|MAH staffer Sandino Gomez extolls the virtues of Abbott Square.|
When we started the Abbott Square expansion project, I knew it would change our facility. I knew it would change the museum visitor experience. I knew it would change our downtown.
But I completely missed something else it would change: our staff.
It's absurd in retrospect to think this project could change the downtown without changing our organization. But when we started Abbott Square, I saw it as a new program. I assumed it would grow alongside our existing work rather than reshaping it. We were developing something that departed from our core services, on a site that we didn’t currently activate, with money we didn’t yet have. It felt separate from the ongoing work of the organization. For the first two years, the board was deeply involved. The staff was not.
The Abbott Square development team started with one staff member and one trustee. I brought the community visioning and planning process. Peter Orr (the trustee) brought the business planning and operational know-how. For over a year, Peter and I built the plan, negotiated partnerships, crunched numbers. We worked with community partners, stakeholders, and trustees to hone the plan.
When the capital campaign started, the staff team grew from one to three. I hired a development director whose primary focus was the capital campaign. Our marketing and engagement coordinator expanded her role to produce campaign collateral. Working closely with trustees and community partners, we raised the $5,000,000 needed to make the Abbott Square a reality.
All our staff members worked fundraising events. They heard the pitch. They knew the broad strokes of the project. But internally, many staff (including me) treated the Abbott Square project as “my” project. I felt both excited and isolated by the project. I sat alone in the corner reviewing contracts and architectural plans. Abbott Square was still an idea conjured in site plans and fundraising brochures. It existed outside the real world of museum exhibits, events, and visitors our staff worked with every day.
For the first couple years, I was comfortable with this division of labor. I had my job; my colleagues had theirs. Since there wasn’t yet concrete work for them to DO related to Abbott Square, separation felt appropriate. In staff meetings, I treated Abbott Square as an inspiring distraction. Something to be aware of and informed about. Not something to focus on.
But as we started shifting from vision to action, we had to change this approach. Abbott Square wasn’t shaping up to be another project in a portfolio of MAH projects. It was changing our community, and it had to change our organization. I needed to desilo the project. I needed to open it up to our staff’s expertise. I needed to invite staff members to feel like owners of it.
Even once I understood this, I wasn’t sure when and how to shift. There were so many questions about Abbott Square where the answer was, “I don’t know yet.” There were so many parts of the project that took up a ton of my time but shouldn’t concern others. There were stressful moments—getting permits, settling the lawsuit—that could have been big distractions for our staff. I felt protective of their time. I wanted to insulate them from the strange world of the project. I wanted to wait until I could answer their questions with something other than “I don’t know yet.”
And so I waited.
It never felt like the right time to make the shift. I never felt like I had enough information for staff. I never felt ready to ask people to shift their attention to something that didn’t exist yet. I hated being unsure of dates and timelines. I kept telling myself we should wait a little longer.
But then two things happened that made me feel like I had to act. First, our Development Director moved on from the MAH when the campaign wrapped up. My main staff partner on the project was gone. And Intersection for the Arts fell into crisis.
Intersection is a San Francisco-based arts organization I had long admired. In the mid-2000s, under the leadership of Deborah Cullinan, they entered into a partnership with a real estate developer to move into a new building and transform their business model. The move was ambitious, innovative, and bold—everything Deborah was known for. Three years after the move, Deborah left Intersection to become the new CEO of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. She thought she was leaving Intersection in a strong position. Instead, within a year, it fell into financial crisis.
I know very little about Intersection’s move, meltdown, and subsequent regrowth. But I do know this: the financial crisis underscored the need for the whole organization to understand and embrace the move in all its complexity.
The Intersection crisis was a wakeup call for me. If Abbott Square launched as “my” project, or even as the board’s project, MAH staff might not be ready to lead it. They might not seize all the opportunities it presents. They might struggle to tackle the challenges it introduces.
And so I started opening up. I asked colleagues to partner with me on an operational vision. I invited them take the lead on several key elements. I got more comfortable saying, “I don’t know.”
The more I did this, the more it became clear that Abbott Square could and should have a transformative impact on our whole organization. About a year before opening, we did a major restructuring of our staff to meet the opportunity of Abbott Square. At first, I’d assumed two or three people’s jobs would be impacted by Abbott Square. Instead, everyone’s job changed. To treat Abbott Square as an expansion of the MAH and not an ancillary project, we all had to reset our idea of what the MAH is and what we do here.
The restructuring was tough, time-consuming, and necessary. We rewrote job descriptions, reoriented teams, and redistributed work. Now, we have a staff team who think of MAH + Abbott Square as one big entity which we are all responsible for.
This transition work is far from done. There are still aspects of the project I have a hard time letting go of. Every day, I have to tell a colleague “I don’t know” when I wish I could give them a definitive answer. But I’m trying to be honest about these items as they arise. Our goal is that when we open this summer, the operation of the expanded MAH is in the hands of our whole team. I think we’re getting there.
I still wonder what would have happened if I hadn't had that wakeup call. I still wonder when the perfect moment was to start this transition. Should I have started sooner, so more staff members co-owned the nascent vision? Should I have waited longer, so staff could do their best work on existing programs and not waste energy on uncertain outcomes? When we’re in this situation someday with the next big project, what will we do?
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