Category Archives: Arts Administration

Time to Turn the Tide

“Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and to others the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.–Lyndon Johnson, on signing into existence the National Endowment on the Arts

For ten years, the California Arts Council was 50th out of 50 states in per-capita arts funding. What does that mean? It means that, for every resident, California invested less money in the arts than any other state. Less than, say, Mississippi. Or Wyoming. Or Rhode Island. You get the picture. In the last couple of years, we’ve crept ahead of Kansas and Georgia, making us 48th out of 50. We won this “race to the bottom” in 2003 when the California Arts Council’s budget was gutted by 94%.

Most of us who work in the arts here are well aware of this groan-inducing, eye-rolling fact, and even if you didn’t know it, you’ve felt the effects. If you live in a small, rural area, it’s likely that your local Arts Council is run by volunteers or woefully underpaid staff, which means they have limited capacity to serve their greater communities. (Actually, this is true in some large metropolitan areas as well.) No matter where you live, your schools likely have fewer arts programs than during the California Arts Council’s (comparative) heyday.

When the CAC budget was slashed, it left the field with a greatly diminished state arts agency, which had at one time provided significant operational and programmatic support. Local arts agencies were forced to be scrappy, do more with much, much less – or, in some unfortunate cases, fold.

But let’s go on an even more macro level, and look at the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA’s funding peaked in 1992 with a budget of $176 million. The “culture wars” (i.e. the controversy over Robert Mapplethorpe and others) resulted in massive cutbacks in 1996 when the NEA budget was itself gutted to $99 million. Since then, the budget has been taking two steps forward, two steps back. In 2013, the NEA was allocated $138 million. To put that into perspective, consider the following graph:

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The graph is a bit old (and hard to read), but the information, sadly, isn’t. (You can see it better here.) Yep, out of the thirteen major countries studied, the US was 13th. We won the race to the bottom again!

Why does this matter, in my wee town of Santa Cruz? Because leadership matters, and like it or not, top-down leadership often has the most significant impact. We grassroots folks can show how we are inspiring children, building bridges, creating jobs, beautifying the world, and changing lives, but if the top leaders and legislators in this country don’t recognize the value of what we do, we’re blowing dandelions in a wind tunnel.

The California Arts Council, Californians for the Arts, and local arts agencies from across this state are working to steer our Golden State ship in a new direction.

I spent Wednesday in Sacramento with these good people where we attended a legislative hearing held by the Joint Committee on the Arts. One of the purposes of this hearing was to introduce and discuss the 2013 Otis Report on the Creative Economy in California. (And for those of you not wanting to wade through 261 pages, here’s a PDF with the salient points.)

The short version is this: the creative industries in California account for 7.8% of the state’s GDP. They generated $273.5 billion in total output, and employed 1.4 million workers who paid nearly $13 billion in taxes that went into the state general fund and to local governments. Yep, we are talking billions.

And yet, our state’s investment in the arts totals about three cents per resident.

California is one of the most creative places in the world. This state is responsible for nurturing wildly innovative businesses and projects that have transformed the world. To not increase our investment in our creativity would be jeopardizing the competitiveness of our country as a whole. The Otis Report puts it this way:

“Since the US economy increasingly depends on the production of intangible goods, it is necessary to recognize that the production of ideas is an important form of investment.”

(Emphasis mine.) And how do we produce new ideas? We give children and adults the opportunity to express themselves, to learn how to think critically, to fail safely and try again, how to work in teams, how to innovate, how to invite inspiration. We do these things through the arts.

Consider this: creators and community members in California are already doing great things with very little support. Imagine a world where we invested in the creativity of our great thinkers, starting from the time they were children. Imagine what we could do, what problems we could solve, what connections we could create. Actually, I can’t imagine. Because the sky would be the limit.

So what are we doing about this? Here’s the big news: two legislators are proposing an increase to the California Arts Council’s budget. This increase is modest when compared to the billions pumped back into the economy by the arts sector. The current proposal would take the Arts Council’s budget from $5 million to $25 million annually. $25 million is equal to the agency’s 1983 budget, adjusted for inflation.

Senator Ted Lieu will shortly introduce this legislation. And Assemblymember Ian Calderon has already introduced a bill that would also increase the CAC’s budget. “We must fund arts programs that reflect the contributions they make to the people of California”, he said.

Sometimes Sacramento seems really far away from everywhere else. It’s easy to think that lawmakers and legislation have little to do with our everyday lives. But I promise you: these funds will make a difference to your children, and your community. With this support, organizations like mine will hire artists to come to your kid’s school. We will produce stronger programming for you to enjoy with your friends and family. We will help artists and designers innovate as they create the next big idea and perhaps one day employ you or your kids.

Art matters. Investing in the arts matters.

