A short lesson on bonds

Usually, bond packages aren’t the spark of lively internet conversations. But a few things on the proposed November bond package (namely Fair Park) are causing quite a stir. Without weighing in too heavily on one side or the other of the Great Fair Park Debate (I feel like I’ve done that here and here), I thought I’d tell you a story about one very tiny, like 0.0002 per cent, piece of the puzzle.

Dallas Heritage Village has been in a management agreement with the City of Dallas for over 40 years. The Park Department owns the land (we were the very first city park) and takes care of basic grounds care and trash. The Office of Cultural Affairs (OCA) owns all of our buildings and provides modest operating support, to the tune of about 20% of our annual operating expenses. They also pay all of our utilities.

In return, the Dallas County Heritage Society (or DCHS–our legal name) interprets the buildings and provides educational programming. We also must raise, through a variety of means, the rest of our operational expenses. Our budget hovers around $1 million annually. We are not City of Dallas employees, but employees of DCHS. The museum is governed by a Board of Trustees, and they’re the ones that hired me as Executive Director.

One challenge that has been growing over the years is deferred maintenance. If you’ve been to DHV, you know that some of our buildings are in much better shape than others. Though the city does provide funds for maintenance, it’s only about $50,000 annually. For over 30 historic structures. That bear the wear and tear of 20,000 school kids annually, plus all of our other visitors. These funds essentially cover emergency repairs to plumbing and HVAC, porch repair, pest control, and maybe one or two larger projects annually. Quite simply, it is not enough.

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The building currently keeping me up at nights–price tag for full restoration? $650,000.

OCA has been chronically underfunded for years. It was the last line item in the City’s budget to be restored to pre-recession levels–and yet, before the recession the Arts District wasn’t complete. Therefore, the same amount of money is being spread among more organizations. And meanwhile, the deferred maintenance bill grows–not just at our organization, but at city owned cultural facilities everywhere.

According to our management agreement, it is the city’s responsibility to maintain and care for their buildings. A promise was made when all these buildings were moved to DHV that the City would care for them, so endowment funds weren’t raised. For years now, we’ve actively raised funds so that we can tackle some of the big projects–to make sure none of these historic buildings are lost after being saved all those years ago. In fact, over the last 5 years, we’ve spent over $700,000 on various deferred maintenance projects. Of those funds, only $164,500, or 24%, are City of Dallas funds.  Sometimes I wonder what we might be able to accomplish as an organization if we didn’t have to devote so many resources (both time and money) to caring for these city-owned buildings.

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This roof had massive hail damage in 2009. In 2015, the city paid for its repair (along with two other roofs damaged in that storm.) Why did it take so long? In cost-saving measures, the city essentially self-insures their buildings. And since we don’t own them, we can insure them ourselves. In the meantime, the leaking roof caused major plaster and ceiling damage. $20,000 later (money we raised), this building is about to reopen as The Parlor, a preschool play space.

Which brings us to the 2017 Bond Package, currently up for debate. In that proposal, we have a line item for $200,000–to primarily go towards roof repair. Roofs and foundations always have to be fixed first or else you’re just going to have to redo repairs again. This rather modest amount represents a huge leap forward for our deferred maintenance list.

Throughout the city, there are many management agreements. It’s important to remember that no matter who is the manager, the city remains the owner. This bond package is an important step forward in making up for years of neglect. Frankly, I know exactly how I’ll be voting in November. And I’m really looking forward to heading to the polls.

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Step by Step: Neighborhood Redevelopment

In the last few months, my work has taken a surprising turn. I’m having meetings about things that I don’t think most history museum directors ever dream about. People are approaching us with some pretty incredible ideas–ideas that have made my jaw drop and my mind whirl. After about the third time, I started thinking about what caused all of this. And though I could be wrong, the motivations seem to boil down to three main things: our location, our reputation, and the fact that I spend an awful lot of time out in the community talking to people.

And then I flashed back to a board meeting a few years ago. We were looking at the budget, and it wasn’t pretty. We were running a deficit again. Heck, we’re still running a deficit. Out of frustration, a board member said “How will we ever stop this slide?”

“Well, we’re hiring development consultants so we can all learn how to better fund raise. And we can’t discount the impact that the coming development will have. A rising tide lifts all boats.”

