Monday, July 24, 2017

Announcing The Art of Relevance Audiobook! Get Yours for Free Today.

Last year, when I released The Art of Relevance, people asked if there was an audiobook version in the works. It honestly hadn't crossed my mind. Since then, I've learned how many people read books with their ears instead of their eyes. I knew if I wanted to make the book relevant and accessible, I should get on it.

So I am thrilled to announce that The Art of Relevance audiobook is now available for YOU to listen to on AudibleAmazon, and iTunes. I narrated it, with the help of engineer Jason Hatfield and the folks at Indigital Studios in Santa Cruz, CA. The great Jon Moscone lent his voice to his preface, too.

If you have never listened to an audiobook and want to try it out, you can sign up for a free trial membership with Audible and get a copy of The Art of Relevance for free. Go to the page for the book and hit the "Free with 30 Day Trial Membership" orange button to the right. You can also listen to a five-minute sample from the introduction to get a sense of what it sounds like.

And if you prefer your media in audio-visual form, here are two videos from recent talks about the book:
  • 12-minute talk about The Art of Relevance for a broad audience at TedXPaloAlto 
  • 30-minute talk plus Q&A, with a slant towards science centers at ECSITE in Portugal
Finally, I'll be sharing stories of relevance live and in-person this fall at the following events:



Tuesday, July 18, 2017

How Do You Inspire Visitors to Take Action After They Leave?

This month, we opened a new exhibition at the MAH, Lost Childhoods: Voices of Santa Cruz County Foster Youth and Foster Youth Museum (brief video clip from opening night here).

This exhibition is a big accomplishment for us because it incorporates multiple ways we push boundaries at the MAH:
  • we co-designed it with 100+ community partners (C3), including artists, foster youth, and youth advocates, with youth voices driving the project from big idea to install to programming.
  • we commissioned original artwork that was co-produced with youth.
  • it uses art, history, artifacts, and storytelling to illuminate a big human story and an urgent social issue.
  • it encourages visitors to participate both in the exhibition and beyond it by taking action to expand opportunities for foster youth and youth transitioning out of foster care.
There's lots to explore about this project, but today I want to dive into this last element: inspiring visitors to take action. 

When we developed the big ideas for this exhibition, MAH staff and C3 partners agreed: we wanted visitors to "feel empowered to take action and know how to do so."

This big idea excited us all. But at the very next C3 meeting with our partners, we ran into two big questions of content and design:
  1. The issues facing foster youth are huge and complex. How could visitors take actions that are both meaningful and achievable?
  2. How could we develop a clear, explicit, and appealing way for visitors to take action?
We addressed the first question with guidance from one of the former foster youth who helped develop the exhibition. She pointed out that while big things like becoming a foster parent are super-important, there are also a lot of little things people can do to help foster youth succeed. We decided to hone in on the little things - from baking a birthday cake to donating clean socks to volunteering - in our TAKE ACTION center. 

The TAKE ACTION center has two components - a woven artwork (left)
and a set of business cards visitors can take home with them.

We crowd-sourced "little things" from our C3 partners. Then, we worked with one of the commissioned exhibition artists, Melody Overstreet, to create an artwork that weaves all these little things into one tapestry. Youth handwrote the little things on the woven strips, in English and Spanish. The artwork metaphorically suggests that we need to do all these little things to build a supportive social fabric for foster youth.

Closeup of the woven artwork by Melody Overstreet and C3 partners.
While the artwork is beautiful and inspiring, it's not a clear, explicit call to action. In C3 meetings, we experimented with different activities related to the weaving. We tried making bracelets to remember an action you want to take, or weaving your action into the artwork. But we decided that these were too conceptual. We wanted to live up to that big idea that visitors would feel empowered to take action and how how to do so. 

So we took the actions in the weaving and translated them into business cards. The front of each card shares the action, and the back shares the contact info for the person/organization to make it happen. We discussed creating a single "take action" postcard instead and pushing all the action/contact info to a website, but that felt like it added too many steps for visitors from inspiration to action. We wanted visitors to have all the information they need to do a given action on the card itself. The cards are clear, brief, bilingual, and granular. You can take it and use it right away.

A few of the TAKE ACTION cards.
Front/back closeup of one card.
We opened the exhibition with 40 different action cards. We had debated whether to pare the number down so as not to overwhelm visitors, but ultimately, we felt that more was more. We've even held a few extra slots open to add new cards in the future in case our partners' needs change over the 6-month run of the exhibition.