So what can you do? Call your State Senator and Assemblymember and ask them to support this legislation. Don’t know who your electeds are? Find out here. Encourage your local elected leaders to contact them as well. Buy an Arts License Plate. They are beautiful and will directly support creative programming. Check the Keep Arts in Schools Fund when you file your taxes, and make a contribution that way. Donate to your local arts council. Ask for arts in your kid’s school. Take your kids to the museum, or the theater, or the library.  Support the arts in whatever way inspires you.

In Trust

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” – Ernest Hemingway

Week before last, I spent four invigorating days at the Grantmakers in the Arts conference. It’s been aptly blogged by Barry Hessenius, the team at Createquity, and others, so I don’t need to do that here. I do, however, feel compelled to add to the themes that others identified throughout the conference.

Ian David Moss noted the usual the conference “tracks” that popped up: arts and social justice/cultural equity, arts education, technology, support for individual artists, and creative placemaking. But the theme that came up for me, time and again, was, simply, trust.

In this data-driven, results-driven, detailed application, and interim- and final-report heavy grantmaking world, we ask a lot of grantees. We ask them to create projected budgets, we ask them to have boards of directors with a matrix to our liking, and we ask for anticipated numbers of people served without acknowledging that the world could change on a dime (such as in 2008). We ask artists to not only excel at their artwork but also at crafting grant proposals. We ask them to fit within the sometimes narrow confines of what we think is worth funding.

Sometimes, inadvertently, we ask them to lie. It can be really difficult to be a perfect fit to qualify for funding, and I’m sure many applicants put on an extra coat of lipstick and suck in their bellies when it’s time for their grant to strut down the runway.

There was some excellent and fresh thinking about this in several of the sessions I attended. Here are some of the most interesting ideas I heard:

–        Eliminate proposed budgets. They are make-believe.

–        Eliminate proposals. Base funding on the past performance of the organization.

–        Simplify final reports, and ask for two narratives:

  • How did you spend the money?
  • Tell us a story.

–        Award grants to artists based on an interview and site visit, not an application.

–        Don’t direct the organization through application questions. Don’t expect them to have a certain kind of board. Don’t have expectations around their income sources. Just look at the quality and impact of the art or project.

–        Give general operating support.

–        Give general operating support.

–        Give general operating support.

Oh, did I repeat that last one?

The National Capitalization Project, has, gratefully, brought to the forefront the idea of strengthening organizations through helping them build reserves, and it has also focused on encouraging funders to give general operating support. But many grantmakers are still resistant to these ideas. Why? I believe it comes down to trust. The donors have (or had) a vision that must be followed; the boards of foundations need to know that the money is being spent according to the wishes of the donors; and the program officers must make funding recommendations in line with board directives. And finally, the artist needs to create within the framework of his or her proposal.

With so many degrees of separation between the funder and creator, trust can be a difficult thing to engender. Also, the stories of grantees mismanaging foundation funding, though few and far between, are unfortunately sensationalized and cast doubt on the whole philanthropic process.

But by and large, the people and organizations that are awarded funding do great things. So why don’t we make it vastly easier for both the grantor and grantee to meet their missions? Think of the dollars that could be saved if grantees didn’t have to spend dozens of hours each year on grant applications, and if program officers and panelists didn’t have to spend hundreds of hours reviewing applications. There are better ways, and some of the innovative organizations at the GIA conference are putting them into practice. But it requires trust.

Arts Council Santa Cruz County has been part of the problem, too. Our Create Grants are small pots of money that fund innovative, community-benefit, small-scale projects. Grants range from $500-$3000. Up until a year ago, if the grant was for more than $1000, we only gave them 70% up front and then gave them the final 30% after the project took place. What’s worse, we required an invoice for both the initial and final payment.

When I asked why this practice was in place, I was told that we did this in case the project didn’t go as planned, or didn’t happen at all. So we wouldn’t be out the few hundred dollars of the final payment.

To this day, I feel like banging my head against the wall when I think about this. It’s a small thing, maybe, but – really? We couldn’t trust our artists to figure out something cool to do with these tiny pots of money – or trust them to return the funds if the project didn’t happen? Or not worry too much about it, in the grand scheme of things? And did we really need to cut multiple checks, ask for multiple invoices, etc. for such a small amount of funding?

Here’s the kicker: I asked if, in 33 years of grantmaking at the time, if any grantee had canceled their project and not returned the money. The answer? Never. NEVER.

*THUNK* (sound of my head hitting the wall)

We certainly weren’t alone in how our process was designed. Indeed, we were engaged in what was commonly known as “best practices”.

Obviously, we don’t engage in this anymore. For the smaller grants, we just cut checks when we sign contracts. For the larger grants, we still split up the amount into two payments, but only for cash flow purposes. No invoices, no percentages based on funding amounts, and sometimes, as I’ve mentioned, no applications, even. We still have a long way to go to cultivate a true culture of trust, but we are working to be on the right side of history on this issue.