“So, you’re saying you’re pinning the entire future of this organization on neighborhood redevelopment?”

“No. But I’m saying this pending development makes me a lot more optimistic about our future, though we’re going to have to work hard to fully take advantage of it.”

Some board members nodded. Some avoided looking me in the eye. Some gave me the side eye.

And though it’s too early to say “I told you so,” I do believe these conversations are a sign of what’s to come–and a sign that a vital neighborhood will make a real difference for our museum. Of course, it’s all taken far longer than I anticipated. Of all the buildings on Ervay that changed hands in 2014, only one is under construction. Back then, we were told that things would be done and open in 2016. Now I just laugh at developer timelines. But yesterday, I had a big meeting with one of our neighbors and that project is finally starting to move forward (and it will be amazing!)

And last weekend, we celebrated another big project and big win for the neighborhood–the grand opening of the Lorenzo Hotel. This building, super visible from DHV, has been empty for years. It was an eyesore, overrun by homeless.  Initially, the redevelopment proposal was for affordable housing, and the neighborhood fought that. Today, we have a gorgeous, funky boutique hotel with a pretty fabulous bar.

There was no question about whether or not I would go to the party–I wanted to celebrate that one of the big ideas for the Cedars was complete. And when it was mentioned that a few folks were renting hotel rooms that night, I decided to splurge and get one too.

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It was a party unlike anything I’ve ever been too. Of course, there was lots of food and drink. But there were also aerialists spinning by the pool, mermaids swimming in the pool, body paint artists and fairies roaming around.

And most shocking, there was a line around the block of people trying to get in. At that party, a lot of people learned that there is life south of I-30.

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Me, with neighborhood artist Jim and friend Stephanie. We didn’t have to wait in a line to get in!

We’ve got a long way to go, both as a neighborhood and as an organization. Balancing the budget continues to be a real challenge. Quality of life issues are enormous. But I can’t help but think big and continue to be incredibly optimistic. In a few weeks, we’ll present to the Master Plan Committee and staff some initial ideas for DHV’s future, and we’ll be doing it at the Lorenzo Hotel. It just feels exactly right to think about the future in a place that is a few steps ahead of us.

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The view from my hotel room. That green stuff just to the left of the big white building is DHV. And you can barely see the Dallas flag!

P. S. I wish I could be less vague about some of these big ideas and partnerships. I want to shout it from the rooftops! (and if I see you in person, I’ll probably share). But nothing is official yet. Trust me–I’ll share when I can.

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Dramatic Inspiration: Innovative theater and museums

A few days ago, I saw a play that made me think a lot about museums. And though the story was incredibly powerful, I kept thinking about how they told it–and the implications for museums that are still wrestling with curatorial authority.

I’ve had season tickets to the Dallas Theater Center since 2014–it was one of my treats to myself when I became Executive Director. Over the years, my mom and I have seen some incredible shows. Several months ago, I got a letter in the mail about their upcoming performance of Electra. Since they were performing the entire show, would we mind switching our usual matinee time to an evening performance? From that moment forward, I was very intrigued.

Electra, that ancient Greek tragedy, is currently being performed outside in the Dallas Arts District. The audience is given headphones, and follows the actors from scene to scene–4 locations in all. Sometimes we were standing, sometimes we were sitting. The city noises of sirens and the highway added to the overall effect. At times, the actors were right in front of us. At other times, they were yards away. There were no assigned spots or seats, we were just there, together, experiencing something magical.

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When we moved from Scene 1 to Scene 2, I got really emotional as we stepped through the curtain. What was next? I have never felt that sense of anticipation during a play before. Each time we moved, there was this sense of urgency. Somehow, we had become a part of the action. We, the audience, had become deeply involved with the play, the actors, and the story.

In the playbook, director Kevin Moriarty writes about the decision to take it outside:

This not only connects back to the Ancient Greek tradition of performing under the sky, but it also allows for a more expansive acting style. . . It also locates the performance as a public event–you are hyper-aware of your surroundings, the other people experiencing the play alongside you, and your own relationship to the actors. This combination of a simultaneously public/private event and the interplay of intimate/grand emotions is central to the experience of these ancient plays.

