Monthly Archives: May 2013

CH-CH-CH-Changes

“Beginnings are always messy.” – John Galsworthy

“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” – Walt Disney

“I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew.” – Robert Frost

On June 3rd, we will be publicly unveiling our new name, logo, brand identity, and strategic plan. These changes have been eighteen months in the making, and have encompassed some of the most exhilarating months I’ve had in my professional life.

I believe that change for the sake of change can be a good thing, that rewiring your neural pathways on occasion just to keep your brain nimble is an acceptable and even crucial practice. But the shifts we are working on are not just for the sake of change. We have been deliberate and thoughtful in every step, and sometimes dozens of hours of work were tossed out because a different direction became clear. And I wouldn’t say we’ve been careful – that could have hobbled our process – but we did take care with every decision. We disagreed, we argued our points, we made decisions and then changed them in light of new information, we talked about impact and perception, we talked about how we want to please everyone but can’t please everyone. It was messy.

I love messy. Not in my home, but in a group process, I think messy is great. Messy means people aren’t going with the flow, they aren’t agreeing out of apathy, and they are willing to stake their claim and dig in and see what happens. And that happened pretty much every step of the way. The most satisfying thing about messy? It’s when the mess gets cleaned up, and everyone is satisfied with the results. And that is where we are now, as an organization, with our new plan.

After all of this is unveiled, however, the real work begins. We have to implement this plan, and we have to strive toward the impact that we are determined to make in this community.

I worked as an actor and performer for many years prior to become a nonprofit executive. One of the reasons I quit acting – and there were many – is that I came to a major realization that I preferred rehearsal to performance. I loved both the discovery process of rehearsal, and the insta-family feeling that is often created between cast and crew members as they flesh out a show. I love process more than product. So the challenge for me is to see this strategic plan not as a product, but as an animated guide – a coach, even – to push me forward in this work. Goodness knows there are plenty of stretch goals in the plan, and I need to breathe life into those goals and have them frame my work every day.

Nina Simon of the MAH was recently awarded a Nextie, which honors young people in this community who are making a major impact. In her acceptance speech, she encouraged everyone in the room to reach out and offer their help to others who are working to make great things happen in Santa Cruz County. I heartily and enthusiastically second that idea, and indeed, I walked up to her and said, “Nina, you scratch my itch.” But this idea – that we can pretty much do whatever great things we want if we work collectively – is a driving force behind our new strategic plan.

So, my challenge, to myself, and to the Cultural Council, is to do just that: reach out, get involved, push forward on our vision, and if the time calls for it, get messy. There’s plenty of work to do in this community, and plenty of folks who are ready to get involved. Let’s get started.

the art of happiness

“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.” –Rumi

“To get the full value of joy you must have someone to divide it with.” – Mark Twain

We talk a good game about arts education.

We know that exposure to arts education helps test scores, boosts self-confidence, teaches teamwork, encourages critical thinking, fosters positive self-expression, keeps kids out of trouble, gives non-academic types the opportunity to shine, and so much more.

Can we just all decide that all that stuff is a given, and take a moment to concentrate on one thing?

Joy:

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a young artist displays his puppet at a Family Art Night. Photo Credit: Crystal Birns

This last month has been an explosion of arts opportunities, a veritable   cornucopia of creative experiences, for young people across Santa Cruz County. We held five Family Art Nights, where grandmothers and babies and everyone in between danced, drummed, and painted.

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Mother and son dance at a Family Art Night. Photo credit: Sarah Brothers

One of our board members described her experience at a Family Art Night as a “shot in the arm of AWESOME.” And it was. Parents connected with their children, kindergarteners created puppets together, usually-sullen early teens banged away on African drums with their eyes closed in abandon.

And then, Thursday night, we unveiled the Children’s Art Exhibition at the County Government Center. Over 500 pieces of artwork from schools across the county were on display, all products of our two arts education programs, SPECTRA and Mariposa’s Art.

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Exhibition photo credits: Emma Garcia

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A proud student poses with his Artist Certificate and Supervisor Friend

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The shyest little artist you’ve ever met was brave enough to receive her Artist Certificate from Supervisor Friend

Hundreds of family members packed the chambers of the County Board of Supervisors to watch their children receive kind words and certificates from Zach Friend, the 2nd District Supervisor.

These same children posed with their artwork that is currently lining the walls of the County Government Building. If you need to pay a parking ticket, go to jury duty, or just want to take a nice walk through what is usually a dull concrete building, go now. See all of this incredible artwork, most of which I could never match with my own pathetically meager artistic skills.

