Babel: Sifting through the noise

Right now, some theater kids in Dallas are doing some of the most amazing historical work I’ve ever seen.  Cry Havoc Theater Company is a young organization, formed in 2014 , full of active and involved young people. I first heard of them when they opened their play, Shots Fired, a play about the July 2016 police shooting in downtown Dallas. What intrigued me wasn’t so much that they were doing a play about recent events–it was that they had interviewed so many people directly connected to those events.

I missed the first run of the show, but a museum colleague and I attended when they brought it back in July 2017. Both of us were incredibly moved, and at the same time, our museum educator brains were working overtime. Here were these kids, taking documentary evidence about a very complex subject, and turning it into a compelling narrative. They were historians! They’re also pretty great actors, and at times, I completely forgot how young they are.

We chatted with Mara, the founder, after the performance. The informal education community in Dallas is pretty tight-knit, so we already knew each other and were able to openly rave about what we had just seen. It was then that she mentioned the origins of their most recent production, Babel. They were going to tackle one of the most contentious issues of our day, gun violence, and they were heading to Sandy Hook, Washington D. C., and the NRA Convention (conveniently held in Dallas last May) to talk to as many people as possible. There has been amazing media coverage through our local NPR affiliate of their journey to create this play.

The idea of documentary or devised theater was new to me, and I remain incredibly intrigued about the possibilities of blending these techniques with museum programs. After all, it’s not totally unlike what we’ve done with some of projects through our own Junior Historian program at DHV. Mara wrote in the program notes for A History of Everything (from January 2018):

Devising theater isn’t for the faint of heart. Each sixty seconds the audience sees onstage in the final performance takes roughly sixty minutes to create. In devised theatre, a lot of really great ideas get worked and reworked only to be discarded hours or days later. The process is tedious and time-consuming. It takes herculean self-discipline and a willingness to leave ego at the door. For this reason, very few adult, professional theatre companies devise theatre. And there are only a handful of youth theatre companies in the United States that solely produce devised works. We are one of them.

I saw Babel about 10 days ago, this time with another museum colleague and her family. It’s a long, sprawling play that hits every nuance in this debate. It was as emotional and gut-wrenching as expected. What I didn’t expect (and should have known better since I’ve worked with a few teens over the years) were the injections of humor and sarcasm and the occasional f-bomb into the show. You can read some more great coverage of the performances, now over, here and here and here.

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Another powerful note–the set was surrounding by shoes–one pair for each death due to gun violence since January. It was over 7,000 pairs.

But why talk about a teen theater company on a blog ostensibly about museums? Besides the obvious of “finding inspiration everywhere” or my usual soapbox of believing that teens are capable of far more than we give them credit for, I believe this is an incredible example of historic relevancy. In this field, we spend a lot of time moaning about how to connect with young people. Or current events. Or whether we should even talk about current events. And at the same time, we often make it out like history is this magical, mysterious thing that only certain people are allowed to create. We, as a field, neglect to show the process of DOING history, and with that neglect, we’ve helped create a world that is incapable of collecting a variety of sources, analyzing them, and forming some sort of narrative to share with others.

But the teens of Cry Havoc show that it can be done, even with incredibly difficult subjects. Did some people walk out during intermission? Yep. On the other hand, did almost everyone in the theater after the two-and-a-half-hour show stay to talk about it some more? Also yes. These kids are on to something, and there are lessons in there for all of us that work to teach the public something.

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Of Beer and Neighbors: Welcoming Four Corners Brewing to the Cedars

On Friday, I had the most meaningful beer I’ve ever had.

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Most of you know what’s happening in the Cedars. Back in 2014, a lot of major buildings on Ervay (one of DHV’s borders) changed hands–with significant redevelopment plans. Promises were made with projected opening dates of 2016. All of those buildings remain quiet for a variety of complicated reasons.

Months after that initial flurry, Four Corners Brewing announced they were moving from their original location in Trinity Groves (West Dallas) to the Cedars. This was a different kind of development plan–an established business expanding–and though the last announced, they’re the first to open.

I don’t remember exactly when I first met Greg, one of the co-owners, but I remember how I approached that first meeting. Meeting new potential partners can be a little like dating–the main purpose is to get to know each other. You don’t want to reveal everything on that first date. What if your special brand of crazy shows too early? My goals for that first meeting were pretty simple–I really just wanted them to know who we are, that we like beer, and determine their timeline. Of course, I had lots and lots of other ideas. After all, I love craft beer almost as much as I love museums. But it seemed a little too forward to put all that out there on the first meeting.

But then Greg and I got to talking. I learned that he had volunteered at DHV as a kid back in the 1980s. I learned that he was already thinking about ways we could partner. So, I pretty much shared all of my ideas at the first meeting. And I don’t think I scared him too much, since we’ve kept talking.

Of course, with any construction project, there are delays. Their original opening date was supposed to be in March. But when the tap room opened for the first time on Friday, I was there. And I had a beer. And it was delicious.

But it’s not just about the beer. The completion of this project is such a clear articulation of the vision so many of us have for the future of the Cedars. They took an overlooked, historic building (it was originally the stables for the Ambassador Hotel across the street), beautifully updated it, and created a new community gathering space.