But I can’t turn off my ED brain. What were the logistics of moving the audience multiple times? How many times have audience members gotten left behind? What was the board meeting like when this idea was first mentioned? What kind of sound technology made all this possible? How are more traditional theater goers responding?

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Amidst all the questions, there are some answers. From the moment we picked up our headset, I knew that the DTC trusted us, the audience, to come along with them for the ride. How often do we place such radical trust in our audiences? The DTC took one of the oldest plays in existence and made it feel completely fresh and current and new. All of the “radical” ideas in this production served and amplified the story. Nothing felt like a gimmick. They didn’t make these choices “because we can” but because it made for a better theatrical experience.

The last scene was at a reflecting pool. We had each been handed LED candles and stood around the pool, the lights of downtown and our candles mingling. And then, each actor went up to an audience member and gently took off their headphones, signaling the rest of the audience to do the same. The lapping of water, voices singing, and the end to an incredible night of theater. I left feeling inspired and grateful and amazed. Theaters are the king of “sit there and I’ll tell you a story” entertainment. Museums often do the same. But if a theater can involve their audience, make them feel a part of the story, while still maintaining control of the story, what can we as museums do? Perhaps the issue isn’t always curatorial authority, but rather figuring out how to take your visitors along for the ride.

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The Long Game: Early Childhood Learning at Museums

Sometimes, we forget that museum education is a long game. Next month, I’ll celebrate my 13th anniversary at DHV–and I’m still working on something that I first thought about on Day 2.

When I started in March 2004, I was able to shadow my predecessor for a few days. I remember asking her “Have you ever tried a preschool storytime?” Her response: “Oh no! My mom is a preschool teacher, and I really don’t like working with kids that age.” About a year later, I launched Barnyard Buddies, a program still going strong. It wasn’t an unusual concept–a book, a spot at DHV that connects to the book, an activity, maybe a song, and a craft.We had a blast, and the program grew, and it caused me to think a little bit differently about how to use DHV to teach.

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From a 2006 Barnyard Buddies program

But I also remember the reaction of some of my colleagues at other museums. I vividly remember a late night at the state museum conference, where we were having some tasty beverages in someone’s hotel room. Somehow, Barnyard Buddies came up and one man said “Why on earth would you let anyone younger than 4th grade into your museum? Young kids can’t understand HISTORY.” I was dumbfounded. Yes, these kids didn’t understand the origins of the Civil War, but they sure understand that life was very different a long time ago. And that’s enough to start.

Over the years, I started collecting examples of great programs and great spaces for young children. And I started collecting examples for my Hall of Shame as well. Too often, I was seeing the “children’s area” tucked into a corner, separate from the other exhibits. Too often, I was seeing very little thought put into these spaces. If we’re to stop the decline of museum attendance, shouldn’t we be doing everything in our power to attract young children and their families?

In 2010, we developed a new strategic plan for DHV that included setting aside one building for a preschool play space. The building, formerly a Law Office exhibit, needed some serious repair work. A leaking roof had to be fixed first, before we ever explored other repairs and our ideas for the space. We also began to integrate more hands-on areas in other buildings, most dramatically in our General Store.

In Summer 2013, we learned that Vogel Alcove (a non-profit providing childcare for homeless children up to age 5) was moving into the recently vacated City Park Elementary School–located directly across the street. I reached out to Karen, their ED, and we began to work together. They moved to their renovated building in March 2014, and by that summer, their kids had started visiting us regularly. And we realized that the Law Office project needed to head to the top of our priority list because we had kids itching to have a space just for them.

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Vogel Alcove uses our museum in so many different ways!

In 2015, we managed to get the roof fixed. We started talking to the donors who funded the initial Law Office exhibit project. And we submitted a Community Anchors grant to the Institute of Museum and Library Services. We wanted assistance to complete the playspace, but most importantly, we wanted the money to do a long-term evaluation of early childhood learning at DHV. Because my list of shining examples of early childhood spaces and programs at museums hadn’t grown much. And there definitely weren’t too many history museums on that list.

In September 2016, we got word that we had gotten the grant. I was in the middle of a luncheon at the AASLH conference, and all I wanted to do was dance and shout with joy. I restrained myself. Barely. I definitely can’t tell you what the speaker said that afternoon. And now the real fun has begun.

