Category Archives: Arts Marketing

Sideways

“I was taught that the human brain was the crowning glory of evolution so far, but I think it’s a very poor scheme for survival.” – Kurt Vonnegut

 “The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public.” – George Jessel

Most people want to belong to a peer group of like-minded others more than they want to accept facts.

Actually, it goes deeper than that. People need to feel a sense of belonging to such an extent that they will disbelieve irrefutable facts if those facts will separate them from their peer group. Fascinating, no? For instance, let’s say you are a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association (NRA) and you want to convince a group of Democrats that, say, requiring permits does not reduce violent crime. The worst thing you can do is tell this group of Democrats that 86.4% of Democrats believe that police permits should be required for gun ownership, even if your next statistic is one that indisputably demonstrates that permits do more harm than good in our legal system. (Obviously, I’m completely making that up.)

The Democrats – even after hearing your fantastic statistic – will only believe more strongly that the permits should be required, because unconsciously, their highest need is a sense of belonging to their peer group. By citing what that group believes, even though you follow it up with a statistic that refutes that belief, you’ve reaffirmed what they already believed rather than shifted their thinking. Changing their belief would mean separating themselves from like-minded people, and that is against our basic human hard-wiring.

So what do we do with this information?

I’ve just finished the second week of the Spitfire Strategies training and my head is spinning, even faster than it was last time. We learned about the “facts vs. peer group” phenomenon at the last session, but we’ve built upon it the last few days, and this idea – of cognitive dissonance – is making me rethink the fundamentals of our communications.

One afternoon during the training, we were treated to a precious hour with Shankar Vedantam, NPR’s science correspondent, who talked about unconscious biases and what really drives decision-making. The thrust of his talk was that in this country – unlike many others, particularly in Europe – we Americans are almost entirely motivated by independent motives rather than interdependent motives. Meaning, if we think something will better our own lives, we will be more motivated than if we think it will benefit the greater community more. For example, I will, with this logic, care more about the drinking water where my kid goes to school than I will about the health of the water in the greater Monterey Bay.

There are examples around this in both the left and right. “Gun rights” activists are more successful than gun control advocates because they make their case around personal liberty and safety and the right for individuals to bear arms. But pro-choice advocates are currently more successful than anti-choice advocates because the issue is such a personal, singular one about each woman having control over her own body.

Now while this priortization of individual good over collective good might be both disturbing and debatable, it is prevalent. And yet, the majority of our messaging at the Arts Council is centered around collective good. By our very nature, we connect people, we create gathering places, we inspire common dialogue, we strengthen schools, we reduce crime, we spark economic activity. These are the stories we tell. Less often do we talk about what it means to be personally engaged in the making of or enjoying the arts.

And yet, when we immerse ourselves in the arts, we are most fully present. When we are captivated by live theater, when we are dancing in a club or in our living room, when we are spending a solid hour mixing blue and white paint to perfectly capture the shade of a midday sky (and yes, I did that, once), both our hearts and our minds are completely engaged. And that is what it means to be truly present. It’s difficult to achieve that state outside of the arts, and yet we spend very little time making the case that the arts can actually make you feel better, make you happier. I can’t imagine a more personal, self-serving (in a positive way) motive.

But back to the facts.  And back to the fact that facts don’t matter. Perception is reality, and more than anything, people need to feel like they belong. So what do we do with this information?

The best part of this training has been learning all of the science around how our brains work, and what really drives our decision-making. And what we learned is that most people will simply never change their minds. And the more we throw facts at them to try to get them to change their minds, the more they will believe what they believed in the first place. There are people who will never think the arts are important. There are people who will continue to think being gay is a choice, or a sin. There are people who will deny climate change to their grave.

climate_street_art_1

“Follow the leaders”, or “Politicians Discussing Global Warming” – Isaac Cordal, Berlin, Germany, April 2011

So, what does all the science say to do with these folks?

Nothing.

There’s nothing to be done. Lock a progressive in a room with ten channels turned on Fox News and 24 hours later they’ll only be more of a lefty. The same would happen to a die-hard conservative locked up with MSNBC – they will emerge even more convinced of their original beliefs. What we need to do, instead of trying to change the minds of the masses, is energize our base. Fire up our most evangelistic supporters. Get them to influence that wee 15% or so of undecided folks in our community. Don’t soften our messages in hopes of gently winning the opposition. It won’t work, and it will cause defection in our ranks. Instead, message with hope, with passion, and with conviction, believing that we are on the winning team (even if it doesn’t feel like it) and if the opposition hates our message it means we hit the mark.

