Armchair Leadership

For the past year, change has been brewing at Fair Park, located just a few miles from Dallas Heritage Village.  This remarkable spot in Dallas is home to the largest collection of Art Deco structures in the nation, the State Fair of Texas, and many museums and cultural organizations.  But many people think it’s completely broken and needs total transformation.  Some commentators have even suggested bulldozing the buildings and starting over–since the cost of rectifying the deferred maintenance is so high.

My museum career began in Fair Park, during a summer internship at the Dallas Historical Society.  This was in the late 1990s, just after Fair Park had been named to the National Trust’s Most Endangered List.  The fabulous Art Deco murals on the Esplanade were being restored, and it was so exciting to watch the progress.  I spent the next two summers at the Women’s Museum, both doing research on the history of the building and helping prepare for the grand opening in 2000.  Since joining the staff at Dallas Heritage Village, we have worked with the Dallas Historical Society on many projects, as well as Texas Discovery Gardens.  I am also a member of Texas Discovery Gardens.  I visit Fair Park often for a variety of events and frequently bring out of town visitors to see the remarkable architecture.  For me, it has always been a year-round destination.

I just sent a letter to council members, outlining some of my concerns about the current proposal.  For me, the big elephant in the room that isn’t being discussed is the future of the many resident institutions.  From the first plan presented at the beginning of the year to this most recent presentation, their voices have been silent. Each of these institutions has their own relationship to the city, whether it is through an Office of Cultural Affairs contract or a Parks contract.  How will those relationships change?  How will these institutions remain autonomous, even as they are part of the bigger picture of Fair Park?  Will they maintain their city funding or will those funds all be directed to the Foundation?  A change in the funding structure for these small institutions could have a dramatic impact on their financial sustainability.

But there are a few things I didn’t say to Council.  Namely, how deeply disappointed I am at the lack of visible leadership from the resident institutions.  Their voices just don’t seem to be a part of the conversation. And it’s also clear that they haven’t actively inspired their community of support.  When I read the online comments, people will occasionally mention Texas Discovery Gardens or Dallas Summer Musicals, but they rarely mention the Dallas Historical Society.  And I’ve yet to see mention of the African American Museum or the Children’s Aquarium–or the million of other things that happen regularly on these historic grounds.  Something is missing in the leadership of Fair Park.

Now, I know it’s really easy for me to say “If I was a director of one of those institutions, I would. . . and that would change everything.”  But I’m going to do it anyway.  If my institution was located at Fair Park, myself, a staff member or a board member (or all of the above) would be at every single meeting discussing the future of Fair Park.  I would schedule meetings with every council member.  I would keep my members up to date and encourage them to write their council members.  I would write editorials.  I would make sure that the powers that be know about my institution and our place in Fair Park and in the city.

Our voices may not make a difference, but silence will certainly not make a difference.  There’s a reason why developers are now keeping me in the loop on pending development projects in the Cedars–they know that I show up to things, ask questions and speak up.  They’re pledging to make sure that we’re a part of the overall vision for the neighborhood.

I just started reading a recent publication from the American Alliance of Museums, Cities, Museums and Soft Power by Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenberg.  As they explain it, “soft power is the ability to influence behavior using persuasion, attraction or agenda setting.  Where the resources of ‘hard power’ are tangible–force and finance–soft power resources are intangibles, such as ideas, knowledge, values and culture.”  Of course, like any form of power, soft power isn’t an automatic–it has to grow through relationships and conversations.  It may be too late for Fair Park to start using what little soft power it may have, but it’s certainly giving me a lot more reasons to continue doing what I’m doing at DHV.  With the work I’m doing today, one of my hopes is that developers will never look at our land and ponder bulldozing everything on our historic park land to make something new and shiny.

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Mapping the future

Highway design usually isn’t a thing that museum directors have to think about, but when your northern border is an interstate, it comes up.  In my very first post here, I talked a bit about my surprising meeting with TXDoT officials as part of the CityMAP project.  Since that meeting back in July, there have been several articles about the project, as well as a few public listening sessions.

