Category Archives: Program Innovation

Stuff of Dreams

My four-year-old often wakes in the middle of the night, anxious for answers to important questions: “Mommy, are robots real?” “Mommy, are giants bigger than Daddy?” “Mommy – the barf that flew out of my mouth last night – can we pretend it was fire?”

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Andrew, four, fire-breather and dreamer

Though I’m tired of stumbling between his bedroom and mine in the wee hours of the night, I understand that his brain is on overdrive, and I adore his insatiable curiosity. (And believe me, his questions continue throughout the day.) The blessing and curse of these nighttime wakings is that my brain starts to spin, too – and while my boy dreams about robots and giants and breathing fire, I think about spinning sculptures, water dances, and wonderful new friendships. I think about Ebb & Flow.

Just over a year ago, I brought together some of my favorite people in Santa Cruz to brainstorm an idea for a grant opportunity. The California Arts Council had just launched its Creative California Communities program and it seemed a perfect time to join sandboxes with people both in and out of the arts world – likely, and “unlikely” partners, as we like to call them. From that first meeting, the Ebb & Flow River Arts Project was born. (You can read the full origin story here.)

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logo mark by Doug Ross

Fast forward fourteen months and our program has become a movement. Our partnership is now a radical collaboration in which we share leadership, responsibility, and successes. It’s put the Arts Council’s work in front of people who didn’t know much about us. Most importantly, it’s bringing the community together to think about our river and RiverWalk in new ways.

I’ve been speaking about this program both near and far, and while it’s fun to share the various bits and pieces of awesome that comprise Ebb & Flow, the important thing is to reflect what we did right, to acknowledge how much of that “right stuff” was accidental, and to make those good choices intentional, moving forward.

But let’s start with the awesome. Ebb & Flow starts on First Friday, June 5th. Indulge me in a little imaginative trip, if you will. Start your evening downtown where we’ve closed off Cooper Street. There you can join artists, friends, neighbors and strangers to build two kinetic, mobile, river-inspired sculptures. After that, follow the nearest kids to First Friday venues for a scavenger hunt of artistic river critters. Once the moon rises, take a nighttime River Walk to see aerial dancing off a downtown bridge, watch an inspiring short film about our river, and witness a lighting ceremony of a new temporary public art piece that celebrates the ancient peoples of Santa Cruz.

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One of the “Guardians of the River” by Geoffrey Nelson

The next day, put your kids in a Radio Flyer wagon or grab your best friends and some pinwheels, and join the Ebb & Flow Kinetic Sculpture Parade down the Santa Cruz RiverWalk.

Fish Bike Lee

Fish Bike by Lee Myers

Not only will you see some of the wackiest kinetic art Santa Cruz artists have to offer – you’ll also witness the unveiling of ten new temporary artworks along the RiverWalk. These stunning pieces range from huge sculptural fishing rods dangling from a bridge to black metal “ghost” silhouettes of riverboats and bears that once roamed the river to massive sculptures of coho salmon and steelhead trout.

Upstream by Kirby Scudder

Upstream by Kirby Scudder

End your kinetic parade journey at the Tannery Arts Center for the Ebb & Flow River Arts Celebration. See the unveiling of Kathleen Crocetti’s and Anna Oneglia’s stunning new Ebb & Flow community-built sculpture.

Kathleen Crocetti - Ebb & Flow Table

Kathleen Crocetti – Ebb & Flow Table

Dance to Marty O’Reily, members of SambaDá, Flor de Cana, and so much more. See inspired dance by Tannery World Dance & Cultural Center Youth Company, Te Hua Nui, and even BANDALOOP dancing off the Tannery buildings. Join the kids in getting river critters painted on your face; print your own Ebb & Flow poster with Doug Ross; take a short tour of the river behind the Tannery and learn about the birds and fish that call it home; get water wise by interacting with the Coastal Watershed Council and Save Our Shores; and leave motivated, inspired, and delighted with your new friends and new knowledge about what the San Lorenzo River means to Santa Cruz County.

At least, that’s how I plan on spending the day. With just over four weeks to go, it’s no wonder that my head is spinning at 2 AM, wondering how we can make this event not just a wonderful couple of days, but a lasting movement that transforms how our community loves and cares for our river.