What if our opposition is loud, and maybe even wrong in their (to borrow from Steven Colbert) truthiness? That will only serve to energize our base, and throwing facts or statistics back at them is a waste of breath.

I find all of this a great relief. Yes, there are times when we need to change the minds of people who hold great influence over policy or funding or PR that dramatically affect our work. To these folks we cannot turn a deaf ear. But if we can energize our base, spark a movement, turn some of the undecideds into our evangelists, and put great social pressure on those decision makers, we will have created a peer group that the person of influence will, hopefully, want to join.

Sometimes the way in is sideways.

I’ve got much more to digest, but as I barrel through the sky at 35,000 feet, finally returning home to my sweet little boys, I’m thinking about how all of this applies to us in Santa Cruz. My friends and colleagues are all engaged in hard work to make Santa Cruz the most terrific and enlightened place on earth to live, work, and play. How can we use this information to better make our case, and change our world?

 

 

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“Ideas, like large rivers, never have just one source.” – Willy Ley

Last Sunday, my three-year-old Andrew wanted to go on a bike ride. So my husband put Andrew’s bike in the back of the car, strapped in Andrew and his little brother Alex, and drove to the Tannery Arts Center campus, where I work, and where there is plenty of paved, safe open space.

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Alex and Andrew, “working” at my desk last Sunday

I hopped on my cruiser to meet them there. I live about a block and a half from a trestle bridge that connects this side of Santa Cruz to the Boardwalk, and at the bottom of the bridge is the starting point for the River Walk, a long path that meanders next to the San Lorenzo River. The river runs through downtown and past the Tannery Arts Center, which is where the River Walk ends. The small miracle of this means that when I ride to work, I only have to be on surface streets for a block and a half. The rest of my ride I’m flying by the flora and fauna that call the river home – flowers and countless species of birds and tiny skittering animals – and eleven minutes later I’m at the front door of my office.

The sad part? I was largely alone on that ride. It was a perfect, sunny, 70-degree Santa Cruz early spring day, and almost nobody was out enjoying the river. No paddlers, no picnickers, no pedestrians. No families out for a stroll or packs of cyclists in their spandexed glory.

The San Lorenzo River is the historic and environmental heart of this city. These days, the community is both literally and figuratively cut off from it. A series of levees built in the 1950’s blocks the river from view; and as criminal activity increased next to it, the community avoided it, and many have forgotten about it altogether. But it wasn’t always so. A century ago, it was the celebrated lifeblood of the community, and even supported the most anticipated annual event in Santa Cruz: the San Lorenzo Venetian Water Festival. Four days of celebration included fireworks displays, dancing on a temporary floral pavilion, night parades, and lavishly decorated boats and barges. Thousands of lights were strung from shore to shore.

Venetian Water Festival Float

A float at the River Festival, some time around the turn of the century

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viewing stands along the San Lorenzo River

Now, the river doesn’t meet federal water quality objectives; it has a high concentration of criminal activity adjacent to it, and local policies prohibit access, so there is no swimming, paddling, or any other recreation in the water. Some community members don’t even realize we have a river running through our city, and many that do generally avoid it, as it’s not seen as a safe place.

The river should be our pride and joy. It should be a place where we come to celebrate and recreate. It should be an engine of economic activity and should be recognized as our main source of drinking water, wildlife habitat, and flood protection. It should inspire, delight, and restore us as we wander down its path.

There have been many stalled and unsuccessful attempts over the years to remedy this problem. Now, though, something is afoot that has the potential to, if you will, turn the tide. Greg Pepping of the Coastal Watershed Council has created the San Lorenzo River Alliance. The Alliance is a coalition focused on revitalizing the health of the San Lorenzo River and transforming it into a safe and welcoming community destination. Greg is working on pulling together partners from a wide swath of interests to collectively work on this vision. It will take years, but I believe he will be successful.

And the arts are going to help him get there.

The Arts Council, in partnership with the Coastal Watershed Council, the City of Santa Cruz Water Department, the City of Santa Cruz Arts Commission, the Tannery Arts Center, the Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center, and numerous incredible local artists including Kathleen Crocetti, applied for a significant grant from the California Arts Council. This grant, through the Creative California Communities program, would invigorate both the river and the Tannery campus, and bring together some seriously awesome folks, many of whom have never worked together before. Here’s the “project thumbnail” from the grant:

Unlikely partners will unite to transform the community’s relationship with the San Lorenzo River and the Tannery Arts Center through the Ebb & Flow River Arts Project, a yearlong collaborative arts and educational initiative culminating in a Kinetic Sculpture Parade & River Festival. The Project will spark a movement that builds constituencies for the Tannery campus and the river, elevates water literacy, inspires hubs of economic activity, and strengthens cross-sector relationships. 