Last week, my educator, Mandy, and I did a two-hour “baseline” interview with our evaluators. We were forced to really think deeply about our educational philosophy, how we approach early childhood learning, and what our goals are for the 3 year grant period. In a way, I was also reflecting on my career at DHV.

When the succession plan was first announced, I had colleagues tell me that I needed to think twice about becoming director at DHV: “You don’t want to wake up one day and realize you’ve spent your entire career there.” I nodded and smiled, but inside I thought to myself “If I spend another 5 years at DHV as director, I’ll only be 40.” But today I started thinking about the value of that continuity–though my job has changed dramatically over the years, we’ve been able to strengthen and grow our programs in a profound way. We now have kids that were first Barnyard Buddies and are now Junior Historians. Through this program, we’ve gotten to know families. We know that our museum is an important part of their lives. How much harder is that to do at other museums where the average tenure of an educator is 2 years?

The kids that joined me at Barnyard Buddies in 2005 are now in junior high or high school. With this grant, sometimes I feel like our work is just getting started. And sometimes I feel that it’s the logical climax to the work that I began all those years ago. I truly believe that this grant will be transformative, and one result of this IMLS grant will be a new chapter in DHV’s history. We’re finally putting into words and collecting the data on all of our ideas about ways to teach history, and we plan to share it with the wider museum community.

There are so many things that energize me at work right now–whether it’s neighborhood development, fundraising, or this project. Every now and then, I get the question: so, where will you head to next? And when are you going to start thinking about that? And the simple answer is: I have no idea. I’m having too much fun right now. It’s a long game, but it’s a game that’s worth playing.

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My New Mantra

After my initial shock about the results of the election wore off, one of my first thoughts was that my job was going to get a lot harder. And sure enough, the idea of eliminating the NEA and NEH was put forward pretty quickly. I’m still waiting to see how changes to HUD and other social service programs will impact the ever-growing homeless crisis. Who knows what public education will look like with Betsy DeVos at the helm. Will field trips and informal education take another nose dive?

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I wasn’t able to attend the Women’s March in Austin, but we went to the Capitol that Saturday night. And a “We can do it” pose seemed appropriate.

But there are deeper issues at play too. In an administration that cares little about historical context, how much harder will we have to fight to prove that history matters? After an election where misogyny won, how much harder will it be as a female leader?

Overall, I’ve been pretty lucky in this job and haven’t had too many overt examples of sexism. But I keep waiting. When we were knee-deep in the homeless crisis last year, I had my guard up for personal attacks–that luckily never came. In meetings with developers where I’m often the only woman at the table, I prepare myself for mansplaining. And though there are occasional odd looks. I think it’s more that I said no to someone used to only hearing yes rather than the fact that I’m female.

But I continue to worry and prepare. Nothing about the administration’s first weeks inoffice have dissuaded me about my current fears. But at least now, I have a mantra–new words to give me strength.

She was warned.

She was given an explanation.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

There is so much work to do and so much to just be sick about. In a few weeks, I’m heading to D. C. for the American Alliance of Museums Advocacy Day. And I worry–what will the mood in D. C. be in another few weeks? How will we be recieved? How do we talk about the threats that seem to be coming from all directions?

I’ve been known for my stubborness for most of my life, so I think I know what I’ll do–I shall persist.

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A Letter to My Nieces

To Savannah and Landri:

Every year, you get books from me for Christmas. I try to pick things that you’ll like and with strong female characters. I know you don’t read quite as obsessively as your grandmother, mother and I do, but I’ve always hoped that with the right book, the balance will tip. I also know that history probably isn’t your favorite subject.

But this year felt different. Maybe it’s because you’re teenagers. But more likely, it’s because of this horrible election season. It is always hard to be a feminist, to believe in equal rights for women. But it’s been so much harder this year, with Hillary’s campaign and ultimate defeat. The world feels uncertain and scary, and you’ll be coming of age under a president who has no respect for women. What impact will that have on your future? On your self-esteem? On how you approach your career and your relationships with others?

I flipped through Dead Feminists at a bookstore several weeks ago. I liked the looks of it. I liked that I didn’t know every single name listed in the table of contents. I thought about it long and hard, read this review, and then I bought it. Of course, I also did that thing I so often do—I read the book before I wrapped it.

