Sometimes, the answer is “not great”

Next week should be one of my favorite weeks of the year–the annual meeting of the American Association of State and Local History. It’s a time to start growing new ideas, catch up with old friends, and make connections. But if I’m being perfectly honest with myself, I’m actually really dreading it.

At a professional conference, what is usually the very first question someone asks you?

“How are things going at work?”

And if I was to be perfectly honest, my answer right now would be “Not great.”

In mid-July, shortly after returning from a wonderful MAP (Museum Assessment Program) review in Montgomery, I got a phone call from the Office of Cultural Affairs at the City of Dallas. You know, the department where we get 20% of our funding? We hadn’t done well at all at our bi-annual panel review–and our city funding was at risk. Though there are nuances to the scoring, it really boils down to diversity and inclusion issues.

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Millermore, completed in 1862

The next several weeks were full of meetings and tough conversations–with the staff, the board, and the city. As an organization, we have never fully faced the truth: we were founded to save the home (Millermore) of a prominent local slaveholder. And we are in a city that is ranked as one of the most racially divided cities in the nation. You’ve seen the headlines about Confederate Memorials and Botham Jean. Long before the call from the city, we began taking steps to start facing all this. We were exploring options for cultural awareness training. We planned to begin a deep dive for all staff into the primary sources for Millermore so we can tell the stories of everyone who lived and worked there–enslaved and free, men and women, first and second generations, children. And we were already in talks to bring Joe McGill of the Slave Dwelling Project to Dallas, in what would be just his second visit to Texas.

But in a situation like this, words and plans don’t really matter. Only actions do. So, I made the decision that we are closing Millermore for reinterpretation while we do this work. We have some that are upset by this decision, but they’re not saying anything directly to me. In the end, I’m actually grateful to the city for giving me this very powerful tool. These are plans and projects I’ve been pushing for a long time and getting resistance at various levels. It’s much harder to argue when inaction could result in the demise of the organization. So, we carry on with these plans and wait for word from the city on how deep the budget cut will be.

At the same time, we’ve been struggling with our fundraiser, History with a Twist. About a year ago, I suggested to board leadership that we not continue this event and outlined a plan to make up that revenue. They decided to carry on–and we invested in a top-notch event planner, found an off-site location (no more weather worries!), and secured a great honorary chair. We moved the event from spring to September. It will be a great party. But sponsorships and ticket sales never really came in, and though we probably won’t lose money, we’re not going to make much either. More money woes.

On the bright side, there was very little discussion at the board meeting about making this the last Twist. And I have a pretty fun dress to wear.

In early August, my Director of Education, who has been with us for 5 years, announced that she was heading to the classroom to teach PreK for Dallas ISD. All of our work with Vogel Alcove and early childhood education made her realize that her passion is with the little ones. It is absolutely the right decision for her, but oh! The timing for DHV!

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Also, in the middle of all this, I had a birthday. I almost cancelled our weekend plans (mini-road trip) so I could be a hermit. So glad I didn’t do that! These friends help a lot.

In the middle of all this, I left for a two week trip to Europe in mid-August and removed the work email app from my phone. It was glorious. With everything going on, maybe the timing of the trip wasn’t the best. On the other hand, with everything going on, I desperately needed the break. I only had a few nightmarish dreams about work while I was away.

The day I got back to the office, my brand new part-time educator (started in July) told me she was taking a full time job at another museum in town. The good news about these education departures–they’re both working part-time for a little while to help with the transition. The bad news: with all of our budget question marks, it’s impossible to finalize a plan for the future of our education department. Not that I’ve had time to think much about it.

So, here we are, ten days from the end of our fiscal year. We have no budget for the next fiscal year. No real idea on how bad the operating deficit will end up being this year. No idea on who will carry on the work of the education department–or how that will be possible. And we have to make sure every step we take is perfectly placed, because all eyes at the city are on us.

This isn’t to say there aren’t some remarkable bright spots. The wonderful thing about a crisis is that there is an opportunity to really see what people are made of. Staff are stepping up. Board members are stepping up. And as always, our neighborhood has our back. And there are other signs. A surprise $25,000 gift from a long time donor who had never given more than a few hundred at a time. The news that one of the premier food and wine events in Dallas is moving to DHV in early November. My appointment to an AAM task force on museum education standards. The Board Engagement Committee (that I’ve been asking about for over a year) has finally formed–and is doing things.

Last Sunday, the sermon at church was about the gap between what you have and what you need–and how sometimes that is absolutely the best thing. That gap can force us to grow. So many parallels for where DHV is right now! I’m taking courage from Andrew’s word as we continue to step into the gap. All of these recent challenges are a powerful reminder of how precarious our financial situation is. Some days, I think we’re in the middle of what will be a remarkable turn-around stories. Other days, I’m not so sure–and feel completely inadequate for the work ahead.

I know I’ll enjoy my time in Kansas City (once I get through Twist and finalize those session powerpoints!). I know it will be refreshing and that I’ll come home with some new tools and idea to face these very big issues.

But I also know that when colleagues ask “How are things going at work?” I’m not going to say my usual “Great!”

I might say “interesting.”

I might say “challenging.”

I might say “not good.”

And I encourage you to be honest also–because we’re not always honest about the challenges we face in this work. Or the emotions. I can now say that I have cried at a staff meeting. I cried at our Annual Meeting. I have cursed a fair amount. And I’m not always sleeping well–I’m finishing up the rough draft of this at 12:30 a.m.

So yes, I’m heading into AASLH absolutely emotionally exhausted. I’m writing this post partly so I don’t have to explain everything quite so many times. I’m happy to talk more about any of this, though I may also say “I don’t really want to talk about it.” And it won’t be because I suddenly no longer believe in transparency. It will be because I am tired.

However, I will gladly accept hugs. Let’s face it: after the year we’ve had, we could probably all use a hug or three.

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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.

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.

 

 

 

Wardrobe Conundrums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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