There’s a lot of art in this project. And a lot of joy. And through joyous art-making and art appreciating, we are realizing the goals of Ebb & Flow:

  • elevate community water literacy
  • inspire economic activity
  • activate underutilized community spaces
  • strengthen cross-sector relationships
  • build stewardship of the San Lorenzo River
  • make awesome art!

That last goal is actually the means for getting everything else done.

So what did we do right? And what can we do better next time? Stay tuned, and I’ll blog about it soon. For now, make sure you don’t miss the awesome. Book your calendar for June 5th & 6th to witness the beauty, spectacle, and wonder of Ebb & Flow.

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Practice

“We learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same.” – Martha Graham

In one day, I talked to 250 people, discovered the breadth of my personal biases, witnessed great work by dozens of researchers, administrators, and artists from around the world, and ate five mangoes. Where does such a thing happen? Museum Camp, at the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz.

Before, during, and after, I’ve been hard-pressed to describe what Museum Camp is. Part conference, part social experiment, part sleep-away camp, part Burning Man for research geeks, this 3 ½ day event brought together 100 people from around the world to “measure the immeasurable” – namely, “social impact assessment” – measuring the effects of a program in a community. We worked in small teams to choose research locations and then developed hypotheses that we then set out to prove, or disprove, in less than 48 hours. We had great coaches, a number of evaluation tools, and total freedom to create methods to engage or observe people and programs in action.

My team – the First Friday Brigade – was tasked with measuring the effects of First Friday on downtown Santa Cruz. We hypothesized that First Friday fuels a positive perception of downtown. We sort of proved our hypothesis was true – but more than that, I think we proved that the way things are measured have far too much influence on the results. That may seem obvious, but I think that realization was far more intense than anything else I learned over those several days.

We asked people to – in a word – describe First Friday. And this word cloud summarizes their responses. The words were about 98% positive – but this was likely dictated by two things. First, we had a huge hand-lettered colorful sign to draw people over, and we were dressed in capes and sparkles. I’m confident that people who responded to our survey self-selected based on our positive and colorful presentation. I think only people who love downtown and First Friday wanted to talk to us.

Second, I was a “barker” for the project, meaning I hollered and cajoled and bounced around trying to get folks to participate. And about fifteen minutes in, I realized that I was only targeting people whom I thought – for whatever reason, based on their appearance – would be willing to participate. As soon as I realized this, I gave myself a metaphorical slap in the face and worked on inviting every last person to participate. I got a lot more negative responses, but from there on out at least I felt I was doing my best to get a more random sampling.

This got me thinking about social bridging versus social bonding in my own life. Bridging and bonding are two things integral to the philosophy behind the Museum’s events. Bonding is what happens when preexisting social groups are brought together; bridging happens between groups and individuals who might not usually interact.

When I was “barking” to folks who looked like they might be happy to talk with me, I was attempting to “bond”. When I sought out folks who didn’t look like they might, say, belong to one of my mommy groups, I was seeking to “bridge”. That simple shift in behavior is so critical to building a stronger community, and yet it can be really difficult to tackle.

In the last few months, bridging has been at the top of my mind. It’s so easy for me to connect with people whose worlds I’m familiar with. Give me an audience of arts administrators and I’m perfectly comfortable speaking in our shared language. Stand me next in line at the grocery store with a woman with young children and I’ll likely have a new friend and a playdate scheduled for the next week. But change that dynamic in the least – if the kids are teenagers or the audience is, for example, construction workers (and yes, this happens in my line of work) and my latent introversion rears its ugly head and I have a terrible time finding a clear line to connect.

So, I’ve started a practice of bridging. I often talk to my husband about the practice of our daily lives – are we in a practice of grace and patience with our kids? Am I in a practice of integrity or just trying to squeak by? – and I find that I can only bridge when I am being keenly intentional about it, and practicing it regularly.

Our research project at Museum Camp was a great practice space. First of all, there were a hundred brilliant campers milling about the museum. Though we all were there for a common purpose, there was enough diversity in passions and backgrounds in that room to allow for intense bridging. And testing my own ability to bridge, over and over, in public (and in a cape) was a terrific and somewhat terrifying practice, too.

