Best year ever?

Last night, while catching up with a fellow nonprofit friend, she said to me: “All that shit you’ve gone through over the last few years is turning into manure!” Now, she works for a garden, so these kind of metaphors are natural for her. But I do love it, and it may be a new mantra.

Our annual meeting was a few weeks ago. By some metrics, this has been a pretty terrible year. But we’ve also had some incredible wins, many of them years in the making. Though this has been shared on the DHV blog, I thought it might be fun to share the year in review here, with all of you. With a few bonus links, just in case you want to know more about a few of these things.

2019–The Year in Review

At this time last year, Dallas Heritage Village was facing some pretty big challenges. We didn’t know what would happen with our city funding. Our budget was up in the air. Key staff were departing, and it was unclear when we would be able to replace them. There was turmoil and uncertainty, to say the least.

And it’s not as if things instantly got better. We did receive a $70,000 cut in our city funding, after all sorts of political twists and turns. The weather has generally been terrible for just about every event, and Candlelight had its lowest attendance in years. We had more staff turnover. Our longtime curator, Evelyn Montgomery, discovered greener pastures and left in January. Also in January, Tuck, one of our beloved donkeys died. The Ambassador Hotel burned to the ground. And to top it all off, we spent most of last spring dealing with sewer line issues, complete with porta-pottys for months and a $40,000 price tag. Sometimes, we do feel that there must be a black cloud hanging over DHV.

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But as I reflect on the past year, I think it’s also safe to say that this has been one of our best years yet. In February, we welcomed Joe McGill and friends to Texas. Joe is the mastermind behind the Slave Dwelling Project, a national effort to bring the story of slavery forward. We had some great partners, including the City of Irving and the Dallas Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Project. We offered multiple programs, and in spite of the miserable weather, people came and had difficult conversations about our complicated past. And people are still talking. We plan to bring Joe back next May.

This project was also a chance for one of our new staff members, Lisa Lopez to shine. She joined us in mid-November, which meant she had to dive straight into Candlelight. She also managed the logistics of the Slave Dwelling Project and did a fabulous job. As Director of Visitor Experience, she also manages our frontline staff and our school tour program. Her job is very big, but we’ll be able to hire her some help very soon.

A few months ago, we were chosen to participate in the American Alliance of Museums Facing Change: Advancing Board Diversity learning cohort—a group of 50 museums nationwide. This program is working to address issues surrounding board diversity and inclusion. The Texas cohort includes some familiar names for you: the Perot Museum, the Witte Museum, Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, and more. We’re looking forward to truly getting started on this work later this fall.

For the past year, we’ve been working hard on reinterpreting Millermore. And maybe reinterpreting isn’t the right word. Expanding might be better. For most of our history, we’ve focused on William Brown Miller and decorative arts. But as we began to dive into our files and primary sources, we realized there are many more stories to tell—and lots more people to talk about. We began this work last fall—and then right in the middle, our curator up and left. And then there was another opportunity for a staff member to shine. Elizabeth Qualia had joined our staff as part time curatorial assistant in Fall 2017. We promoted her to full time Curator of Collections and Interpretation—and then handed her this giant project. We have radically changed how we talk about Millermore—we start in the cabin and talk about slavery. We end in the sitting room with walls full of family trees of both the black and white Millers. In between, we tell the story of Barry Miller, local politician, and his daughter Evelyn, a writer. And so much more. Even more exciting for some–almost all of the barriers are down. The new tour format launched last week, and I invite you to join us soon for a very different conversation.

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Other new faces at DHV include Wolf Landrum. He also joined us in Fall 2017 as  a handyman—though we’ve known him for a very long time. He’s a longtime volunteer, and most importantly, his husband has been our St. Nicholas at Candlelight for a decade. When Evelyn left, we made him our full time Buildings and Grounds Conservator. It has been years since we’ve been able to dedicate an entire staff position to the care of our grounds. He has a lot of work to do, but I hope you can see some progress.

Aidan Wright joined us in February as Membership and Marketing Manager. He was also a familiar face—having worked as a history host a few years ago. He’s doing some great stuff on social media, and I hope you’re enjoying the “What the Artifact?” series!

But I want to talk a little bit more about Sydney Abdo, our brand new Rentals Manager. We have literally watched Sydney grow up at DHV. She was one of my summer camp kids, hanging out in my dearly departed Pages from the Past camp with Terri Brown’s daughter Isabel. She became a Junior Historian and worked on the Doctor’s Office exhibit. A few years ago, she joined our staff as History Host. When Stephanie made the decision to accept a full time position, she told Preston and I that we really needed to think about Sydney as her possible successor. And here she is.

