It’s not just about us

Somehow, two big projects I’ve been working on for eons landed at City Hall for big votes on the same day. In truth, I found this highly annoying. Seriously, what are the odds? And who wants to spend all morning at City Hall?

Spoiler alert: both projects passed unanimously. And though on the surface, the two projects are very different, their origins are rooted in the exact same question: are there needs in the neighborhood that we can meet through our existing assets?

The story begins in late 2014, several months after I became ED. Some conflicting ideas came up about how to use certain museum spaces, so I gathered key staff together for a series of meetings. We sat down and discussed each and every one of our buildings. The public spaces. The office spaces. The storage spaces. We asked ourselves a series of questions: what is the highest and best use for this building? What needs to happen to get this space to reach its highest and best use use? We saved the most challenging building for last–the Park Avenue House.

Back in 2004, my first office was located in this house. It’s one of two homes on their original locations, facing the historic City Park land. Past master plans had called for that building’s demolition. But the 2006 master plan was sitting on a shelf, and meanwhile, the building was starting to really fall apart. With the rapid gentrification of the Cedars, we knew that original Cedars homes are rare and becoming more rare every day. These two homes tell an important story of what the neighborhood used to be, and there’s no one better to tell that story.

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So, we made the decision that we needed to figure out a way to save that house. But it was going to cost a lot of money. It was currently being used for storage of items that didn’t need super-great environmental conditions–so exhibit cases, stanchions, signs, things like that. Even with my non-expert eyes, I knew renovation would be six figures–and who is going to give us money for storage? With our current staff size, we didn’t need additional office space. So, what is a purpose for that building that might attract funding? Was there an opportunity for us to provide some stability in a neighborhood where all rents were skyrocketing? And could that opportunity also result in some revenue for us?

 

Looking back in the file, my first email about this idea was sent to the Office of Cultural Affairs at the City of Dallas (they own all DHV buildings) in spring 2015.

Around the same time, we started looking at updating our master plan. The neighborhood was changing–and our former plan, with a visitor’s center facing east, no longer made sense. With major properties being purchased to our west and south, we realized that we couldn’t have a back side. The master plan had to reflect the new reality of the Cedars.

We formed a committee and started exploring options. We have about 26 acres under our control. The core of the museum experience is on about 13 acres. The parcels that were undeveloped currently serve as overflow parking. But with the changing neighborhood, what was the highest and best use of that land? We don’t need more historic buildings to maintain. We only need that land for parking a few times a year. Our biggest need is a Visitors Center–and we just didn’t need all of that land to make that happen. But there was something the neighborhood desperately needed–a public park. The Cedars has no public park. They once had the only park in the city, but now it’s a ticketed museum. So, what if we turned some of our land back to the neighborhood and created a public park?

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We first shared the new master plan with the public at our annual meeting in September 2017. Though there were some questions–what about Candlelight parking? Will we ever be able to take down fences?–the general feeling was (and still is!) excitement. This is something different.

Around the same time, I became aware there was about $800,000 available for a district wide project. Could some of that money be directed to DHV?

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So, I began to put together a proposal for the Park Avenue House. The city wasn’t used to a non-developer asking for TIF funds. They had to create a new application for us. Lots of back and forth. Lots of meetings. We developed a heck of a plan–and a different way of thinking about possibilities for these funds.

Last Thursday, my architect, Craig Melde, and I presented the master plan to the Park Board for approval. It passed unanimously. And then, I headed to the Cedars TIF Board to request $650,000 to renovate the Park Avenue House and turn it into leased office space for other nonprofits. It also passed unanimously.

These projects are far from over. The Master Plan represents the beginning of a capital campaign that will probably be in the $25 million range. To receive the $650,000, we have to raise another $550,000. This money will be used to fix the house next door, take care of pretty things like landscaping and furniture, and establish a maintenance endowment for both buildings.

Though both projects will certainly benefit DHV, the ideas that are being applauded came from us looking not at what we need, but what our community needs. How many museums do you think are asking those kinds of questions? How much more sustainable would museums be if they looked at both internal and external needs before coming up with big ideas?

So, yes, it was annoying that both votes landed on the same day. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. We are inextricably linked to our neighborhood, and it’s making us a better museum. How many other museums can say the same thing?