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Girls, I know I can’t make you read this book, but I’m really hoping you do.  Make your mom read it too. Talk about it as a family.  Each feminist is chosen with such care—and each woman’s story connects to current events. The articles are brief and the art is stunning. I hope this book will serve as a gateway for you to explore more about women’s history.

But what I loved most of all is the obvious passion the authors/artists have for social equality and justice. We all need some inspiration right now, and I hope this might be a spark for both of you. There is so much to life (even life in junior high and high school) beyond drill team and dance and boys. Volunteer. Get involved in an extra curricular activity where your mind matters most. Don’t be afraid to be smart. Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself. The feminists in this book had extraordinary courage, but it didn’t magically happen when they were grown ups. It started when they were young—and it’s time for you to start too.

Merry Christmas—and here’s to a 2017 where more women find their strength. And if you ever need to add to your list of feminists to admire, just let me know. I’ve got loads more books I could send you.

 To Lucy and Schafer:

Little ones, don’t think I’ve forgotten about you. Hopefully, your memories of this period in history will be vague. But I have a feeling I’ll be stockpiling copies of this book for when you’re older.  Your moms and I will do everything in our power to raise you to be strong, feminist women, just like us.

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Afterglow: Reflections on Candlelight

Any time you welcome thousands of people to your museum over the course of 2 days, there will be stories. Candlelight is our biggest event of the year–and our longest running. This year, we celebrated its 45th anniversary–and it was my 13th as a staff member. At the end of each night, staff gather and share some of the stories, usually with some sort of alcoholic beverage. We call it Afterglow.

I will admit that we spend a lot of time complaining and venting. Crazy things happen at Candlelight, often involving parking. One of my favorite stories of all time was when someone tried to get in the VIP lot and was denied. Man in fancy car shouted “My father is the curator! He’ll hear about this!” Max responded “Actually, my mother is the curator and she’ll be just fine.” This year, we had a volunteer refuse to serve because he had to park in a field. We also once had a truck get stuck in cistern that magically opened up. Somewhere, there’s a wonderful picture of several men staring at the hole, trying to engineer their way out of that situation.

But as I was driving home on Sunday night, I wasn’t thinking about all the annoyances and stresses of Candlelight–but how this event bring so many people together. It’s a touchstone in so many lives.

So, here’s to:

  • Ruth Ann, one of our founders, who came this year. It’s difficult for her to get around now, but she remains one of our most constant and faithful supporters.  Pretty sure she was at the first one all those years ago. (At the first Candlelight, there was an ice storm. It’s amazing they decided to try again!)

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    On the front porch of the Blum House

  • Wrene, one of our mighty Guild volunteers (the Guild does a bake sale that raises thousands. Also, there are delicious cookies!). She and her husband moved to Corpus Christi a few years ago, but she comes back every year for a week to help bake and then volunteer both days at Candlelight. And her husband plays piano in the Saloon. Now, that’s dedication.
  • Banner, almost 5, who checked with his mom last week to make sure they would still see the Green Santa.

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    Banner’s sister isn’t quite as thrilled with the “Green Santa”

  • Drew, who has been “Green Santa” for many, many years. I actually had a bit of time to watch him interact with some little ones, and he’s just absolutely amazing with them.
  • Margaret, who came to Candlelight on a first date. And then she brought that same boy back as her husband. And then this year, she brought their month old daughter. Margaret is also a fellow Hendrix alum, which makes it all even neater.
  • Gary, my predecessor, who was finally able to enjoy Candlelight as a visitor–and brought almost his entire family with him!
  • Gail, who started out cooking in the Blum House kitchen with her Junior Historian daughter. But Grace couldn’t make it home from college in time this year–and Gail still came. This year, younger daughter Sophie spent Candlelight assisting with Nip and Tuck. Love seeing entire families get involved at DHV! (Dad Steve is also Chair-Elect.)
  • Ron, who started setting up his childhood trains in the Depot several years ago–and was featured on tv last week. It’s a lovely story.
  • Drew, one of our volunteer photographers, who came both days of Candlelight, plus on Friday afternoon to capture this amazing shot. All of our volunteer photographers do amazing work, but Drew gets a gold star this year.(He took most of the photos in this post. He also gets a gold star because he texts me the good ones while I’m laying on my couch, unwinding.)

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    We moved this carriage for a special photo op–and had to get a few funny photos! 