There are so many remarkable things about this project.  It apparently began with Commissioner Vandergriff in Austin noticing that Dallas has been having a lot of disagreements about highway projects (namely, whether the Trinity Toll Road should be built and whether I-345 should be torn down.  For the record, I’m against the toll road and undecided on I-345).  So, he realized that maybe there should be a series of conversations about what the community’s priorities are, so that when highway funding became available, he would know how to direct those funds.

Let’s pause for a moment with our collective gasp.  A Texas politician is looking for wide, broad based community input?  According to their one sheet guide “the goal of this effort is to develop a set of transportation, urban design, and adjacent development scenarios with associated investment considerations for the major urban interstate corridors identified.”

As I was waiting for the last of these listening sessions to begin about 10 days ago, I couldn’t help but think how shocking this whole process would be to those who planned I-30 over 50 years ago.  Though I haven’t done the historical research, I’m pretty sure they didn’t do a single community listening session.  Today, people are clamoring for more parks, green space and walkability.  Fifty-plus years ago, they thought nothing of taking half of the land of the city’s first park.  They thought very little of destroying homes and neighborhoods.  For 5o years, the Cedars has been fighting to overcome the damage that highway caused.  Only recently has real development begun, at least in our corner of the Cedars.  And now, there are a chorus of voices asking for solutions to bridge I-30 and reconnect the Cedars, Dallas’ first residential neighborhood, with downtown.

During the meet and greet, I ran into one of the architects that had been at my meeting.  He said two things to me that I found pretty amazing.  First, he said “You know, I keep talking about our meeting.”  Though I can’t know for sure, I’m wondering if that day back in July was truly the first time they had looked at the historic aerials and realized the damage I-30 caused to traffic flow in and around downtown.  That comment sure supports that suspicion (and also causes me to do a bit of a fist bump for history!).  And then he said: “One of my personal goals for this project is to make sure DHV is easy to find for anyone.”  I, of course, thanked him profusely.  And later, I thanked him again for being an advocate for the Village.

I did my duty and followed the rotation to each station, all highlighting a different area around downtown.  And then I got to our map.  I was with a friend who happens to live in the Cedars, so together we jumped right in.  “This, deck it.  Link DHV and Farmer’s Market.”   And we just went from there.  I think the moderators were a little surprised at our passion!

During the summary portion, the Cedars moderators stated at the very beginning “Every group mentioned the need to link DHV and Farmer’s Market.”  (well, actually they called us Dallas Heritage Park, but I suppose I can get over that.  Maybe.)  And then, the very next day, Willis Winters, the director of Parks, was interviewed on NPR.  He stated that he had 3 priorities for deck parks–and DHV and Farmer’s Market was #2.  So, it was a pretty good 24 hour period.

Why does all this make me so happy, especially when the optimistic side of me knows it will probably be 15 years before any of this happens?  Well, for years, this has been an idea DHV has been advocating, but we always felt kinda lonely.  We’re not alone anymore–there are lots of people that also believe that healing the rift caused by the construction of I-30 is something that can and should be done.

We have a proposed strategic plan under review by the board right now, and one of the main focuses is community involvement.  One of the supporting parts of this is the need to be active and engaged in conversations about the future of our city.  During one of the conversations with the board, a trustee asked “But where’s the money in this?”  I had a pretty good answer for her, with actual dollars, but the real reason why it’s in the strategic plan right now is this: The conversations happening in this city right now will shape the city for the next 50 years.  Dallas is at a turning point.  And if we don’t want to be left behind, we have to be at the table.  The visitors will come, and the money will come.  But right now, we have to attend a lot of meetings, participate in a lot of conversations, and plant a lot of seeds.  And in the meantime, I’m learning an awful lot about urban design and highway planning.

Two Years

I’m still not completely sure how I feel about Facebook’s memories that pop up unexpectedly in my feed.  Over the last two weeks, four of them have been about what I was up to two years ago.  I’ve never had Facebook hone in on a year quite like that before  But how on earth does Facebook know that was such a turning point in my life?