How will we measure if people take the actions on the cards? We're tracking this in two ways:
  1. We are counting how many cards of each type get taken. Already in the first few days of the exhibition, we've had to replenish some cards multiple times. 
  2. We are asking C3 partners to report to us on the extent to which people take action. We started a simple google doc to catalogue these reports. We've already heard from partners who have had new volunteers sign up based on the cards.
I'm really curious to see how the TAKE ACTION center evolves over the run of the exhibition. I'm cautiously optimistic that we may have found a system that works for Lost Childhoods - and may work for other projects as well.

What's your take on this approach? How have you inspired visitors to take action in your projects? How have you measured it?

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Want to Work at the MAH? Now's Your Chance.

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History keeps growing and experimenting in our quest to build a stronger, more connected community. We're expanding beyond our walls this summer with the opening of Abbott Square. We are dreaming big, reaching out, and going deep... and we're looking for two great folks to join the team.

We are now hiring two full-time positions:
Both these people have important roles to play in the future of the MAH.

The Exhibitions Catalyst will lead the way in bringing together artists and diverse partners in the development of powerful exhibitions. We've built a community-based, collaborative exhibitions strategy, and we're looking for the right person to bring it to life through great writing, project management, partner engagement, activity design, and event production.

The Marketing and Communications Catalyst will shape and execute our marketing, press, and communications strategy. With Abbott Square opening, the whole idea of what the MAH "is" is evolving. The MAH now oversees a museum, a community plaza, a garden, a market, and all the activities that go with these diverse offerings. We are rethinking our program model, and we need to rethink our marketing strategy as well. The person in this job will lead the way.

We believe that the strongest teams come from diverse backgrounds. You won't find requirements in these job descriptions to have a master's degree or a million years of experience. You WILL find applications that ask you to demonstrate your talents and perspective. We hire high-performing people who are ready to work hard, collaborate, experiment, and get shit done in a fast-moving, fun, community-minded environment.

If you think that you are the right person for one of these jobs--or if you know the right person--I hope you will check out the job descriptions and consider applying. These jobs are open until filled, and we are ready to hire immediately. Thanks in advance for spreading the word.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Are Cultural Organizations Built to Fail to Scale?

My new audial obsession is the podcast How I Built This, in which Guy Raz interviews entrepreneurs who built notable companies. The podcast offers incredible stories behind the making of businesses like Chuck E Cheese, Southwest Airlines, and Zuumba. I've also been reading more about social impact nonprofits that went big, like Goodwill, CASA, and YMCA.

One of the biggest questions on my mind as I listen is: why isn’t my industry scaling up the way these organizations do? I can think of many extraordinary innovators in the nonprofit cultural sector--people and organizations creating brilliant programs, site-based experiences, and products. Many of these projects seem replicable. But I can think of only a few who have scaled up and out in a meaningful way.

Why aren’t our collective best ideas growing and spreading all over the world? Why aren’t more cultural organizations franchising, scaling, and replicating like comparable businesses?

Here are a few of my hypotheses (and I’d love to hear yours in the comments). I am not suggesting that any of these factors are bad or immutable. I'm suggesting they may be reasons we aren't scaling.

Precarious business model. Even if an institution or a project is fabulous, it may not have a solid, replicable business model behind it. If the work is financially dicey on the scale of one building, it can be disastrous to scale up.

Too much emphasis on innovation. The more we tinker with and change our products, the less time we spend scaling those products. Arts institutions have beat the innovation drum for decades now. Change may be necessary... or it may distract us from opportunities to grow.

Too complex and diversified a business. Cultural organizations tend to have many programs, projects, audiences, and goals. Businesses that scale are simpler and more focused. If it would take a thousand-page manual to replicate your programs (which are always changing!), it's too hard to reproduce.

Friendly industry that encourages sharing and copying. There are no NDAs in the nonprofit culture sector. Professionals share program models, exhibitions, and design techniques across organizations, often for free. This intermixing means there's less distinctive value to scaling any one entity's offerings.

Too much emphasis on unique experience and local idiosyncrasy. Many cultural organizations put the singular, authentic experience first. Many of us are proud of how our cultural organizations reflect and respond to our local communities. This can lead to assumptions--not always true--that what works here can't be copied and won’t work somewhere else.

Skills mismatch. The skills needed to create an incredible program are different from those needed to spread that program around the world. Our industry cultivates and rewards creative dilettantes who make beautiful things. We often look with suspicion on MBAs and people who want to commodify our work.