Last night, we hosted a DHV members happy hour. Many familiar faces were there, but by far, the most important person there was Ruth Ann. She’s one of our founders and has been involved with us for over 50 years. Ruth Ann graciously declined a beer, but she just had to see what our new neighbors had done with the building. She ended up chatting at length with Greg, both about the business and the neighborhood.

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Greg, one of the co-owners, chatting with Ruth Ann. Past chair Don is also listening in.

As we were chatting, she said to me “I’m so amazed at what you’re doing. You’re just one of the most clever people I’ve ever met.” And I turned to her and said “I don’t know, Ruth Ann. You’re pretty smart too. You saw what the museum and this neighborhood could be all those years ago, when there was absolutely nothing.” I guess our mutual admiration society continues.

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Trying to ride the wave of all this neighborhood redevelopment is exhausting. Sometimes it is frustrating. It certainly requires a lot of patience! But the last few days have reminded me why we keep going. If the presence of Ruth Ann at a brewery on a Tuesday night doesn’t speak volumes to the faith and loyalty our supporters have in both the museum and the neighborhood, then I don’t know what will.

And it continues. Tonight, I had drinks with another neighborhood partner, also giving new life to a fabulous historical building. It will be an unprecedented partnership, one I can’t talk about quite yet. But it’s yet another reminder of how naturally collaboration comes to our organization. The difference now is geography. Finally having neighbors–and our mutual desire to work together–will transform the museum in ways that were beyond my wildest dreams when I took the Executive Director title 3.5 years ago. I think we can all drink to that.

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.

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.

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.

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.

 

When History Comes Home: Aftermath of Dallas Shootings

On Thursday, July 7, I was watching a recorded episode of The Daily Show and decided to do one last Facebook scroll.  A friend that lives downtown posted about shots fired at that evening’s protest.  I thought to myself “Hmm. That’s interesting.” And then I saw a few more posts and realized that I should perhaps start watching live TV.

You all know what happened next.  That night, I turned off the tv around 12:30, stunned and numb and so very, very worried about my city.

When I woke up the next morning, I laid in bed for a while, listening to NPR, scrolling through social media. As I drove into work, I started thinking about how DHV should respond.  Because I knew we had to respond in some way.

The problem with becoming a community engaged museum is that when tragedy strikes your community, it hurts a lot more.  We’ve worked with a lot of officers to make the neighborhood safer.  We host monthly crime watch meetings. We’ve become good friends with various political leaders.  And it’s not just “we the museum” but also “me, Melissa.”

When I got to work on Friday, I sent a quick email to staff: we were going to be free that day. And then I posted the following on DHV’s Facebook page:

Today, we are grieving with our entire city over the terrible events that took place last night. We know that many in our neighborhood are directly impacted by these events. Though it feels like such a small gesture, today we’re offering free admission. If you need a place to reflect, we have a beautiful view of the skyline, shady trees, and two donkeys that are happy to give hugs. We love you, Dallas.

I also shared it on my personal page. This one little post garnered more Facebook likes and shares than anything we’ve ever done. Many of my friends, even non-local ones, shared it as well, praising me.  Here’s some of what they said:

High School friend: And this is why Dallas is the best. Melissa Prycer I’m sure you had a lot to do with this and I applaud you. What a great place for people to find a little peace.

Book Club Friend: The world is a dark and miserable place, and all we can do is be kinder. Here’s my friend Melissa, doing what she can.

Book Club Friend:

From Dallas – a community resource being the voice of reason. And offering free hugs in the midst of turmoil. Thank you Melissa Prycer! you and your organization are a breath of sanity – for your city, and for the country

All of Friday, I continued to be stunned–not just to the events of Thursday night, but to the response of what I considered to be an obvious and far too small gesture. But no other cultural institution offered free admission as a response. Every other institution seemed to have a fairly standard “thoughts and prayers” response, not one that connected directly to our neighborhood. And people seemed to notice.

I’m not here to call out my local colleagues, many of whom had to close for a few days as the crime scene was processed. But I am here to say this to the field: how sad is it that people are surprised when a history museum responds to current events? Isn’t that part of our job?

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Here in Dallas, we’re still grieving and processing. But I am so damn proud of my city right now. Recently, a friend of mine called me a “civic leader,” and when he said that, I twitched a little. Those just aren’t words that feel right for what I’m doing. The contrast between my last few days and what friends like Adam Medrano (our councilman) and Kourtny Garrett (ED of Downtown Dallas, Inc) have been through makes me very glad to be leading a small history museum on the edge of downtown. I’ve at least gotten some sleep.

I confess that I avoided the prayer vigil on Friday and the candlelight vigil last night. I just wasn’t ready to grieve in public with others. But tonight, as usual, we hosted our monthly crime watch meeting. Our awesome officer, Jeanette Weng, was there. Much of the meeting was business as usual, but we had cookies. And we offered hugs, which she gladly accepted. I know I wasn’t the only that teared up a bit tonight.

I will never understand why museums hesitate to become more involved in their communities. But perhaps if we hadn’t had our joint battles about unsheltered homeless or highway design, I wouldn’t still be grieving. If we didn’t host crime watch and neighborhood association meetings, we wouldn’t still be grieving. It may feel safer to remain distant. But if we hadn’t taken these steps, we also wouldn’t be quite so proud of how well our city is handling this tragedy. And we certainly wouldn’t have been prepared to respond when history came to our front door.