We are giving general operating support and fully funding project grant requests when we are able. More than that, though, we are working to build a climate of trust. We have great artists here in Santa Cruz who through their work make this one of the most exciting and dynamic places to live in the world. The way I see it, we need to trust them, and we also need to do everything we can to make sure they can trust us.

The grantee/grantor imbalanced power dynamic doesn’t serve anyone. After all, it’s the artists in this community who help us meet our mission to promote, connect, and invest in Santa Cruz County arts. Without the artists and arts organizations, we are nothing. Without our support, the creators have less capacity to do their work. This is a two-way street and I was heartened by the many funders who are embracing trust – and I hope that our collective leadership encourages more in the field to do the same.

Proud Sponsors

“All truths are easy once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.” – Galileo Galilei

“Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse.” – Winston Churchill

I have a BFA in Musical Theater. It’s the kind of college degree that brings a smirk to many a face, as people assume I spent four years tap dancing and walking around in clown shoes. I did do both, at times, but I actually spent five years taking between 20-24 units a semester learning a deep curriculum in music, dance, and theater. Oh, and taking all of the “core” subjects required for a liberal arts college degree. Scoff if you will, but I learned how to put in the hours to get the job done, and my late-night cramming was often in the ballet studio as well as the library.

One of the most eye-opening courses I took was Directing 101. All actors need to try their hands as directors when learning the craft, and I found directing to be challenging on so many levels. Running a casting call, finding a set designer and light designer, working around numerous schedules, looking for both talent and “fit”, getting the group as a whole to deliver both professionally and artistically – it was tough work (and, years later, so very familiar).

The most enlightening element of the process was being on the other end during an audition. You quickly learn that the audition begins the moment the actor walks into the room – not the moment she begins her monologue or song. How she walks, how she interacts with the accompanist, how she introduces herself – all of it matters almost as much as her ability act or sing. Actually, the audition begins even before that – it begins when I read her resume. There I learn not just about her professional past, but how she presents herself, her writing ability, her professionalism, her artistry as expressed through simple things such as font, brevity, and design.

Being on both ends of the creative spectrum was helpful then, as it is now.

I’m back in a dual role, as the director of an arts council that is also a funder. The Arts Council is both a grantee and a grantor, at all times. We spend a great deal of time on fund development but even more time figuring out how to responsibly disperse much of those funds so they can have a profound impact on our community. I’m also aware that this dynamic may color some of my relationships with both those who fund us, and those we fund. I wish I could remove that weird power dynamic altogether, as it just feels like an impediment to real relationships with people I really enjoy. But it’s there, and all I can do is show up in an authentic way when I’m interacting with my friends and colleagues.

Sometimes, though, being in this position allows us to imagine, design, and implement a change that we think is really cool. We know what it is like to spend dozens of hours on grant applications that may or may not get funded, or may have a pathetically small return on investment. We know the frustration of wishing we could be working to meet our mission, rather than working to raise the funds we need to do our work.

To that end, the Arts Council has made some major changes to our grants program. We opened up the cycle so funding for arts projects is available year round; we simplified who is eligible for general support grants versus project grants; we reworked our grants panel so truly qualified folks in each discipline will be reviewing applications; we’re offering professional development grants to both artists and arts organizations; and we moved to a much better online system for our grantmaking. But the change I’m most excited about is our new Sponsor Grant category.

The Arts Council has been funding the arts in Santa Cruz since 1979. And there are organizations in this county that we’ve been funding for all of those 34 years, whose longevity rivals our own. There are other organizations that may not have been around as long, but which have consistently provided excellent programming for the community and maintained strong management practices.

Every year, these organizations jump through our grantmaking hoops to be considered for funding. Every year, we see their strong balance sheets, high-quality programing, dedicated and talented staff, and devoted audiences. And every year, we award them funds. Which begged the question: why are we making them jump through hoops?

Enter the Sponsor Grants. These grants are ongoing, annual funding for the strongest and most impactful arts organizations in the county, based on the following criteria:

–          Ten years of producing programming in Santa Cruz County

–          Been funded by the Arts Council for five consecutive years

–          Provide leadership in their art discipline and/or in the Santa Cruz community

–          Have strong and consistent management and board leadership

–          Have a stable or growing budget

–          Have stable or growing audiences

–          Significant cash reserves

These organizations do not have to submit a grant application; instead, Arts Council staff does a site visit with both board and staff members, and at the end of the fiscal year, the funded organization will send a basic report that speaks to the criteria above. Unless these organizations experience dramatic and negative changes, we will continue to fund them year after year. All of the hours that would have been spent on a grant application will now be spent meeting their mission and creating fantastic programming for this community. We, too will save time, not having to collect, read, and score those grant applications, so we too can spend more time focused on our mission. In return for this funding, the Arts Council is given a sponsorship package commensurate with any other donor of the same level. This way, we promote the Arts Council’s own work in the community, ultimately building our capacity to provide even greater support to the organizations we serve.