Two years ago, I was in an Indianapolis hotel room, alternating between a comfortable bed and a very uncomfortable couch with my roommate, Natalie.  Luckily, we became friends almost immediately (which certainly makes sharing close quarters easier!), and now, two years later, I certainly count her among my closest friends.

Graduation Day at SHA
Graduation Day at SHA

We were attending SHA (Seminar for Historical Administration), a three week professional development experience organized by the American Association for State and Local History.  When Gary and I first began talking about the possibilities of me becoming Executive Director, I knew I needed to somehow broaden my experience and prepare a bit more.  SHA seemed like the best, most practical choice.

When I arrived in Indy, I was Interim Executive Director.  But after a rather disastrous executive board meeting, I wasn’t sure if I would ever lose the word interim.  In fact, my thoughts at the time were to get through SHA and Candlelight, and in January, I would start looking for a new job.  Today, I’m most definitely Executive Director with the full support of my board.

Two years ago, I sensed that the neighborhood around us was changing.  Vogel Alcove had begun construction on their new home at City Park Elementary, and I knew that there could be a good partnership there.  DHV’s property at 1610 S. Ervay had been placed on the market, and there was almost immediate interest.  We had certainly worried that it would sit for months, if not years.  During SHA, I spent a lot of time talking about the future of these two redevelopment projects.

Last Thursday night, I accepted the inaugural Community Partner Award from Vogel Alcove for our ongoing partnership.  Not only are we doing practical things, like sharing parking and mulch, the kids are using our museum regularly.  There are twice a month, curriculum connected field trips.  I presented on this partnership at AASLH in September and have been asked to write an article about it for The Public Historian. We’re currently working on a major grant together as well.

As for neighborhood redevelopment, two years ago, I was excited about 2 new neighbors.  Today, five major redevelopment projects (all in historic buildings) are set to begin construction soon.  Two of these are new cultural non-profit friends.  Talk is beginning about a new cultural district for the city.  Very soon, we will no longer be surrounded by big empty buildings.  DHV will no longer be an island.

Two years ago, I lamented how difficult it is to have our voice heard, since we’re a small museum in a very big city.  Last year, I led efforts to get Dallas ISD field trip funding reinstated for science and social studies.  We were successful.  By building better relationships with the city’s elected leaders, we got $45,000 to repair three leaking roofs.  Through efforts that I’m a minor part of, overall city funding for the arts has increased each of the last two years.  This has resulted in another $20,000 for our operating budget.  And just the other day, I was complimented by a new board member for the role the museum is taking as we participate in the current swirling conversations about the future of Dallas.

Two years ago, I knew I had a great state and local network, but really didn’t know people nationally.  This past summer, I was able to visit with two SHA friends during trips.  And at this point, AASLH conferences can only be described as marathon slumber parties.  But it’s not just SHA friends that have become part of that network–though those SHA friends are the best part of that network.  We may have shut down a bar one night.  In our defense, the bar did close at midnight, which seems early.

I can’t give credit to all of the good things that have happened in my career and at DHV to SHA two years ago.  But I do know that SHA helped build my own confidence in my leadership abilities.  I know I gained new tools to analyze and react to new opportunities. And, perhaps most importantly, I gained some pretty amazing friends.  I’m the first of my museum educator peers to take the big step into leadership, and I was feeling pretty lonely–the museum world definitely looks different when you’re the boss.  Two years ago, I found my people for this stage of my life and career.

So, I guess I should forgive Facebook for continually reminding me of where I was two years ago.  It was a good place.  And I’m in an even better place today.

Notes to Self

Just returned from Louisville, where I was attending the annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History.  And before I get back involved with the day to day of running Dallas Heritage Village, here are a few notes to myself I’d like to make for next year’s conference in Detroit.

