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.

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.

 

 

 

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.

A different kind of community anchor

A couple of years ago, I was sitting in a professional development workshop, taking a quiz about how connected we were with the community.  The quiz deeply frustrated me—Dallas Heritage Village is located in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country.  Major institutions in the city routinely have close to a million annual visitors.  Our annual budget isn’t even a million dollars.  The second most visited history institution in Texas (behind the Alamo) is a few minutes’ drive away.  And this quiz was asking me if the mayor had ever visited my museum?  And how often other city officials attended events? I asked the facilitator: “If you’re a small organization in a big city, how can you begin to make those kinds of connections?”  They stared at me blankly.  Part of me wondered if perhaps there were some other ways to measure community engagement.

Museum people spend a lot of time talking about becoming engaged with their community, and I think most of us acknowledge that this is a key to future sustainability.  For many museums, this may mean program partnerships, collaborations, and efforts to get your audience demographics closer to your community’s demographics.  This is incredibly important work, but for me, the definition of a community anchor has become infinitely more complex—and infinitely messier.

Dallas Heritage Village is located on the edge of Downtown Dallas, separated by a major interstate.  We are also in the middle of a redeveloping neighborhood known as the Cedars. This redevelopment has been a long time coming, but it’s also been incredibly rapid.  Eighteen months ago, DHV was a virtual island; today, we’re working with 6 new partners within walking distance.  When all of this began, I knew that we had to make sure we were a part of the conversations.  New eyes were turning to the Cedars, and I wanted to make sure that everyone knew who we are, what we do, and that we had been here all along.

City Park, 1880--future site of Dallas Heritage Village
City Park, 1880–future site of Dallas Heritage Village

And I suppose this is where my thoughts about museums and community really began to change.  Internal strategic planning was put on hold, because external factors were changing too rapidly.  And I started to have meetings with people that history museum directors usually don’t interact with.

First, it was the real estate developers.  They saw our land (27 acres in all) and said “Oh, look! A park!” And I said “Not exactly.  A nationally accredited history museum in a parklike setting.”  Then they said “Oh look! Parking!”  And after multiple meetings drawing up a parking lease, we had to say “No, we can’t lease park land to a private developer.”  Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would create a folder called “Parking Issues,” but that folder is resting happily in my files because the issue will likely come up again.

In January, there was a meeting called by city staff to discuss the formation of a task force for our neighborhood.  But somehow, despite the fact that we are the largest landowner in the neighborhood and the fact that we are on city land, with city owned buildings and city funding, my invitation never arrived.  A close relationship with our councilman and a neighborhood activist got me a seat at that very large, round table.  Looking around, I was astonished to realize I was the only female at the table.  And I was even more astonished when a developer (whom I had not yet met) said “No matter what our plans end up being, Dallas Heritage Village will always be the showpiece of the neighborhood.”  And thus, my annoyance about not being invited in the beginning was tempered by the fact that I didn’t have to explain how valuable we are to the development plans.

Then it was the traffic and transportation people.  In the winter, I got an invitation to a meeting to discuss updating a strategic plan regarding transportation issues for downtown.  My first thought: this must be a mistake.  My second thought: Even if it is, I’m going to show up.  So, I did my homework, pulled up the existing transportation plan, and discovered that there was a proposed streetcar line through the middle of our property.  On a street that had been grass for several years at the time this plan was released.  And with that, I had no problem fitting that meeting into my schedule.

A few weeks ago, I got a call from the Texas Department of Transportation.  They are currently doing a massive study and plan for all of the highways around downtown Dallas.  I arrived to a meeting at a downtown high rise to be greeted by traffic engineers, urban planners and architects.  Though I had been sent an official set of questions, we never got to them.  They said “How does Interstate 30 affect you?” and I was off and running.  I’m not sure they were expecting me to be able to talk about those bigger issues, but in the last several months, urban planning has become a lot more interesting to me.  This meeting was supposed to be an hour; it lasted almost two hours, the day before a holiday weekend.  But the most surprising aspect of this meeting is the way they kept asking “What did I-30 do to the neighborhood?” The last 30 minutes of the meeting were spent looking at aerial pictures of downtown pre-I-30 and talking about the damage that interstate did.  (In my head, I was cheering “History at work!”) At one point, I made a comment to the traffic engineer “I hate to place all the blame on your predecessors,” and he said “Oh no.  I don’t see any reason why they did what they did.  This makes no sense.”  In some way, that comforted me.

Aerial shot 1975
City Park, post construction of I-30. 1975.

But it’s not all urban planning and real estate developers and traffic engineers.  Last week, I had two meetings about the growing issue of homeless encampments along our perimeter.  Our north border is the interstate, and there is a median between us and the access road.  Just over a year ago, TxDoT rescinded the Criminal Trespass Affidavit it had with the Dallas Police Department.  Now, the only way DPD can clear those camps is if they witness an active criminal act.  Because it’s not our property, our hands are tied, but it’s deeply affecting us.  Homelessness is an incredibly complex issue, and there aren’t a lot of answers for the service resistant.  And yet, our historic buildings, our staff, and our visitors are at incredible risk.  So, in one day, I had meetings with a VP of public safety for downtown, city attorneys, the office of our state representative, and the head of crisis intervention with the DPD.  There aren’t a lot of answers, but at least I now have the assurance that we’re all working together for the same goal—finding the best solution for these individuals and the neighborhood.

As a former educator, my heart will always lean towards the warm and fuzzy stories of community engagement.  But from a practical standpoint, community engagement means so much more.  It means getting involved in local politics—not just making sure the local politicians are invited to your events, but making sure you’re being included in the important conversations shaping your city. Sometimes it means showing up at meetings that may only have a peripheral connection to your organization.  Most importantly, it means educating yourself on the issues, whether it’s urban planning, homelessness, or traffic flow.  My job has changed in profound ways as a result of these efforts, and it’s also changing my museum.  We’re becoming more externally focused, more flexible, and more creative.  We’re becoming a community anchor, not just for the Cedars, but for all of Dallas.

This blog will help me chronicle that story and hopefully provide some guidance for those that may be facing similar issues.  Won’t you join me?