  • Cedars neighbors, who showed up in force. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that I ran into so many of them in the Member’s Lounge, which also happened to be the only place at DHV where you could get an alcoholic beverage. . .

I could go on and on. This is an event that takes many hands, but is so important to so many. Shortly after I took over, we worked on a new vision statement and eventually landed on “a place to make history.” We wanted this vision to be both about being active participants in the past, but also acknowledge how this museum fits into many people’s lives. Though Candlelight may not be one of those events where people learn a lot of history, a lot of history is certainly made each year. And that’s an awfully important role that a museum can play.

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On this historic election day. . .

The polls don’t close for another several hours, but I’ve already been teary several times today. We still have a long way to go before we get anywhere near gender equality, and yet, this day still means so much to me as a feminist and a historian.

Today is a profound response to:

  • The guy who walked into my apartment during a party, spotted my “votes for women” banner and started spouting off on those crazy feminists and how they are ruining the country. I looked him straight in the eye and said “Yes, you’re in the home of a feminist liberal and you’re drinking my booze. You can either shut up and stay or walk out the door.” He stayed. We didn’t become friends.
  • The guy at the bar who was trying to pick me up. Don’t remember how the conversation shifted, but suddenly we’re talking politics or work or something. And then he said “Don’t tell me you’re a F%&*ing feminazi.” He didn’t understand why I started yelling at him. Also, he didn’t get my number.
  • My grandfather, who didn’t understand why I was “wasting” my time studying women’s history. Of course, he may have been more upset about the African-American portion of that work.
  • The many men at various meetings that end up with this look of amazement and surprise when it becomes clear that I do know what I’m talking about and they can’t  pull one over on me.
  • Those that questioned whether I could handle the ED job–because I’m a woman. And how can a woman lead? Especially in Dallas?
  • My former colleagues at the now defunct Women’s Museum, who wished the timeline was a little less negative–and chose to shy away from the more difficult topics surrounding women’s history.

Today, I’m wearing white and purple, for the women that came before me, fought this fight, and made my current life possible.

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I’m thinking about Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul–as well as the countless others who fought beside them. I’m thinking of the tears I shed when I was in Seneca Falls, standing in the ruins of the building that started this movement in 1848.

And now I’m going to attempt to get back to work, as Hillary would, because there is still so much to do. But first, I might sneak a peek of the livestream of Susan B. Anthony’s grave–and cry just a little more, before the big tears come tonight.

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Teamwork for the Exhibit Win

Last month, I headed to Detroit for the American Association for State and Local History‘s annual meeting. It’s always an inspiring few days, but sometimes that inspiration comes from rather surprising places.

As a general rule, I don’t love art museums. As someone who doesn’t know much about art, I want to learn about art when I visit an art museum. But so many art museums stick with a very basic label formula–artist, title, medium, date. I’m always left wanting to know more. Maybe I should just stand there and let the art wash over me, but that’s just not how my brain works.

But I knew I wanted to visit the Detroit Institute of Art. They’ve been through hell and back, and if nothing else, I wanted to support them. Plus, I do enjoy Diego Rivera.

Jenn and I were completely blown away. It is a massive institution. The collection is incredible. But even more amazing–I learned about art!

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Loved how casual this was.

Everywhere we turned, there was an interesting tidbit on a label. An invitation to look more closely, ask questions, all those things that I want to do in a museum. There were simple, low tech interactives. Decorative arts were mixed with fine art. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed myself so much in an art museum.

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One of my favorite exhibit rooms–the entire gallery was about portraits, and this label invites you to compare the two dominant styles of the period and decide which you would prefer for your own portrait.

And then we wandered into the Great Hall. And the Diego Rivera murals. It was breathtaking. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to work in a truly “fancy” museum–I think I would be less likely to get away with jeans.

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No way to really capture the scale. I think what I loved the most was the contrast between the murals and the architecture of the building.

It also is worth mentioning that every staff member we encountered was absolutely delightful. Security guards asked us great questions and shared their favorite piece in a gallery. Volunteers seamlessly directed us through galleries, pointing out certain pieces and sharing great stories. We had so many great conversations about art during our visit–which is exactly what is supposed to happen at a museum! From the labels to these interactions, it’s clear that the DIA is working to make their enormous institution more personal and more accessible for all.