Sounds fantastic, right? We will create a large sculptural fountain which includes a water catchement system with a spill-way to the Tannery Garden. The large, round planters around campus will be decorated with water-inspired mosaics. We’ll do a series of educational workshops co-led by artists and water experts. We’ll create temporary public art at five River Walk access points to call attention to those locations and educate community members about the river.  And it will all culminate next June in a Kinetic Sculpture Parade & Festival, featuring work by Tannery and community artists, who will create sculptures that will parade down the river – or the River Walk, if the flow isn’t high enough – ending at the Tannery where we’ll celebrate with dance, music, artmaking, and food.

We’ll engage the environmental population in the arts, and arts audiences in a celebration of the river. We’ll use the energy and momentum created by the festival to advocate for friendlier policies for the use of the river (with habitat and conservation always at front of mind, of course). We’ll bring thousands of people to the Tannery campus. And we’ll help realize the potential of the river and the campus as major hubs of toursim and economic activity.

What if we don’t get the grant? I’ll be disappointed, but I won’t regret all of the time and energy I put into bringing these people together. Just the process of brainstorming the idea, and crafting the proposal led me to meet some fantastic folks, and to begin to deepen relationships with some I already knew. I’m happy to now be serving on the San Lorenzo River Alliance’s River Oversight Committee, and my own “water literacy” has been dramatically raised since I started working on this proposal.

And I’ve fallen in love with our river. I ride my bike on the River Walk whenever I get the chance, and I look forward to the day when my Sunday afternoon ride is idyllic in a different way : maybe not as quiet and peaceful as last Sunday, but wonderful in its own way with the sounds of kids laughing, paddlers splashing, cyclists spinning, birders spotting, and community members of all kinds finding a place to relax, reconnect, and restore.

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If you live in Santa Cruz county, and if you are interested in sharing your vision for the river and shaping the work of the San Lorenzo River Alliance, please complete this survey. Your input is extremely valuable to the Alliance!

 

Ebb and Flow

Still Burning

When I was in college, one of our particularly brilliant directors – Doug Austin, if he’s still working out there – talked to us about successful performers and how we were to learn from them. In one particular lecture, he said something like, “If there is someone you admire, if they are particularly talented and do great work, find out how often they rehearse. Find out what they do to prepare for performances. Find out what their rituals are, what’s important for them. Hell, find out where they get their donuts.” The idea being, if I know where, say, Dame Judy Dench gets her donuts, and if I stalk her and figure out her favorite kind and try her donut-eating method that avoids getting jelly on my shirt, some of Ms. Dench’s awesomeness might rub off on me, along with the powdered sugar.

I desperately hope that I come home with a head-to-toe fine dusting of metaphorical powdered sugar, considering the smarts I’ve witnessed in the past two days.

First of all, Kristen Grimm, President of Spitfire Strategies. If there is any way that I could ever be as singularly good at any one thing as she is at communications, my life will have had meaning. And Andy Goodman from The Goodman Center? Come on. His presentation on bad presentations was the best presentation I’ve ever seen.

Today we fleshed out the communications planning tool that we started yesterday. This tool – called a Smart Chart – is a thoughtful way to develop a communications program around a particular issue or goal. It’s all about identifying the values of our audiences, overcoming barriers, illuminating the solutions that our organizations provide, and confirming how the world will be better as the result of our work.

Of the many powerful takeaways from today, there is one at the top of my mind: in communications, perception is more important than fact. Heck, that’s probably true in most situations if you need to move the needle on an issue. If the people you are trying to reach have an emotional connection to what you are describing, you have to meet them where they are, and respond with emotion. You can’t respond to emotions with facts.

Kristen gave a great example: her husband was 45 minutes late for dinner. She freaked out when he finally arrived, and started yelling, “You don’t love me!” He started explaining that his meeting ran late, that he couldn’t get a cab, and she was getting more and more worked up because the details didn’t matter. It wasn’t until he stopped and said, “Honey, I’m so sorry. I love you. This will never happen again,” that she calmed down. The facts were irrelevant. The emotion was all that mattered. (If my husband is reading this, he’s probably both rolling his eyes and nodding his head.)

We also learned how both humor and emotion, and very well-done visuals, can be tremendously effective. Here are two excellent examples:

This one was, I admit, so targeted to someone like me:

Follow the Frog.