Mission mismatch. What's the upside for cultural organizations to scale? Most don't see any benefit to spreading that program around the world. It might be nice if it happened, but it's not the goal. The goal is local engagement, authenticity, scholarship, prestige, or keeping the lights on and the art pumping. I suspect most of us would be loathe to cut programs or make hard tradeoffs in favor of scale. The argument for it isn't worth the pain.


What's missing on this list? What counter-examples have you seen?

Please share your questions or comments! If you are reading this via email, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Why We Moved the Abbott Square Opening - A Mistake, a Tough Call, & a Pivot: Introducing Abbott Square, Bonus Post

Excited to open... but not quite yet.
This is the eleventh 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.

Twelve days ago, we started the two-week countdown to opening Abbott Square. We sent out hundreds of flyers with the eight-night Opening Week schedule. We lined up press. We shifted staff schedules. We had 2,000 t-shirts to give away, 850 balls to drop, and over a hundred artists, accordionists, salsa dancers, taiko drummers, and bubble ladies ready to go.

Ten days ago, we called it all off.

Why? The reason is simple: we weren’t ready. Abbott Square is a plaza, a garden, and a marketplace with 6 restaurants and 2 bars. Marketplace construction isn’t complete. All those chefs haven’t had a chance to stock their food or train their staff. We know food and drink are essential parts of Abbott Square. They are worth the wait. And so, at the last moment, we pulled the rip cord and postponed the events.

The more interesting question is this: why did it take so long to make this decision?

I knew for months that construction was delayed. I knew for weeks that we weren’t going to be able to do all the restaurant prep we had planned for. Why didn’t I make the decision to postpone sooner?

I think the answer comes down to three things.

1. I was too optimistic.
Leading an entrepreneurial project requires a lot of optimism. For years, I’ve been a cheerleader, fundraiser, and spokesperson for this project. When people were skeptical of the vision three years ago, it was my job to win them over. When we needed funds two years ago, it was my job to inspire people to give. When staff were unsure how it would change their jobs a year ago, it was my job to get colleagues onboard. And now in construction, I’ve been telling the community how great the project will be when it opens.

And let’s be clear: it WILL be great. But my realist brain never got the full attention of my cheerleader brain. Partly, I was inexperienced; when construction managers gave me a date, I figured they knew more than I did. But considering how often those dates slid, I should have seen the writing on the wall sooner. I should have taken a break from cheerleading to identify the likely outcome of the trend of construction delays.

2. We had a hard opening date instead of a go/no go threshold.
Back in March, I asked our market partner when he thought construction would be done. He said April 15. And then they’d want two weeks of soft opening - May 1. We added a month to be safe and agreed to have a big grand opening June 2-9. Once we locked this in, I focused on those dates, driving towards them, cranking to get done in time. I felt that a reasonable goal would focus us to get to a successful opening. As that goal became unreasonable, instead of adjusting, I dug in harder. I pushed to open on time, and got more and more stressed as it seemed like we might not hit our dates. By the time of that key decision, I’d barely slept in days.

How could we have avoided this? Instead of pushing to hit a date, I wish I had defined thresholds for a quality grand opening, like “we must have a Certificate of Occupancy at least three weeks prior” or “chefs must have at least 2 weeks to train/soft open.” If I had taken that tack, we would have postponed sooner.

3. It felt easier to commit to dates than to embrace ambiguity.
I felt pressure, both in myself and within our staff team, to provide a date. We are pros at event planning at the MAH, but all event plans start the same way: with a date. It felt like we needed to lock in a date so we could book collaborators, schedule staff, market the activities, and plan everything. So we did. We picked dates we thought were extremely safe… until they weren’t. When construction delays started to get too close to June 2, we started reframing the events—calling them “previews” instead of “opening.” Ultimately, even this reframing wasn’t going to fly, and we had to postpone.

Weirdly, once we decided to postpone, it seemed much less overwhelming than I expected to move everything. Now it feels like we have an amazing event-in-a-box ready to go whenever we are able to lock in new dates. That fixation on dates may have been unhelpful from the start.


I am so grateful to our staff, board, and community for supporting this change. I made the mistake, and they made the solution work. Our staff did an amazing job communicating the change with press, members, and partners—even shifting a huge cover story that went to print just hours after we made the change. Our team clearly, quickly told everyone about the change, and we emphasized that we were postponing so we could offer members the best experience possible. People were understanding about the delay and excited about the opening to come. And I went back to sleeping at night... while spending my days working hard to make the project live up to our community's biggest dreams.