One particularly exciting element of this category is that it’s not just about budget size. Some of the organizations in the cohort are major institutions – the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, the Museum of Art & History – but others are much smaller, such as the Santa Cruz Mountains Art Center and Pajaro Valley Arts CouncilKuumbwa Jazz, the Santa Cruz County Symphony, and Tandy Beal round out the group, representing a broad range of artistic disciplines. These organizations also serve communities from the border region near Monterey to the far north county.

There are many other wonderful organizations in this community, of course, and some are close to qualifying for this grant. We hope to help elevate these organizations so they too can join the Sponsor category. Indeed, we are creating another new exciting grant category designed to help a cohort of organizations take the next step in their development. But that’s news for another day.

The Sponsor Grant category – and indeed, all of the major changes in the program – is the brainchild of our Grants & Technical Assistance Manager, Jim Brown. I can only take credit for being smart and lucky enough to talk him into joining our team just over a year ago. A former Executive Director of both the Diversity Center and 418 Project in Santa Cruz, with a background in in the tech world, Jim hadn’t had direct experience as a grants manager. But he did have experience as a grantseeker, and as a natural innovator and great thinker, he was able to completely re-think how we can make an impact with our funds. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Loss

“Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow.” – William Shakespeare

When I was a teenager, my brother Sean and I somehow ended up with two tenth-row center tickets to see Les Miserables on tour in Los Angeles. We didn’t know anything about the show, and we were teenagers after all, so before it started we were screwing around in our seats and feeling restless about what we wanted to be doing that night. At one point, I even turned to him and said, “Is this going to be funny?” And he considered the title and said, “I doubt it.” I then got an inspired idea. “Let’s go see the new Indiana Jones movie instead!” Sean was game, so we stood up to leave, right when the house lights went down. So we sat back in our seats… and two and a half hours later, stood up again, transformed.

We both have clear memories of that night, some twenty years ago, not just about what happened on stage, but what it felt like to be there, to be a part of that experience. It confirmed our career paths. A few years later I got a degree in Musical Theater and then spent many years performing. My brother Sean is one of the greatest actors I know, and his theater company, Gideon Productions, is a highly-acclaimed anchor in the indie New York theater scene.

I truly believe my life is different from having seen that show. I’d been performing since I was four, but somehow that night shook up and rewired my brain in such a way that doing anything else for the rest of my life no longer made sense. I belong in the arts world, and here I will stay. But it wasn’t about the art – it was about the story that unfolded in front of me through song, dance, sets, costumes, and music. The heartbreak, the devastation, the hopefulness, the love – all communicated to my crazy teenager brain in a way that little else could. And that is what art does. It leaves you changed.

I’ve had other moments like that night: seeing the Annie Leibovitz exhibit at the Legion of Honor. Seeing the Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibit at the Met. My own father conducting Night on Bald Mountain when I was four years old. Seeing The Secret Garden on Broadway. Seeing the Alvin Ailey Dance Company at the Napa Valley Opera House. Seeing Dave Brubeck perform with his sons just a couple of years before he died. The first time I got to sing my mother’s brilliant song “Away to America” to my baby.

But there have been so many things I’ve missed. I didn’t get to see the original cast of Rent on Broadway. I’ve missed my brother Sean’s last twenty or so shows in New York. I’ve missed dozens and dozens of local artistic opportunities because I have two tiny children and I rarely get to leave the house after 6 PM.

I am keenly aware that I’ve not just missed these shows and exhibitions; I’ve missed the opportunity to see them ever. Because no show is the same if it has a new cast. No symphony is the same when a different orchestra plays it. I can see other shows, other events, other exhibitions, but I feel an acute loss about that ones I’ve missed.

And last week, while I was on a trip through the Midwest to see family and go to a wedding, I heard unthinkable news: Shakespeare Santa Cruz was getting the axe. This incredible program, which for 32 years has been housed by UCSC and beloved by the community, was being discontinued as of the end of the year. I sat there in my hotel room, stunned with the news. There is a great deal about this decision that I don’t understand, and significant community concern about the way it was done. But one thing is universal, for those of us who know and love SSC: we are feeling tremendous loss.

Shakespeare Santa Cruz provided generations of Santa Cruzans (locals and visitors alike) the kind of transformational experiences that I had at Les Mis. Everyone I know has a SSC story, be it about the show itself, or being in the glen, under the stars, with a bottle of wine, or maybe a first date. The shows have been sometimes racy, sometimes classic, always high-quality. They have set the standard for Shakespeare companies across the country, and the Shakespeare program was a major conduit that connected this community with the University – a relationship that is often fragile.