That story encapsulates some of what makes this museum so special. Though we have plenty of visitors that we see once for a few hours, we also have many people that have made this museum an important part of their lives. People like Barbara Brockett, Queen of the Clothespin Doll, who recently passed her crown to Angie Gamez, longtime history host. Lynn Vogt, whose grandmother got this whole thing started and became a Life Trustee at last week’s Annual Meeting. Jorge Esteban, a brand new board member, who will be getting married at DHV next month.

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There’s a lot to be proud of. A lot to be grateful for. Many, many people to thank. And though there are many things about this past year I would not like to repeat, I’m incredibly proud of all that the staff and board has accomplished. Even as we have waded through literal poop.

 

During the Annual Meeting, we also announced two record-breaking gifts to DHV.

In June, we received $165,000 to fund a full-time Early Childhood Educator position that will be shared with our friends and neighbors at Vogel Alcove. This is a direct result of the 3 year IMLS grant we’re just now wrapping up, along with work that I began as educator many years ago. This new staff member started last week, and we are thrilled! It’s the largest gift from an individual donor in years, and she’s someone I’ve been building a relationship with ever since a thank you phone call where she said “Tell me more about Vogel Alcove. I’ve never thought about homeless children before.”

In September, we received $500,000 over 5 years to fund our animal program and restore various animal areas throughout the Village. One of my friends joked: Does this mean the donkeys are going to be expecting Evian water now? This gift was from the Joe and Doris Dealey Foundation and is the largest foundation gift in our history. We’ve been in conversation about this project for years as well.

More big gifts are in the pipeline as well. All that manure is definitely turning into some beautiful fruit!

Me and Lady Mary

A few weeks ago, I joined a friend to see an eagerly anticipated movie–Downton Abbey. It was exactly what I thought it would be–a soapy drama with fabulous clothes and British accents. But there was this one moment that caught me totally off guard, and it had me stifling back sobs and wanting to cheer at the same time. If you run a museum, you may know what scene I’m talking about.

It’s right before the King and Queen’s visit, and Anna is Lady Mary’s room helping her get dressed. Here’s my rough memory of the conversation:

Lady Mary: “Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth carrying on.”

Anna: “You mean Downton Abbey?”

Lady Mary: “Yes. When I was out in the rain moving chairs. And then planning this party. And worrying about the roof. Is this how I want to spend my life? It’s just all so difficult.”

Anna: “But Downton is the heart of the community. We’d be lost without you.”

Sound familiar, fellow museum people?

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It had been a rough weekend. Earlier in the month, we had made the decision to close one of our signature houses, the Blum House, due to ongoing deferred maintenance issues. It had been at the top of our priority list for years, but our fundraising efforts just weren’t going anywhere. With it’s fancy metal-shingle roof and elaborate gingerbread, the costs were staggering. It wasn’t an easy decision, but we also needed to bring attention to the immense deferred maintenance needs both at DHV, as well as at all city-owned cultural facilities. We believe in transparency, so after the board voted, we sent out the announcement in a very systematic way: first to staff, then the full board and city partners, then e-newsletter subscribers, and then social media. All of those groups responded the way we anticipated–sadness and concern. Except social media. We were getting a beating. Some very vocal folks couldn’t believe the estimate we put out there–$650,000. Some blamed us for not taking care of this city-owned structure, but didn’t really fault the city. Others thought we shouldn’t be asking for help, since their tax dollars already took care of everything. I could go on. It was a very long weekend.

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So it was under that weight that I went to see Downton Abbey. It was a relief to turn off my phone for a few hours and not think about roofs and rotting wood. But then Mary started talking about roofs and the enormous task of keeping a place like Downton functioning, and it came flooding back. Suddenly, I understood Mary in a very different way. Perhaps we’re more alike than I realized, though I have yet to find any sort of wealthy suitor, much less husband.

Of course, throughout all of the online drama about the Blum House, things were happening behind the scenes. There were those that spoke up in our defense. There were two reporters that reached out to us to get the full story. Their articles are here and here. I spent over an hour on the phone with one reporter, and the result was an article with the headline: DHV Executive Director: “Maintenance is not Sexy.” Always fun to see something I’ve been casually saying for years in a headline! A few old friends reached out and asked how they could help. We’re getting to know a few new friends. Meetings and conversations are happening, not just about restoring the Blum House but how to get more support to DHV.