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.

Other duties as assigned

Last week, I had a lengthy interview with a local reporter about the homeless encampment just on the other side of DHV’s fence.  Since July 2014, we’ve had a steady stream of individuals that have chosen to live next to the I-30 access road, behind our Farmstead.

About halfway through that interview, I said to the reporter, “When I became a history museum director, I never dreamed that I would also become an expert on local homeless issues.”  But this isn’t going to be a post about the complexities surrounding homeless issues in Dallas–after all, I’m hoping that this is an issue unique to us and our urban environment.  However, the odds are good that at some point in your career, you’ll also be facing a difficult, complex issue, whether internal or external.  Though this issue is far from resolved, I thought it might be helpful to share a few lessons I’ve learned over the past 18 months.

Get to know your local political representatives TODAY.  My first meeting with Adam Medrano, councilman for District 2, was in March 2014.  It was just a getting-to-know-you general tour.  In the following months, we invited him to our fundraiser, I got to know his assistant, and ran into him occasionally at the neighborhood restaurant.  So, when I wrote my first email asking if there was any way he could help with the homeless encampment that had popped up on our perimeter, he already knew who I was and what the museum meant to the neighborhood.  Our first communication wasn’t about an issue, which made it a lot easier once there was an issue.

Do your research.  In this case, I began reading a lot more articles about homeless issues in Dallas.  We have a much larger tent city under a nearby overpass, so I follow any developments with that, knowing that our smaller camp will also be impacted.  And as painful as it may be, read the comments on social media.  It helped me learn what trigger words to avoid in any communications I made about the issue.  It’s also a prime way to identify potential advocates–or people to be very careful around.

Communicate constantly.  Over the last year, I’ve had a lot of meetings about this issue with a lot of different people–city attorneys, elected officials, police, and people working directly with the homeless.  I make sure that staff and board know about each of these meetings and what I’ve learned.  When a reporter showed up to talk about the encampment with no warning (and I was offsite), I let my board chair and our PR people know immediately.  And when the story aired, I made sure to send the link to the board, along with an assessment of any potential repercussions.  (For those that don’t follow journalism about homelessness in America, it can be very easy to be made out as if you hate the homeless simply by not wanting them to camp near your property.  This was what I worried about–how might DHV’s reputation be impacted by this story?  The good news is that everything was mostly fine.)

Have friends to whom you can safely vent.  In some ways, homelessness is the third rail of politics.  I have to be very, careful of what I say, but the whole situation is deeply frustrating.  No one should be living next to a highway, whether they’re next to my museum or not.  And all of this has been going on for a very long time.  It’s good to have a few people that I can share my frustration with–so it doesn’t accidentally leak out in public.

Start working today on better understanding and increasing the soft power you hold in your community.  Several weeks ago, I picked up a newish book from the American Alliance of Museums, Cities, Museums and Soft Power.  The majority of the case studies feature internationally known art museums, so the connection to our issues and opportunities was slim at best.  However, there were several times I found myself nodding.  Without knowing the term, I’ve been steadily increasing our soft power in the community for the past two years.  So, what is soft power?

According to the authors, Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenburg, “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.” (p. 9)  So, what does this mean when facing a neighborhood homeless crisis?  DHV matters in a very different way than the new developers or the homeowners.  I saw this immediately in response to an incident last July: a cooking fire turned into a small grass fire uncomfortably close to one of our historic structures.  Within a few days, I was able to line up a series of meetings that neighbors had been trying to get for weeks.  And, of course, I made sure to have a neighbor with me at those meetings.  Soft power also means that we’re not the only ones asking the city for help on our behalf.  Two different neighborhood associations have asked for assistance on our behalf, as well as scores of friends via social media, calls to the police and more.  Our neighbors want to protect DHV as much as they want to protect their neighborhood.  If your complex issue is at all external, your institution’s soft power will be invaluable as you work through things.

This issue is far from solved, both in the city at large and in our own neighborhood.  In fact, in recent weeks, both our encampment and the larger Tent City have gotten larger.  But we have a pretty amazing team, forcing the uncomfortable conversations and working towards a solution that will serve both the homeless and the neighborhood.  And as the neighborhood’s fortunes rise, DHV will also rise.