We’re told that the program was cut because the financial model didn’t work, and hadn’t worked for a long time. That may be true. But this program was worth more than its balance sheet, for the tens of thousands of children who, through SSC, experienced the Bard for the first time, and the tens of thousands of adults who shared the experience of seeing great art in an otherworldly setting.

My life would have been different if I hadn’t seen Les Miserables when I was a teenager. Maybe not dramatically different, but different nonetheless. How many lives did Shakespeare Santa Cruz alter in its 32 years? And how many people will now be denied that experience? It’s impossible to quantify that loss. In the business world, people often talk about “opportunity cost” – what is the cost for the business to be doing a particular piece of work rather than other activities? In this case, the opportunity cost is particularly painful. Without Shakespeare Santa Cruz, we lose connection, inspiration, talent, excitement, and togetherness. You won’t find those on a balance sheet, because they are priceless.

Balancing Act

“There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.” – Alain de Botton

“Having children is like having a bowling alley in your brain.” – Martin Mull

“I’d love to come to your conference. I’m a nursing mom. Do you have a place I can pump?” – me

As a kid, I used to count the days until summer vacation. Now, at the beginning of each fiscal year, I count the days until I get to start planning my conference schedule.  I love looking at the year ahead to see what’s being offered, where it’s happening, and who is going to be there that I can’t miss. I get almost as excited for conferences as I do for vacations, as these experiences feed both my passion and my soul. I find I learn best when I’m taken out of my comfortable environment and placed in a new space with strangers and friends I don’t usually get to see. These experiences are invaluable for my work, and my spirit.

But my attitude toward these opportunities has changed in the last few years. Now I weigh the benefits of the conference against the time spent away from my little boys and husband, and the scales are pretty weighted toward my family. Working a full-time job and being the parent of very young children is the greatest challenge of my life. And, sadly, our society is not set up to help us parents balance these great responsibilities.

There are many obstacles that working parents have to overcome, every day. We struggle to feel successful at anything, because there never seems to be enough hours in the day to truly serve our work and our children. One of a dozen issues I face every day is how, when, and where to pump. I’m a nursing mom, and though some folks still feel squeamish about hearing anything tied to that particular anatomical part, pumping is a constant reality and necessity for working mothers committed to being the primary source of nutrition for their babies.

To be clear, I hate pumping. I hate it. When Alex is a year old and I don’t have to pump anymore, I will gleefully set my pump on fire and send it flying off the tallest building I can find. But until then, it’s the machine that helps me take care of my baby, and where I go, it will too.

But I can’t let pumping – or parenting – completely derail my professional life. So it’s time to get back in the conference saddle. I’ve missed too many in the past few years. To that end, I’ve been exploring my options and I’m delighted about what’s coming up. Next month, for the first time, I’ll be attending the Nonprofit Management Institute at Stanford. I haven’t been at the Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) conference in two years, so I’m excited to be attending this October. Other excellent opportunities are lined up for the winter and spring. These events are critical to my success at the Arts Council, as they connect me to great thinking in the field, fuel my passion, and deepen my ability to serve the arts both locally and nationally.

As I contemplate these opportunities, however, I have to consider how I can manage my commitments. And so every time an intriguing event comes my way, I pick up the phone, call the event organizer, and tell them that I’d very much like to participate, but is there a place I can pump?

To a person, I’ve been the first one to ask them this question, which I find both surprising and sad. What have other nursing moms done? Have they just not participated? Or have they pumped in a bathroom stall? Or in their car in a parking lot? Or have they been too shy to ask the question? There’s one conference that I’m not attending due to schedule conflicts, but I was particularly distressed that they didn’t have a ready answer for me, since the conference was all about empowering women in the workplace. We cannot empower women, or parents of either gender, in the workplace if we aren’t anticipating their basic needs. True, not every woman with a baby is pumping, but it’s my guess that thousands of women currently working in Santa Cruz are pumping, and maybe even pumping as I write this. While pumping.

The good news is, all of the conference organizers I’ve talked with eventually said “yes”, that they could accommodate my needs (which are pretty simple: privacy, a table, and outlet.) Indeed, the Arrillaga Alumni Center at Stanford, which is the venue for the Nonprofit Management Instituted, has a room reserved for nursing mothers. But why isn’t this the norm?

I travel a fair amount for my work, and engage with cultural leaders and institutions across the country. And I hear time and time again about how these institutions want to attract young, energetic, dynamic leadership. When I was in my early 30’s, I heard a great deal about the looming “leadership gap”, where major institutions in both the for- and non-profit sectors were terrified that their CEOs were going to retire and there wasn’t enough talent to fill their shoes. (All of the young leaders I was connected with at the time thought this was hogwash, because we were all ready and able to jump in, but that’s another story.)

But here’s the thing: if you want young leadership, you have to be prepared for the priorities of the young, and that often means starting families. I’m not ashamed to admit that before taking my current job, I asked a very pointed question: does the insurance policy cover maternity benefits? I knew I wanted to have children, and I knew I could do it and be a successful ED – but only if I wasn’t terrified about having to pay out-of-pocket for my health care needs.