  • Don’t agree to present at two sessions.Yes, both were important topics (advocacy and partnerships) and it was an honor to have two sessions accepted. However, I didn’t get to go to a session that wasn’t my own until halfway through day 2.  And I know I missed good things.  Two sessions also meant that the prep work for the conference was a wee bit more intense.  On the bright side, both session were well attended and we got lots of great comments.  So it was totally worth it, but I would have liked a bit more flexibility in my schedule.
  • Don’t begin the conference with a sleep deficit.  It’s unlikely that I’ll have a college reunion the weekend before ever again.  However, because I’m one of those people that likes to see as much of a city as possible (and I knew I had two sessions!), I decided to make sure that I arrived early enough on Tuesday to do some exploring of Louisville.  Alas, that meant a 7:45 a.m. flight departure.  By the time I got to Louisville, all I cared about was lunch and a nap.  Instead of exploring, I dozed and watched old episodes of Friends and Modern Family.  I should have just caught a later flight.  Sleep is gold during AASLH!
  • Remember the SHA pin!  This is the only time where it makes sense to wear it, and by God, I earned that pin!
  • Pack snacks.  I was a good girl and got up for breakfast twice.  But as the conference exhaustion set in, I probably would have been happier with a granola bar and in room coffee.  Instead, I skipped breakfast and was starving.  Usually, I do this.  Not sure why I didn’t think about it this time around.
  • Bring the travel neck pillow.  I bought mine years ago in anticipation of a long flight to Hawaii, but I haven’t taken it on a trip since.  I hate carrying it, but it would have been so wonderful to have it yesterday for the flights home.  Because I was sleepy!

And here are a few things that I was smart about, and that I probably shouldn’t forget for next time.

  • Pack multiple options for layers.  This was possibly the coldest conference I’ve ever been to.  In some rooms, you could feel a temperature drop of 10-15 degrees as soon as you walked in.  So grateful that I had more than one sweater, because there wasn’t ever a time that I wasn’t wearing some sort of layer.
  • Carve out time for special friends.  My first AASLH was in 2008, and I really didn’t know anyone except a few friends from Texas.  2012 was slightly better, but I still spent most of my time hanging out with neighbors.  And then I went to SHA in 2013, and I suddenly had a national network.  I have one special friend in particular, and we made sure to set aside some time just for us.  Of course, she also brought her adorable baby with her, so there may have been an ulterior motive of baby snoogling on my part.
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The SHA 2013 Class was well represented–and this isn’t even everyone who came!
  • Bring a small purse.  I hate overpacking, but having a small bag for evening events (rather than lugging the giant conference bag) was really nice.
  • Take one official, offsite tour.  I spent Wednesday in Frankfort and it was delightful. You have a bit more time to explore an institution than during an evening event, and you’re more likely to get some behind the scenes scoop.  I adore behind the scenes scoop.  I’ll probably never get to eat lunch in a Governor’s Mansion again, but that was definitely a perk.
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I don’t think we’re used to this level of fancy at conferences.
  • Don’t be afraid to shut a bar down.  You can sleep when you’re home.

Where I’ve Been and Where I’ll Be

This has been another summer of travel, mostly museum related, and there’s more travel ahead.  Part of me has grand dreams of writing some thoughtful posts about some of these trips, but the practical side of me is starting to dump items off of the to do list.  It seems like my only hope of keeping afloat.

So, here’s a brief account of where I’ve been and where I’ll be.

In July, I had the opportunity to make a return Peer Review visit (a program with the American Alliance of Museums) to the Renton History Museum. They’re a great local history museum, just outside of Seattle.  It’s always a pleasure to return to a museum, and it’s rewarding to see if the report I submitted had any impact.  One of the highlights was seeing their fabulous photo booth that went with their “Furry Friends” exhibit–further proof that delightful exhibit moments don’t always cost a lot of money.

In August, I headed to a tiny town outside of Pittsburgh to do a first Peer Review visit to the West Overton Museums.  They have about 18 buildings on their original sites.  It’s a wonderfully rich site, with lots of great industrial history.  It’s also the birthplace of future robber baron, Henry Clay Frick.  Lots of good ideas floating around, but my job was to help them focus a bit.

During that trip, I also crossed something off the Historic Site Bucket List: Fallingwater.  Wish there were fewer people on the tour, but I know that this home is on a lot of people’s bucket lists.  Even with the crowds, it was a magical experience to be in the house.  And the visitor’s center was one of the best I’ve ever seen.