I’m grateful to have put myself in that uncomfortable space. I’m grateful that I was matched with some whip-smart people who allowed me to admit my biases and who were committed to our flawed but fun project.

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More than anything, I’m grateful that for 3 ½ days I was forced to hit a “reset” button in my life. I always want conferences to jar me a bit, to mix up my schedule dramatically, and to make me think differently, but they rarely deliver. Museum Camp delivered, with great conversation, truly interesting people, compelling research projects, fantastic coaches, and a very large box of mangoes to fuel our creative fires. I can’t wait to see what they cook up for next year’s Camp.

 

 

“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.

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.

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

Labor and delivery

I currently have 50% more blood in my body than I did seven months ago. My heart is working almost twice as hard as it was pre-baby, pumping more blood at a faster rate. Even my lungs – which are highly compressed by my baby and its cocoon – are taking in 30% more oxygen than before. It’s no wonder that I get dizzy so easily, that walking a few blocks is challenging, and that at any given moment, I could put my head down and drop into deep sleep.

It’s hard, though, to remember exactly why I feel so strange. Because it’s not just that I’m cooking up a baby; it’s that the infrastructure of my body is fundamentally changed by his presence, which creates ripple effects throughout all of my systems.

Tonight, along with our consultant and planning team, I will be presenting our new, final (hopefully) strategic plan. This plan has been gestating just a little longer than a baby – ten months – and may also create fundamental changes in the Cultural Council. For my body, the changes are temporary. My baby-making organs will shrink down to their original size; my ligaments will eventually stop being wacky-elastic; my beach ball of a belly will deflate and (ye gods willing) return to some semblance of what it once was. Of course, my external life will be forever altered, with two little boys defining my life, love, and priorities from now on. But I will largely return to who I once was, if not emotionally, at least physically.

The strategic plan will have a different effect on the Cultural Council, if we do this right. As I’ve mentioned, some of it reflects who we have already become, some of it is aspirational, and some of it downright scary, with goals that will really stretch us. But my hope is that it forever moves the organization toward its best self. We plan to implement the plan’s recommendations in a smart and thoughtful way, put our resources behind it, and make intentional shifts that do not leave room to settle back into our current, more comfortable grooves. I suppose this is the challenge for any organization or program that alters its strategy – to make sure that the change is positive and lasting.

We’ve already had some significant changes in the past three years, and even more in the past several months. Some incredible talent and wonderful people have recently left the Cultural Council and transitioned on to the next great things in their lives. We will miss them and the wealth of knowledge and institutional memory that they brought to the organization. But I feel incredibly fortunate because our current staff team is just extraordinary. Whenever I walk into our front doors, in order to get to my office, I have to walk by every single staff member’s office, as we are almost all in a row with mine at the end. And as I walk, the closer I get to my office, the more jazzed and inspired I get. Each person I pass is so damn smart and funny and fantastic and talented – and they enjoy each other, and enjoy their work.

I count myself incredibly fortunate to be among such people every day. And I will call on them – and, of course, our equally fantastic board of directors – to contribute to making the necessary shifts that will allow us to be who we need to be in this community. Our collective “baby” – this plan that has taken us ten months to create, that made us (or at least, some of us) think differently and lose sleep and disagree and debate our values and ultimately brought us to consensus – will not dramatically change the world, necessarily. But it will give us permission to explore, create, and hopefully do great things within its boundaries and framework.

If all goes well tonight, and the plan is approved, tomorrow will be more than just a new day – it will be the beginning of the next 33 years of the Cultural Council’s life. It will take us some time to get the plan ready for publication, as well as to finalize the “Vision Video” that will be a new way to experience and understand the plan. But, soon enough, we’ll get it launched. And that’s not all. In the next several months, we’ll fully redesign our identity (including our logo, marketing materials, and how people visually experience the Cultural Council), redesign our website, and move to the Tannery Arts Center campus.

Fundamental changes, indeed. I hope my body eventually returns to something resembling its former self; I hope the Cultural Council transforms, in the best possible ways, for good.