not to maximize attendance and revenue, but to do the best possible exhibits. Have the highest quality program you can have; spend the money it takes to do that; everything else will follow.” —David Packard, September 25, 1989

Ten: Thou shall know all rules and revelations are created to be broken. 
The garden will change; it must. But resist the temptation of self-esteem. You are but a caretaker. Amen.


p.s. from Nina: Do check out Judy Rand's Visitors' Bill of Rights and the accompanying speech that goes with it. Judy is a tremendous exhibit developer, writer, comedian, teacher, and champion for museum visitors everywhere.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Two Opportunities at the MAH: MuseumCamp and an Incredible Job

Dear Museum 2.0 friends,

I want to share two great opportunities to get involved at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History in 2017.

1. APPLY TO MUSEUMCAMP.

Each summer, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History hosts MuseumCamp, a professional development experience that is part retreat, part unconference, part adult summer camp.

MuseumCamp will be August 9-11, 2017. This year's theme is CHANGEMAKERS. We will host 100 diverse people who are making change in the world, our communities, and our institutions for 2.5 days of fun, fellowship, and active learning. Whether you are dreaming about change, making it happen, or have faded battle scars to share, we want you here this year.

The 2.5 days include lightning talks from campers, team design bursts, movement and meditation, delicious food, and late-night conversations. There will also be a deep dive into the MAH's new issue-driven exhibition pilot, Lost Childhoods. You can sleep at the museum. You can swim with sea lions. You can--and will--learn things about yourself and your work that surprise and enrich you.

We're proud that MuseumCamp brings together a very diverse group by design--campers are 50% people of color, and 50% people from outside museums/visual arts institutions. You do NOT need to work in a museum to attend... and we especially want you to apply if you are making creative change in the civic, social, political, environmental, or economic sphere.

We will accept applications through March 15 and inform people of selections in April. Space is extremely limited and the process is competitive. I encourage you to apply soon. And please, spread the word - especially to friends who identify as a gender other than female, people of color, people over 50, and people who DON'T work in arts/museums.

While MuseumCamp has a registration cost (sliding scale $150-$250), we work with sponsors to underwrite scholarship requests. Most sponsors are amazing companies serving museums, libraries, performing arts organizations, and grassroots community organizations. Do you want to help provide financial aid for this amazing event? If so, you'll be in good company. Thanks in advance for considering it.

2. APPLY FOR THE DIALOGUE CATALYST JOB.

We are thrilled to announce a one-year contract position at the MAH for someone to help us transform the way we involve community partners in creating and activating exhibitions to address social issues.

The Dialogue Catalyst will be part of a new exhibition model that connects art to social action. You’ll lead the activation, documentation and evaluation of the issue-driven exhibition Lost Childhoods about challenges facing transition-age foster youth. You'll work with our amazing group of community advisors (C3) to extend the exhibition throughout our community during its run.

Based on the Dialogue Catalyst's work, the MAH intends to implement this model in future issue-driven exhibitions. The Dialogue Catalyst will make a toolkit that documents the project--and we want to share it with cultural and community organizations around the world so they can create issue-driven exhibitions, too.

The right person is a great event manager, creative collaborator, open communicator, clear writer, and possibilitarian thinker.

We're looking for someone immediately. It could be you. Apply now

Monday, January 09, 2017

Against Participation

At first, I thought it was a joke.

A colleague at UC Santa Cruz asked me to participate in a social practice symposium called Against Participation. Hosted by a sound art collective, Ultra-red, the 2015 event promised "to investigate listening as a political activity and to interrogate the stakes of participation in neoliberalism."

I read this sentence many times without comprehension. Because I really respect the person who invited me--with apprehension--I said yes.

I walked into Against Participation with my hackles up. I assumed the event would fly in the face of my deep value for community participation. I imagined an academic conversation stuffed with arcane, impenetrable vocabulary. I feared I would be laughed at and not understand why.

Instead, I had a powerful learning experience--one I'm still grappling with over a year later.

When should you choose not to participate in an experience? When should you turn down the invitation to share your voice? How should you make these decisions in an imperfect world where every host is using you for something, and every voice is in danger of being manipulated, misunderstood, or subverted?

I'm embarrassed to say I hadn't really thought about these questions before the Against Participation symposium. I thought a lot about where to participate--where I can have the most impact. But I didn't think about whether to participate.

I'd always thought that participating disproportionately benefited the participant. I'd always assumed that more representation is better than less representation, more press is better than less press, more sharing and engaging is better than the alternative. I'd assumed it was my responsibility to represent myself well, and if I failed, it was a matter of my communication, not a system set up to disempower or distort my words.

But Ultra-red reminded me that many environments function as distortion machines. There are many ways for voices to get chopped and twisted. Sometimes, choosing NOT to participate is a powerful statement that protects ownership of your voice and story as your own.

The problem, of course, is when you choose not to participate, most people don't see it as a noble protest. Most people don't notice at all. The absence of your voice doesn't take up as much space as its presence. And so we have to choose: to be distorted or to be overlooked.

I hear about these tensions often from colleagues struggling to participate in hostile workplaces. I've met too many young, talented people of color who want to work in museums but feel belittled, tokenized, or unsupported in their careers. Should they keep fighting to engage and transform the systems that knock them down? Or should they opt out, find friendlier environments, and stop participating in discriminatory spaces?

I grapple with these questions personally when I decide what invitations to take, where to spend my time, where to share my voice. For example, I get frequent media requests, including about museum-related news items that I know little about. Should I comment on whether museums should acquire artifacts related to police violence against African-Americans? In that case I said yes--even as I felt unsure of whether I was the right participant in that space. In other cases--like when I was asked to write a "fun" etiquette guide on how to visit museums--I said no. I knew it wasn't a piece that invited me to participate in a meaningful way.

And yet, someone else will write that breezy etiquette guide. Someone else will say yes to the invitations we reject. Someone else will take that job. Someone else's writing will be on the wall. Were those opportunities missed?

When do you participate, knowing your participation may serve others for reasons different from your own? When do you refuse, knowing your non-participation may be overlooked entirely?

The 2016 US election dredged up these questions for me once again. It reenergized me about focusing my limited time, energy, and creativity on the participatory opportunities that fuel me and my dreams. It pushes me to block out certain participatory forums that distract, exhaust, or limit me. I'm reminded now of how non-participation can be a source of fuel as well as a lack.

Sometimes transformative participation is possible. Sometimes not. How do you choose?