But insurance is only the beginning. There are many things to consider around parenting issues if your organization wants to attract and keep young talent:

–          Does your organization have maternity and paternity policies that go beyond the (pathetic) federal requirements?

–          Are you willing to let parents (or anyone, for that matter) work flexible schedules?

–          Are you willing to create personnel policies that help young parents fulfill their parenting responsibilities? (A place for pumping is just one example.)

When organizing events or conferences, there is also much to consider. What about proactively making the conference appealing and accessible to young parents? There are many ways to do this, but here are two:

  1. On the conference registration, the form always asks if the registrant has special needs, such as wheelchair accessibility, hearing aids, even vegetarian meals. How about asking if the registrant will need a space to pump or nurse (if the parent is bringing the baby)?
  2. When providing event information for multi-day conferences, how about including child care referrals for qualified nannies willing to come watch children in the hotel room at night, so the attendees can attend the evening events?

Does this seem over the top? I don’t think so. These are small suggestions that in my mind need to seed a revolution on how parenting is prioritized in our corporate (and sometimes our nonprofit) culture. We do a terrible job of taking care of parents in this country. We value being overworked and overtired. We create job structures that reward time spent at desks rather than accomplishments in our communities. And we rarely celebrate the millions of people who manage to juggle kids and work and do their absolute best to be of service to both.

When you’ve got a little one at home and a big job at work, you feel as though you never have enough time for both. So the least we as nonprofit leaders can do is smooth the way, be thoughtful about how we structure our organizations and events, and work to make parents of young children feel a little more welcome.

Tagged

IT’S ALIVE!

“Do not plan for ventures before finishing what’s at hand.” – Euripides

“The little dissatisfaction which every artist feels at the completion of a work forms the germ of a new work.” – Berthold Auerbach

Today, the final piece of our rebranding puzzle will be snugly fit into place. Our new website, created by the incredible team at Studio Holladay, has finally launched!

We’ve been working with Studio Holladay throughout our rebranding process, and I cannot begin to describe how beneficial it has been to have the same smart group of folks working on all of the different bits and pieces. It is fun to see a visual representation of the creative process Holladay went through when thinking about our brand and how it would lend itself to our brochures, business cards, signage, and now, our website. We are so grateful to Iris Kavanagh and Crystal Birns, two former AC board members, who served on our rebranding committee and steered us in all of the right directions.

We had two potentially opposing goals when designing this site. We had a vast amount of information that needed to be easily accessible to the different groups we serve. But we also wanted a site that was visually arresting, colorful, and also clean and easy to view. So we tasked our designers to come up with a site that was easy to navigate while also being unusual and artful. We think they did a terrific job.

It was also important to us that our mission be front and center. That is why all of our programs and services are listed under our three core strategies: promote, connect, invest. We hope that by connecting our strategies to our programs in this way, we will do a better job of conveying who we are, what we do, and why our work is important when people unfamiliar to the Council come to our site. And we hope that our new site makes it easy for all of our user groups – Open Studios artists, teaching artists, grantees, schools, arts administrators, and so many more – to quickly and easily get the information they need.

It is tremendously satisfying to finally finish our rebranding process, coming just months after our permanent relocation to the Tannery Arts Center. Now, we as a team finally feel we are home, in many senses of the word. We have a name that makes sense, a brand that reflects who we truly are, a website that will help us be of service to our community, and a strategic plan that challenges us to be our best and highest selves, both as individuals and as an organization.

I am so grateful to the two board presidents who were leaders in this process. Marcella Alligham was our board leadership when we launched the plan, and Linda Charman accepted the mantle halfway through and finished the job. Both were invaluable, providing excellent guidance, motivation, and smart thinking. I’m also so grateful for Sally Green, our Development & Communications Director, who has been my partner in crime throughout this process. She may be on maternity leave right now, but her talent and warmth still reverberate through our hallways and help us make good decisions. And to all of the board and staff members who gave their time, energy, and passion to this project: thank you. I’m humbled to get to play in this sandbox with all of you.

And now, back to the work.

culture shock

“Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done.” – Peter Drucker

“Culture is the process by which a person becomes all that they were created capable of being.” – Thomas Carlyle

“I always arrive late at the office, but I make up for it by leaving early.” – Charles Lamb

I was just having lunch with a friend, who halfway through her veggie burger got a panicked look on her face and started wrapping up her sandwich. “I’m scared of my boss,” she said frankly, “and I better get back to work.” This woman is a 30-something-year-old creative professional, extremely talented, with children, who works in an environment where she is as likely to get a verbal flogging as she is to get flowers from her boss. “It’s like an abusive marriage”, she said. One day her boss is hollering at her for a misstep she couldn’t have possibly avoided, and the next day he calls the full staff together to tell them all what a great job she is doing.