Have we reset new opening dates? Heck no! Here’s our new strategy:
  • We’ll host an Abbott Square Preview Night on June 2 as part of First Friday activities.
  • When the Market gets its Certificate of Occupancy, we will work with the Market management to determine how many weeks of training and soft opening they need to open successfully. We'll start soft opening our new programming in the plaza during this period too.
  • We’ll set new grand opening dates based on soft opening needs and fire up our events plan with a few tweaks. 
And next time we open something comparably complex, we’ll set this kind of plan from the start.


Please share your questions or comments! If you are reading this via email, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Ask Me Anything about our Expansion... and Enjoy All the Posts in the Abbott Square Series

We’re just weeks away from opening Abbott Square to the public here in Santa Cruz, CA. Over the past ten weeks, I’ve written about some of the most potent, confounding, and pivotal moments in making this $5,000,000 community plaza project real.

Here are all the posts in the series. For every story I wrote down, there are ten others rattling around in my head. I’d love to hear your questions and comments. What do you want to know about the project or the process? No question too small. Let's learn more together.

Add your questions to the comments here. Enjoy these posts. And if you are in the area, join us for the Abbott Square Preview June 2 in downtown Santa Cruz. You can also check out the great cover story in the Good Times.

INTRODUCING ABBOTT SQUARE

  1. Introducing Abbott Square - welcome to the blog series
  2. Why We're Expanding in Public Space - and Why You Should Consider it Too - if our community lives beyond our walls, shouldn't our work go outside too? 
  3. Community Participation Builds a Community Plaza - how we involved community stakeholders and citizens from day 1
  4. The Most Important Question to Ask in a Capital Campaign - what is your project worth?
  5. What a Board is For - how trustees help you go beyond your limits
  6. Two Prioritization Techniques We Used to Negotiate a Great Lease - how can you decide collectively what you value most?
  7. How Getting Sued Ruined My Vacation and Taught Me about Stress - a cautionary tale
  8. From Mine to Ours - Sharing Ownership of Our Expansion - when and how do you bring your staff into a new project?
  9. Think Like a Real Estate Developer - a new way of looking at opportunities on the horizon
  10. What's More Inclusive: Food or Art? - questioning long-held beliefs about gentrification and inclusion

Please share your questions or comments! You can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

What's More Inclusive: Food or Art? Introducing Abbott Square, Part 10

This is the tenth 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 working on the food side of the Abbott Square project, it raised some basic questions about community inclusion. How could we build a market that was as diverse as our museum? Would adding a major commercial component to the project make it more or less welcoming?

Our staff and community saw these questions differently from the start. Staff members wanted to protect the MAH’s focus on reflecting the diversity of our community. We’ve worked hard for years to make the MAH a place that includes and welcomes people of all backgrounds. Success for us looks like MAH participants reflecting the age, ethnic, and economic diversity of our county. We’re very close to hitting all these targets. We didn’t want Abbott Square to be a step back on the path to community representation.

At the same time, we heard from community members how essential food was to make Abbott Square a compelling place to visit. People were hungry for more lunch, dinner, and happy hour options downtown. And the kind of food they wanted—fresh, local, diverse cuisine—didn’t lend itself to the cheapest options possible.

When we started working with the master tenant/developer on the market, he promised the market would feature “real food for real people.” Diverse chefs would present cuisines from around the world. There would be no white tablecloths—nor any table service at all. But some of us were still wary. Were we creating a gentrifying space instead of an inclusive one?

So our whole staff went to visit another public market the developer had started: San Pedro Square Market in San Jose. The food was mid-range in price. The cuisine represented many countries and flavors. The space was loud, friendly, and packed. And the staff and clientele were more ethnically diverse than any museum in the region--including ours.

Visiting San Pedro Square Market was a humbling wakeup call for me. Here we were, feeling righteous about our inclusive work, and there they were feeding a more diverse crowd than participated at the MAH.

No matter how focused we are on inclusive work at the MAH, we’re still doing it in the frame of a museum. To many people, an art museum is a more potent symbol of exclusivity and elitism than a hipster coffeeshop or a poke bar. In some communities’ eyes, art is a bigger gentrification concern than food.