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A young artist poses with her duck

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Another young artist poses with his peregrine falcon

The joy in the building Thursday night was infectious, palpable, delicious. The proud young artists and equally proud parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters brought me to tears a dozen times.

This is why we show up to work every day. Not to write grants, not to advocate for arts issues, not to create spreadsheets and to-do lists and programs and systems. We show up because we know that every person in this county needs and deserves to feel the joy that was on every face at the opening reception Thursday night. And the arts are the best way I know to nurture that joy.

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Sparkle-dress artist gets her certificate

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One of over 500 pieces of art in the exhibition

So if you are in Santa Cruz, go to the County Building to see the show. I’m confident that the energy and excitement of the exhibition opening left an indelible mark on the walls and in the air surrounding the 1st and 5th floors. Go get your own shot of awesome.

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Youngest future artist in attendance

the best policy

“The real things haven’t changed. It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasures; and have courage when things go wrong.”  – Laura Ingalls Wilder

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” – Oscar Wilde

Why is it so difficult to be honest with people who give us money?

One of my program staffers is struggling with a project partner.  This partner did not hold up his end of the work, which affected the project and the people we serve. And when it came time for the foundation which funded the project to do a site visit, my staffer had difficulty being fully honest with the foundation program officer, even though the problems were all too clearly illustrated during the visit, and even though the problems were not our fault. We all want our programs to succeed, and to continue, even if they don’t operate under ideal circumstances, and we are loathe to admit that something didn’t work well when generous donors are in the room.

In a similar vein, I personally am excluded from conversations and meetings sometimes when my role as the director of an organization that also acts as a funder is front and center.

I find all of this deeply frustrating.

When I was cutting my teeth at my first job as an executive director, I didn’t know that my colleagues in similar positions tended to shove the dirty laundry into the closet when the funder came to town. I didn’t know that it was the norm to sugar-coat and play up strengths. I had been working in disaster relief where it was important to paint achingly honest pictures of what was going on so the world would sit up and take notice. And I carried that practice with me into my work in the arts.

Then, one day, after I’d managed to get a major foundation funder to pay attention to (and fund!) my wee arts organization for the first time ever, I got a call from my program officer (who has since become a treasured friend) who said, “I find your honesty so refreshing – and it really helps me do my job better.”

I know this is old news. And I know that many final reports now specifically ask grantees to report on what didn’t work, what happened that was unexpected, etc. but I think that often, this is the only time that we as a sector open up to talk about what didn’t work. It’s relegated to a few sentences in a long narrative and surrounded by colorful language about just how awesome the organization is, regardless of whatever hiccup we own up to.

But here’s the thing: we aren’t helping each other when we don’t talk openly and brazenly about what went wrong. When I’m not at the literal table when specific challenges are being discussed, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when I can’t affect any change. And I’m not just a funder: I’m a human being, who longs to do the right thing, to show up for my colleagues, to make an impact, and to connect with people whose passions I share. Why cut me out of the conversation? Why cut any funder out of the conversation?

I think that grantees often forget what actors often forget: that the funder, and the casting director, desperately want you to help them solve a problem. For the casting director, solving the problem means finding an actor that fits the part. For the funder, solving the problem means finding a person or a group that can help meet the mission of the foundation. No one is doing anyone any favors here: we are all helping each other do what we were founded to do. When the Cultural Council provides meaningful artistic experiences for children, we are helping the foundations who fund us meet their own missions. When a Cultural Council grantee provides free dance performances for a solid week throughout downtown Santa Cruz, those dancers are helping us meet our mission. This is a cycle of support in which all parties should be a heck of a lot more equal.

But until we own up to our shortcomings, until we freely admit that some wild thing we tried didn’t work, until we stop treating our funders like parental figures rather than partners, we’ll continue to rob each other of deeper relationships and opportunities to make great things happen.

It’s also true that we need to share with our funders when something in the grantee/grantor relationship isn’t working. Are there issues with a staff member? With the application process? Or… with a project partner who is also in a relationship with the funder? We need to be brave enough to face these issues head-on.

My program staffer is a perfect example. She’s whip smart and fearless and is circling back with the funder to have a more honest conversation about what is going on with the project. One of the reasons she feels able to do this, now that she has a little distance from the site visit, is that the funder has made a practice in engaging the staffer in meaningful conversations about the project. It is definitely a two-way street of communication and respect.

As funders, we should strive to be in the same practice of openness and willingness to talk and engage. As grantees, we should insist on being brutally honest about the work of our organizations when talking to our funders, and even use foundation program officers as sounding boards when things go awry. If we don’t do this, we all miss out on empowering and enlightening our field.