This makes me see red.

There are so many ways to be a great manager, and so many ways to be a terrible one. I strive every day to not be included in the latter category, and though I don’t always succeed with flying colors, there are some things about management I absolutely believe to be true: great management requires a certain skill set that can be learned, but it also requires some incredibly important assets, such as humility, respect, gratitude, willingness to take responsibility when things go poorly, and an ability to give credit to others when things are going wonderfully well.

The problem is, people with these skills aren’t always the ones in charge. Often it’s the people with the deepest pockets, or with the best political connections, or who have been there the longest, or who are best at working the system. This is true in organizations and companies small and large, and in my mind, explains why there is so much dysfunction and mismanagement in the workplace. If you polled all of your friends, how many of them would say they loved going to work? Felt absolutely valued? Felt inspired and supported?  Felt like they are making a visible contribution that was acknowledged and rewarded?

Even more than that, how often do people even consider that where they work could be a source of joy? That it could be different? That it could be shaped by all of the people involved? Obviously many people do love their workplaces, but the majority of folks I know describe their work lives to be somewhere in a range from “tolerable” to “soul-sucking”. I can’t see any reason for this.

But, of course, I’ve been there. I worked at the huge company where we signed in for the day using our thumbprint on a computer that rarely worked, with all of us squirming in line as we desperately tried to clock in during our allowed six-minute window. I worked in the department where I routinely got in trouble for coming in to work too early. I worked at the restaurant where a good Saturday night was when I didn’t come home crying after being berated by the owner. I worked for the manager who took credit for every great thing others accomplished. I worked for the CEO who, upon hearing about a fantastic new opportunity I had, so belittled and undermined me that I spent weeks wondering if I was indeed good enough to jump to the next level in my career.

I can look back now with a lot more sympathy and understanding for these managers than I had at the time. Many of them were insecure themselves, or frustrated, or in over their heads. Or simply didn’t have the skills they needed to manage people. Which begs the question: why they heck were they in charge?

CEOs, directors and mangers have the opportunity – in fact, the responsibility, to make work a place where people want to be. Office culture needs to be intentional, not happenstance, and like any important relationship, it takes work.

We talk about culture all the time here at the Arts Council. Indeed, it’s a major element of our strategic plan. This is still a work in progress, and the learning curve stretches ever upward, but we’ve found some practices that work for us. We celebrate each other’s accomplishments, we share the burden when we screw up, we take the time to acknowledge each other for great work or for being helpful, and we challenge each other to both stretch our goals and to take significant time away from work. For my part, I don’t care exactly what time people show up or when they leave: I just care about the quality of what they get done while they are here, and how they treat each other and every person with whom they interact while “on the clock”.

I’m 100% clear that every single one of our accomplishments has been a result of incredible team effort. And when I screw up, or when I’m feeling unsure about a choice, my staff is second only to my husband in my list of go-to people for advice or soul-searching. Because they are as smart and talented and trustworthy a group as I’ve ever known.

It’s not a perfect working situation, but we work very hard to make sure it’s damn close.

What is this to do with the arts, you might ask? And I say: everything. The arts are about connection, about self-expression, about humanity, beauty, rigor, questioning, inspiration, common dialogue, communication, heartbreak, joy. The arts are a major way we relate to ourselves, each other, and the world. Here at the Arts Council, we work to connect families with children, artists with resources, organizations with the community. And if we tried to do this work in an environment of fear, of clock-watching, of shame, then the work itself would be inauthentic and our impact would be minimal. If we believe in the power of the arts to connect community, and we don’t start that connection right here at the office, then our work will not ring true.

I’m confident that everyone who works here at the Arts Council loves their work (at least most of the time!), and enjoys how we work. I see them wrapped up in their passions, knee-deep in the thick of their chosen focus, and I hear them laughing and genuinely enjoying one another. The only credit I take or deserve for this is having the ability to attract truly wonderful and talented people to this organization, and to retain equally excellent long-timers who are still completely engaged and excited about their daily grind. And then engaging all of them in a process to co-create an atmosphere where we are all inspired by the work and excited to do it together.

None of this is by chance. All of this is intentional. I want to love my work, and love the people I get to do it with. And I do. But it takes focus, determination, and energy. And it takes the understanding that the culture at work is as important and deserves the same kind of attention as the work itself.

More on this in the weeks ahead. And I’m curious: what practices are in place at your organization that help you enjoy your work? And, if you can share, what practices are in place that don’t work for you? Of all of the conferences and workshops and professional development opportunities that filter through my inbox, I see so many focused on “leadership”, but so few, if any, dedicated to office culture. So perhaps we can start that conversation, and that learning, right here.

evolution

“When we are motivated by goals that have deep meaning, by dreams that need completion, by pure love that needs expressing, then we truly live.” – Greg Anderson

“A project is complete when it starts working for you, rather than you working for it.” – Scott Allen

Three and a half years ago, I walked into the office of the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County for my first day of work. I had just moved to Santa Cruz a week prior with my boyfriend Jon. We were still absolutely stunned that suddenly we lived three blocks from the ocean, and I had taken several days before starting the job to do nothing but read and lie in the sun.