And this one shattered me:

Imagine a World Without Hate

Both incredibly effective narratives, for very different reasons.

My mind is about to melt out of my ears, and I have only one more night to get an irresponsibly wonderful amount of sleep, so I cannot share more at the moment. I will, however, write more about what I’ve learned as I work to integrate it into the Arts Council. Getting whacked over the head with a bunch of awesomeness can be overwhelming; bringing it home and making it work for the Council will be a whole separate kettle of kittens. But if we can make that happen, I believe the difference will be profound.

Fired Up

“Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation.” – Aristotle

I’m writing from the heart of Washington, D.C., just six blocks from the White House and a few light years away from Santa Cruz. I’m here for the Executive Training Program through Spitfire Strategies. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation funded my trip here, and my gratitude to them is matched only by my enthusiasm for the work. One of the best things about this training is that it’s cross-sector – there are nonprofit executives here working in river conservation, education, health, leadership, philanthropy, farming, wildlife – and only one other arts organization. It’s fantastic to learn from not just the think tank that is Spitfire, but also from the brilliance of the collective group.

This is also my first extended trip away from my little boys. While I could barely breathe from missing them as I fell into bed last night, I also experienced 9 1/2 hours of uninterrupted sleep for the first time in almost four years. If it’s possible to be both drunk and hung over from sleep, that’s how I felt this morning when I woke. But I digress.

A few preliminary observations about my time here:

1. I’m the only one in D.C. with hair down to my butt, a powder blue puffy winter coat, and a bag full of knitting. But, I’m a nerd anywhere I go, so this isn’t such a big deal.

2. It’s 30 degrees out but there are lots of men walking around in sport coats and ties but no jacket.

3. Women here wear pantyhose. Or is it just called hose? And where does one buy such a thing? This is the strangest thing I’ve seen yet.

4. It’s incredible to be in a city with such (comparatively) old and beautiful architecture, and where so much is happening, all the time.

While I delight in being a tourist, that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to learn how to build the overall communications capacity of the Arts Council – to create our communications strategy, to help us tell great stories, and to do a better job of connecting with the people we serve, and the people who support us.

This was our first of three days, and it was intense. I imagine that the work we are doing would benefit any organization, or for that matter, any business, large or small.

We started by tackling our “brand strategy”, and “brand promise”. And yes, when I hear those phrases, my eyes roll back in my head at what sounds like really dull jargon. But what we are talking about when we use those terms is juicy stuff: the personality, the core beliefs, the very DNA of our organizations. We also discussed, at length, what we don’t do, what we are not. My list for that was pretty long, and included the following nuggets:

– We don’t make art. (We make art happen.)

– We don’t have a strict top-down management structure.

– We aren’t quiet.

– We are not too busy to listen.

– We do not operate solely in the arts world.

It’s eye-opening to clarify what you aren’t, so you can better articulate who you are.

We also did an exercise called “Best in the World”, where I was to distill what the Arts Council is truly gifted at as an organization. The Council runs great programs. But here is the thing that I believe is beginning to set us apart:

“The Arts Council champions the arts as a means to address and even help solve broad community issues and challenges.”

This is a newer focus for us, and other organizations (namely the MAH) are also doing great work in this arena, but it’s a movement that I think is critical to our long-term success, and the success of our community. I’ll be writing about this a great deal more in the near future.

One of the most illuminating elements of the day was a self-assessment we each conducted on our organization’s communications capacity. We rated our organizations on how far along we were in sixteen different areas. And… the Arts Council isn’t at the bottom of the barrel, but we are also far from the cream of the crop.

When you are deeply passionate about your work, it’s hard to point a magnifying glass at it and be objective about your strengths and flaws. But it’s also a relief to acknowledge, in black and white, where you fall short, so you can name the problem and consider how to address it.

Want to take a crack at it? Consider your organizational or business communications strategy. How would you rate yourself on:

– clear communication objectives

– a written communications plan

– someone in charge of implementing it

– talking with your board, staff, and volunteers every week about it

– a rockstar elevator speech

– tailored messages

– everyone from interns to executives being trained spokespeople

– a crisis plan

– refreshing your messages based on current realities

– an excellent system for measuring progress

– ultimately, a strong, recognizable brand

That’s only about half the list. And it’s all  important.

Equally important is getting out of my comfort zone and into a room of thoughtful people and skilled consultants who are giving me the tools to transform how the Arts Council communicates – and therefore transform how successful we can be. I’m very much looking forward to day 2. And, perhaps, 10 more hours of sleep, starting now.

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.

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.

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.

AC-logo-lime-horiz

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

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.