As Lady Mary also knows so well, old buildings are expensive to maintain. They were built and established when ways of funding them were far different. After all, the entire show is about how to adapt the business model in rapidly changing times to keep the estate going. And you can say the same about my museum career.

Yep, Mary, it’s exhausting and often thankless work. But in the end, it’s worth it. Most days.

Preparing for the hard stuff

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about intimacy at the workplace. No, not THAT kind of intimacy, but rather emotional intimacy. Think about it: these are people that you spend a very large chunk of your life with. But have you ever been emotionally vulnerable in front of your colleagues? Have you ever talked about the bigger, life issues, beyond the day to day work of running a museum?

I first experienced one of those moments of intimacy back in 2012, when a coworker that had been at the museum for 20 years, died of cancer. Though she had been fighting cancer for years, her final decline was very rapid. At her funeral, probably half the crowd had some connection with DHV–whether they were volunteers, board members, donors or fellow coworkers. It was a very traditional Episcopal service, and I remember thinking how strange it felt to be participating in that ceremony with colleagues. We had never really discussed religion beyond the surface level. After all, that’s not something you do at work. And yet, there we were.

Just last month, we made the incredibly difficult decision to put down one of our beloved donkeys, Tuck.

He had retired from active wagon-pulling duties a few years ago due to arthritis, and we had been treating him with medication. But eventually the arthritis got to a point where the medication wasn’t doing much, and he was in a lot of pain. We were lucky enough to be able to plan his last days. We made sure key people knew that it was time to say goodbye and gave them the option of being notified of when the end would come. When that day came, staff gathered around him. He had many, many treats and nose scratches. Some staff left, but some of us stayed until the very end. There were many, many tears–that donkey had quite a hold on our hearts! But we cried together and shared kleenex and hugs. We went to lunch as a group and toasted Tuck–some of us with Moscow Mules (because why not?). As hard as that day was, it really couldn’t have been better.

This weekend, we’ll be sharing a very different type of intimacy. Joe McGill of the Slave Dwelling Project arrives tomorrow. On Friday night, many of us will be spending the night at the Miller Log House, built as a pioneer home but given to Arch and Charlotte, (two of the people William Brown Miller enslaved), once Millermore was complete. After Friday night, we’ll know who snores and talks in their sleep. Everyone will know how weird my hair can look in the morning.

More importantly, we’re going to be having some really tough conversations about slavery, racism today, interpretation and the weight of history. We’re going to be faced with our biases–both those that we have as individuals and those we have as an institution. It will be an emotionally exhausting weekend.

This is the kind of thing that could be an absolute disaster for some teams. But I know we can handle it. We’ve been preparing for this weekend for months. There are the obvious things–diving into the primary sources, making sure all staff knows as much as possible about the 13 enslaved African Americans at Millermore, having tough, honest conversations about all this history–and preparing for the variations in visitor reactions to this history. But there are the little things we’ve been doing too–regular staff meetings for the entire staff. Cooking lunch on property. Making sure there are always cookies at meetings–and making sure our gluten-free staff can enjoy them too. In general, just caring for each other as people, not just colleagues.

It has been an incredibly difficult year for us, with lots of challenges and staff transitions. And yet, we’re in a better place than we’ve ever been. I realized how far we had come as we worked through Tuck’s death together. I’m convinced that this weekend will transform DHV on many levels–from how we tell history to how we help each other through the next hard thing, whatever it might be.

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?

It’s time to talk about toxic loyalty

“I’m miserable in my job, but I can’t leave until I finish this major project in two years.”

“I keep thinking that my next boss will be better.”

“I feel terrible about leaving my staff behind in this terrible situation.”

We probably all have a friend that has said something like this. And for those that aren’t in the museum field, the answer often seems so obvious: the job or institution doesn’t love you back. Take care of yourself first. Just leave. And yet, so often, museum colleagues hang on to jobs, not because they can’t find something else. Not because they need to stay in that area for family or financial or other reasons. They stay because they feel some sort of deep loyalty to an institution. They stay because of a passion for the field or the subject or the work. Sometimes that loyalty is rewarded, but often it just becomes a trap. In a recent conversation about this big issue, a friend and I hit on another way to describe this situation that occurs far too often in our field: toxic loyalty.

Think about it. That loyalty keeps you tied to a place. It keeps you from thinking objectively about your situation—or if things at the institution can ever become better. It paints you into the corner of thinking that even though you’re absolutely miserable, you are the right and only person that can hold that job. It’s another way to layer on guilt as issues and concerns pile up.