Those were probably the most restful days I’ve had in three and a half years. Since then, I got married, got pregnant (twice), had two little boys, and made some of the best friends of my life. On top of that, for forty hours a week (we can all pretend we only work forty hours a week, right?) I devoted myself to first listening to this community – what does it need? What can the arts help solve? What do the artists, arts organizations and arts administrators need? – and then working to meeting its needs.

What I learned is there is a tremendous amount of smarts and passion in this community, and equal amounts of great work to be done. I was so fortunate to have landed in this incredible organization, one that was poised to reinvent itself and had the capability to become a true community service organization through the arts.

Three and a half years later, we’re finally there, and to illustrate the genuine evolution of this organization, we have a new name, a new logo, a new mission, a new strategic plan, and very soon, we’ll also have a new website. Our new name, Arts Council Santa Cruz County, is not a huge shift, but it better clarifies who we are, and what we do.

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Why did we change our name? Years of market research told us that though our supporters and friends were familiar with our work, those who didn’t know us were completely confused by our name. Also, there are arts councils across the country and this is simply a more straightforward moniker that accurately describes us in clear, simple terms.

Our new logo, created by the talented gents at Studio Holladay, is designed to be as adaptable and responsive as the Arts Council itself.

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These graphics demonstrate how our logo can be used to illustrate the three strategies in our new mission, which is to promote, connect, and invest in the arts in order to stimulate creativity and vibrancy in Santa Cruz County. But the best way to learn about our new mission and strategic plan is to sit back, have a cup of tea, and watch this:

We call this our Vision Video, and it is an overview and introduction to our new strategic plan. It also gives a flavor of our new commitment to a culture of service, where we’ll constantly be looking for new ways to positively impact the creators and appreciators who benefit from our programs and services.

All of these shifts are a direct result of our strategic planning process, which was funded through the David and Lucile Packard Foundation’s Organizational Effectiveness program. We are so grateful to the Packard Foundation for funding this effort, which allowed us to work with some of the smartest thinkers, designers, and creatives we know. We had a big vision (and big hopes) for what this would all look like, and to be on the other end of it is just incredible.

Our new name, logo, plan, and website are not just superficial changes. They are a reflection of the shifts that have been happening here for the past three and a half years. And they have helped frame the two questions that I ask myself every day when I come to work:

What if Arts Council Santa Cruz County was the most innovative, effective, and impactful nonprofit in Santa Cruz County? What would that look like?

What if Arts Council Santa Cruz County was the most innovative, effective, and impactful arts council in the nation? What would that look like?

I don’t yet have the answers to these questions, but what I do know is that they encourage us to aim high and think big.

For a long time, I struggled with the identity of the arts council model. On one hand, I considered whether we should stay in the background, supporting organizations and artists from a metaphorical back stage, giving all the limelight to the people we serve. We typically have no bricks-and-mortar presence to speak of; we don’t sell tickets to anything; we aren’t, in a traditional sense, the creators. So perhaps it was appropriate that folks knew about our Open Studios and SPECTRA programs, but not about us, and knew about the dozens of organizations and artists we funded, but not about us. We weren’t sexy, and maybe we weren’t supposed to be.

On the flip side, I wondered what kind of impact we could have if we stayed under the radar. I wondered how we could affect community change, get a seat at the leadership tables, and truly “make shift happen” if we didn’t have our share of the limelight.

You can guess where I’ve landed on this.

Arts Council Santa Cruz County has an Open Studios program that is modeled across the country as one of the most successful and well-run programs of its kind. Our SPECTRA Arts Education program won multiple awards in its heyday and continues to change the lives of families. Mariposa’s Art is based on a curriculum so brilliant it has been bought by a school district and is now used in multiple core subject areas. Our grants program has invested millions and millions of dollars into the vibrancy of our creative community and economy. We are now housed on what will, upon completion, be the most diverse arts campus in the country. And the success and longevity of this organization is, I’m sure, one of the reasons that our creative population is so dense that we are the 5th most artistic city in the nation.

We’re sexy, darn it. And the stronger we are, the more we can serve the artists, arts organizations, schools, children, parents, and community members who benefit from all that we do. So we are going to launch into this new strategic plan head first. We are going to stick our necks above the crowd. We are going to be the big red beeping thing on the radar of both the public and private sector. And we are going to have a heck of a good time doing it. So, join us. Tell us what we are doing that excites you, and get involved. Tell us what you want to do for this arts sector, and for this community. Together, let’s see what we can make happen. I’m in. Are you?

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