I also spent some time at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.  I’m always inspired by a good children’s museum and firmly believe that history museums could learn all sorts of things about exhibit designs from children’s museums.  The official reason of that trip was to chat with Chris Seifert, Deputy Director, about their Charm Bracelet Project–a unique community/neighborhood development project.  I was hoping he would inspire some thoughts about what’s ahead of DHV and our neighbors in the Cedars.  And he did!  Lots of good ideas to ponder.  I also stopped by the Mattress Factory, Carnegie Museums, and of course, the Heinz History Center.  A good friend gave me an after hours tour of the Fort Pitt Museum.  I also really enjoyed the Phipps Conservancy–so many pretty plants!

Last weekend, I headed to East Texas with the family for a 50th Wedding Anniversary party of one of dad’s cousins.  Hearing about the family history is fun, and we even did a driving tour of Timpson, where a few generations of Prycers farmed.  Of course, I didn’t love seeing the “old Prycer place” in such disrepair, but I am very tempted to go back and exploring it further.

Next weekend, I’m heading to Fayetteville for a mini-reunion of the college gang.  I’m also hoping to make a quick trip to Crystal Bridges.  I’ve been there before, but I really want to see their progress on rebuilding a Frank Lloyd Wright house.

And then on Tuesday, I head to Louisville for AASLH.  I’m doing two presentations–one on unique partnerships and one on advocacy.  The advocacy session will also be a part of the online conference–which means I’m going from never having presented at a national conference to three presentations. I love conferences, but I’m also anticipating being very, very tired (and possibly “all museum-ed out”) by Friday.

Finally, on October 1, I’ll be speaking at the Stone Fort Museum in Nacogdoches.  They’re opening up a new exhibit on 19th century diseases–and I’ll be talking about the literary portrayal of consumption.  It’s a talk based on an article that was published several years ago.  I’m really looking forward to wearing my historian hat too.

So, it’s not like I’m anticipating my life calming dramatically in October, but at least I’ll be home a bit more.

End of an Era?

Like all snarky liberals, I stayed up late on Thursday night to watch the end of an era–Jon Stewart’s last episode of The Daily Show.  I’m sad that he’s leaving for many reasons, and Trevor Noah has some awfully big shoes to fill.  I know that it won’t be the same, but I sincerely hope that Noah likes historians half as much as Stewart.  As one of my friends said on facebook “What I love about Jon Stewart is that he is as (or more) excited about his historians as guests as his entertainment friends.”

During his final stretch, historians continued to be featured.  Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough and Sarah Vowell all made appearances.  Of course, it might make sense that a snarky historian like Vowell would be a regular on The Daily Show.  And McCullough and Goodwin are some of the most widely read historians today.  These aren’t exactly obscure folks Stewart is interviewing.  But let’s face it–shouldn’t we ecstatic any time a historian sits in the same chair as a Hollywood celebrity?  I can’t think of another popular medium where historians and their books are regularly featured, honored, and promoted.  This is public history at its finest.

But if you dig deeper into Comedy Central’s schedule, you’ll find there’s a greater love of history there than well, maybe some other network that calls itself the History Channel.  I never really got into Drunk History, but they’re doing a heck of a job of skewering both well known stories and those that are hiding in the shadows. I hate that I love Another Period, but it cracks me up on a routine basis.  It pokes at so many different angles of the early 20th century–and there are plenty of jokes that will fly right over non-history nerd’s heads, which is awesome.  How often do history nerds get the “insider” jokes?

None of these things are “serious history” but I’ve long believed that part of our problem as historians is that we often take ourselves too seriously.  History is the story of humanity, and people can be awfully funny.

I know The Daily Show will change with Trevor Noah as host (and honestly, it should feel different).  But I sincerely hope that I’ll continue to delight in interviews with some of my favorite historians–and they’ll get exposure to a broader audience.  And maybe one day, there will be more than one place in this world where historians are treated the same as Hollywood celebrities.