One of my former staff members now works at the DIA, and we met for lunch. I started raving to her about how wonderful our experience had been and she explained that every single label in that museum is written by a team–a curator and an member of the interpretation staff.  Just by the nature of the positions, there’s also usually some sort of generational divide as well. So, all those labels had been discussed and fought over by multiple people.  That push and pull between curatorial and education garners some pretty powerful results.

At a small institution, it’s a lot easier to work on teams. If you need another set of eyes, you have to go outside of your department–because you’re a department of one! That’s such a harder thing to do at a large institution.  If nothing else, it inspired me to make sure we continued to work on exhibits as a team at DHV. If the DIA can do it, we can do it too!

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Lessons from Fair Park

It seems everyone in Dallas is talking about Fair Park right now. And it’s not just the usual fried food anticipation that comes with every State Fair season. A few weeks ago, an old friend asked me on Facebook “Will you explain the Fair Park issue to me like I’m five years old? I don’t really understand what’s going on.” My response: “The Powers That Be want to fix something and are surprised that other people also have thoughts.”

I’ve written about Fair Park here before.  In the 9 months or so since that post, I continue to be deeply concerned about the future of Fair Park. I also continue to be deeply concerned about the lack of understanding in the community about how non-profits work.  But lately, I’ve mostly been fascinated.  This whole mess has more than a few lessons for non-profit leaders.

(For those that aren’t local and want to catch up, I highly recommend checking out the stories by Robert Wilonsky or Jim Schutze.  There are so many nuances to this whole situation, and they have already explained it as well as possible.)

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Lesson #1: If you know that there’s a contentious issue coming up at a board meeting, don’t try to limit the discussion.  Back in July, the Park Board was all set to discuss the management agreement with the foundation. When they arrived that morning, the agenda had been changed at the last minute and limited to just six items. Five Park Board members walked out.  There was no longer a quorum, and the meeting ended.  It was a powerful reminder that boards do in fact have power–and there should be a power balance between the ED/Chair and the rest of the board.

Earlier this summer, I presented something to my board that I was expecting to pass with little discussion. Instead, there was a lengthy discussion, a second discussion a month later, and an email discussion. Ultimately the proposal passed, but certainly not on the timeline I had envisioned.  But you know what?  That’s okay, because it means my board is doing their job. No non-profit leader should ever expect everything to sail through, especially on really big decisions.

Lesson #2: Stop underestimating the power of social media. If this transfer had been attempted even 5 years ago, I think it would have been a smoother road. People just weren’t as active and engaged and informed as they are today–and it’s all through social media. There are twitter accounts solely dedicated to this issue. Hundreds of people have shown up to meetings about Fair Park. By all appearances, this has caught quite a few people completely off-guard.  Back room deals, the bedrock of Dallas politics, just aren’t as easy any more.

Lesson #3: Take every opportunity you can to explain non-profit mechanics–and how you serve the community. There has been a lot of vilification of non-profits on social media over the last several months. Many assume that non-profits aren’t held accountable for their actions. Though there are certainly some accountability issues in the current management agreement, people don’t realize that non-profits are accountable in a thousand different ways–to board members, the public, funders, partners, etc.  And people also don’t realize how many management agreements the city already has with private non-profits. We’ve been in a management agreement with the city since the 1960s.

Lesson #4: If people are accusing you of not being transparent, change your actions. There are many, many things that baffle me about the current situation. The board of the foundation has yet to meet, but they’re presenting to the city a management agreement and a budget. This just seems totally backwards to me.  Board members are fiscally responsible–shouldn’t they have some input?  They should have been meeting for a year before they ever introduced a formal contract to the city. And yet, no changes are being made.  Instead, threats are being tossed around that this must be voted on in September–OR ELSE.  And so people are deeply worried about various shenanagins. As they should be.  It’s just baffling.  Also, here’s the funding chart that was presented to the City.

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If I had presented that to anyone, I would have been laughed out of the room and out of the job.  And perhaps that’s what frustrates me most about this whole situation. It appears that they’re being held to an entirely different standard than other non-profits. And that’s bad for all of us.

The worries continue about Fair Park. But at least it’s another opportunity to learn how to be a better Executive Director. Just do the opposite of the folks trying to take over Fair Park.

 

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