Visiting San Pedro Square Market reminded me of all the community members who got excited about Abbott Square and the MAH because of the food. There are many, many people in this world who do not feel welcome, invited, or interested in museums. All those people eat. Many of them (more and more every year) eat out. More people, and more diverse people, go to restaurants than go to museums. Many people might feel a greater sense of invitation from a West African rice bowl or custom popsicle in Abbott Square Market than from MAH exhibitions.

I don’t want to discount the potential for Abbott Square Market to be a force for gentrification. It could be. We have to be attentive to its impact on the MAH community and our downtown. But I'm not willing to give the MAH or any art institution a pass in this attentiveness. I don't assume that nonprofits are automatically more inclusive than businesses.

We have to keep working on many levels to include diverse participants—and we will keep doing so, indoors and out. In Abbott Square Market, we’re working with diverse chefs, with diverse staffs, to welcome diverse customers who like to eat out. In the plaza and the museum, we're working with diverse partners, on diverse programs, to welcome diverse visitors who like to connect through creativity and culture. We’re offering many experiences, at many price points, with many partners. It’s all part of opening up the MAH to more of our community.


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

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Think Like a (Real Estate) Developer: Introducing Abbott Square, Part 9

This is the ninth 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.

Studying engineering taught me to think like a designer: state the problem, brainstorm, test, iterate.
Working with creative people taught me to think like an artist: observe, explore, dive in, look out.
Partnering in community taught me to think like an organizer: listen, connect, build shared purpose.
Building the Abbott Square project taught me a whole new mindset: that of the real estate developer.

Real estate developers have two distinctive qualities I’m learning to adopt: they think from the outside in, and they balance flexible optimism with clear criteria for success.

OUTSIDE IN

Before the Abbott Square project, I approached planning from an internally-driven perspective. We develop the ideas. We explore the possible programs. We develop the projects. The “we” isn’t always staff; in most cases, our staff work with community partners in a participatory, co-creative model. But we mostly start projects from the dreams and challenges of the partners in the room.

Real estate developers don’t think this way. They approach planning from the outside in, starting with the external conditions of the land around them. Each site provides its own set of opportunities and constraints. The question is not, “what do I want to do?” but “what can I do with this?”

This mindset expands my world. Even as we talk about “abundance thinking” in nonprofits, we tend to restrict ourselves to a limited landscape of opportunities. We don’t look too far beyond our existing programs, sites, and partners. We don’t scan every new encounter for its potential. Because we want control, we start by controlling ourselves, pre-selecting a narrow window of possibilities based on the frames we’ve already installed.

Real estate developers taught me to stop focusing on my own locus of control. Now I look outside the window and wonder what opportunities different sites and partners could unlock. It’s like Pokemon Go for professional opportunities; that site has some gold sparkles, that park is hopping with party animals, that collaboration request has a rainbow guarded by trolls.

FLEXIBLE OPTIMISM + HARD CRITERIA

Real estate developers blend optimism and flexibility with clear-eyed assessment of what external conditions make a project go. Developers will move mountains to make a project they believe in work—but they’ll also drop a project in an instant if the external conditions make it untenable. If a project doesn’t pencil out or meet the criteria they feel spell success, developers walk away. There will always be another site, another project, another opportunity for a better fit.

This approach requires being explicit and honest about criteria for success or failure. Every developer I’ve talked with can list specific things that will make them pursue or drop a project—at any stage. One guy will only work in specific municipalities. Another has to own the building. It doesn’t matter how attractive the project is if they can’t have what they feel they need to make it succeed.

In my nonprofit world, I’m neither required nor challenged to develop such clear criteria. My general nonprofit MO is to pursue a project and to keep adjusting and learning our way to the finish line. There are some projects that go on too long before they get axed. We identify flaws emergently rather than starting with clear “go/no go” criteria.”

Thinking like a developer has made me more comfortable pursuing many early-stage possibilities in parallel instead of marching forward in sequence. I assume most early-stage opportunities won’t end up lining up, but I won’t know which ones are viable until we get further down the road. I want the “deal flow” of opportunities—and I’m working to hone my own mental checklist of necessary criteria.

***

An engineer says: “I’ll try this and learn something, then I’ll try that and learn something, and eventually I’ll get it right.”

An artist says: “I’ll explore the world, pull ideas from it, and craft a response.”

A nonprofit manager says: “Based on what we’ve learned and the partnerships we’ve built, we’ll move forward like this, together.”

A developer says: “I’ll open many conversations, and when I find the one that meets all my criteria, I’ll go full steam ahead on that one and drop the others that don’t.”

All of these are valid ways to approach the world. Which will you use for your next project?


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


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.

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