Wardrobe Conundrums

Back in grad school, I talked myself into buying a totally useless (but very pretty!) dress by telling myself “But I might need a fancy dress like this for exhibit openings or fundraisers.”  Even though I had never previously worked at a museum that had lots of fancy dress occasions, I just assumed that my future career path would lead me to glamorous parties that required beautifully appropriate clothing.

I thought of this today when I climbed a ladder to check out some roof repairs.  I didn’t know I would be climbing a ladder when I got dressed this morning, so I was quite grateful to be wearing flats and pants.  And, of course, this isn’t the first time I’ve had this kind of thought during my career at DHV.

Fashion decisions can be really hard at a place like DHV.  We have a lot of land, a lot of buildings, and some extreme weather conditions.  Over the years, I’m not sure how many shoes I’ve bought that felt comfortable in the store but spectacularly failed the DHV test.  I get super excited if I find a skirt or dress with pockets.  I refuse to buy pants that don’t have pockets.  There’s an entire section of my closet devoted to the necessary layers for Candlelight.

Since becoming ED, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about clothing, and I’ve never been that kind of girl before.  Part of it is the struggle to strike the right balance–some days, I need to look professional but still be comfortable enough to move a table.  And then there are those unpredictable emergencies when you don’t exactly have time to change. Example: we had a flash flood in June, and I waded into knee deep water to clear a drain.  I was wearing a dress.  In fact, of the 7 staff members that responded to the emergency, 4 of us were wearing dresses.  The dress survived, but my shoes didn’t.

The other struggle is to make sure I look like I know what I’m doing.  When I took the job, I knew I was young for the position (34 when I became ED–36 as of tomorrow).  What  I didn’t realize until later was just how much younger I was–it didn’t matter if I was in a room of other arts leaders, non profit leaders, or museum leaders, I was typically the youngest by at least a decade and usually more like 20 years.  Now, I knew I wasn’t going to stop dying my hair and start showing off my gray hair, so I just thought harder about what to wear at certain meetings.  And I started to carry nicer purses.  Dallas can be a very label conscious city, and I refuse to spend big money of clothing (see above flood incident).  But purses will probably not be in a flood situation, and I can get a lot more bang for my buck.  Plus, they’re really pretty and make me happy.

Finally, there are the random parties and invitations that can cause all kinds of angst.  Last fall, I was invited to an evening dinner fundraiser.  Now, I had my set outfit for luncheon fundraisers, but shouldn’t evening be different?  When I asked the friend that invited me, she said “it’s a real mix of cocktail and business attire.”  What the heck does that even mean?  I spent more time than I should admit agonizing over that one night, and probably tried on 4 different outfits that day. (For the record, I went with a gray dress and rhinestone jewelry.)

Right before our 2014 History with a Twist event. Notice the flip flops, which I kept on as long as possible. Even said in a Facebook comment: “The best thing about that dress is that it looks fabulous and allowed me to do things like haul giant palms.” At the 2015 Twist event, I wore 4 different pairs of shoes that day and my feet were still killing me. The struggle is real.

There were two things I did shortly after being named ED for my own sanity levels.  I hired a maid to come twice a month.  And I joined Stitch Fix, with the instructions that I needed to upgrade my wardrobe for my new position.  Because the other fashion conundrum: I don’t have a lot of free time to shop, and I realized I had a lot of gaps in my wardrobe.  My feminist side constantly tells me: “Stop worrying so much about what you wear!  No one cares!”  But I also know that I’m representing DHV at these various events and meetings, and that just makes it more complicated.  I have joked often with Gary (my predecessor) about how much easier he had it, only having to decide tie or no tie, jacket or no jacket.

So, about that fabulous purple dress I bought in grad school?  After moving it from North Carolina to Texas, from my parent’s house to two apartments and to my own house, I finally gave it to Goodwill several years ago.  I never wore it.  Not once.  But I do now have a fabulous collection of random Western attire that fit in perfectly with DHV’s former gala theme of Gone to Texas.  Which is no longer needed since we’re now doing a 1920s theme. The wardrobe conundrums will never end.