In the meantime, you’re not considering other options. You’re not polishing your resume. You’re not looking for the kind of place that will appreciate you and your talents and your skills.

Lately, I’ve had this conversation with far too many colleagues. But each time I say the words “toxic loyalty” they pause. They get this look on their face. And they realize that they’re slowly poisoning themselves with this mindset. Loyalty is supposed to be this wonderful attribute–a thing that you want in your staff. But what if it isn’t always a good thing?

So, let’s bring this phrase into the museum lexicon. Is your loyalty to your institution helping you as an individual? Or is it hurting you? Is that loyalty the warm, fuzzy feeling it should be? Or something else entirely? Do you have a friend or colleague that needs to hear these words to shift their thinking?

We spend a lot of time thinking about how to make workplaces better, but I believe we also need to remember that it’s okay to say “There’s not a darn thing I can do to make this any better, and I need to move on for my own health and sanity. And the institution will probably carry on as it has before, with or without me.” Sometimes, we have to put ourselves first.

Balancing Act: Organizational Structure

A few weeks ago, a friend texted me: “Did you have staff turnover?” Honestly, I’ve been waiting for that question. We all know how much gossip there is in the museum world–and we all notice when organizations start posting lots of openings. We have been posting a lot of job openings over the last six months–and we’re not done yet. It’s been a combination of planned restructuring and people just deciding to move on. It’s meant things have been crazier than usual, and some staff are temporarily taking on work loads that are heavier than I’d like. So, what exactly are we up to?

Last summer, I sat down with a small team to start thinking about our budget. Like most organizations, personnel is the largest chunk to consider. Were we spending that money in the best, most efficient way? Were we getting the job done with the positions we had? We know we need to grow our staff (and suspect that growth is coming with our changing neighborhood), but we also know that can’t happen right away. But was there a way to position ourselves in such a way to make that growth smoother?

As a smaller, cash-strapped organization, sometimes our job descriptions just don’t make sense. The best example of this is probably our Administrative Assistant. When she was hired, her primary job duties were to take care of field trip reservations and provide some light admin help to our Director of Sales. We quickly figured out that she was awfully good at social media, and so we bumped up her hours a bit and gave that task to her. She’s doing a great job at both, but when she moves on, how will we find someone that can do both?

Thinking about this particular position got us to thinking about all of our positions. So, we made a giant list of all of the key functions that have to happen in order to keep the museum running. And instead of grouping them by the people currently doing the jobs, we grouped them by the actual function. Should our curator with a shiny PhD be spending time calling plumbers?

As we began re-crafting job descriptions, I began to also think more about the actual organizational structure. We had a very flat structure–a long line of people without much below them. There had been several issues over the last few years where some staff weren’t chatting with their colleagues before making key decisions. Though we are small, it seemed like we weren’t talking to each other enough. I wanted some sort of symbol that better indicated how we were all working together towards the common good–the visitor.

What I ultimately came up with is far from perfect, but it’s closer to the way I think we need to function. Instead of several departments of one or two, we have three departments: Engagement, Advancement and Operations. The chart is set up like a Venn diagram, with myself and the board at the center. We still have a reporting structure in place, but there’s also a team leader for each department that may or may not be the person everyone reports to on that team. (A good example of this is Engagement–the Educator is the team leader, but both she and the Curator report to me.) I also added some other teams that aren’t on the chart, but still need to meet regularly: Exhibits and Facilities.

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A few DHV staff members and our city council rep at the moving of the Blue House last week.

None of this is fully implemented, because we’re not fully staffed yet. And we’re taking our time to hire these new positions–we can only train so many folks at a time. We’ve rolled this out in two phases, so we were able to stagger the announcement of new positions. Essentially, we took one FT position, split it into two part-time positions. And then we took two other PT positions and reshuffled them. So, same number of people, but balanced in a different way. As we rolled out these changes, we talked first with impacted staff and told them they could apply for the new position, but their position would no longer exist after a certain point. By the end of this year, we’ll have more new faces than we’ve had in quite some time.

A few weeks ago, we hired one of those brand new positions–Membership and Marketing Manager. She comes with a broad nonprofit background and already seems to be fitting in well. And on Monday morning, we’re having a meeting because she has four pages of ideas and it’s time to chat about them. Which is exactly why we’ve made all these changes–new brains. new ideas as we continue to move the past forward.