Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Introducing Abbott Square Part 3: Community Participation Builds a Community Plaza

This is the third in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.

When we first started talking about redeveloping Abbott Square as a community plaza for downtown Santa Cruz, we ran into some basic questions. What amenities does it need? How will it feel welcoming and inclusive for different communities? Whose vision of downtown are we designing for?

We answered these questions through four years of community conversations. We kept meeting and involving new advocates with strong and differing perspectives. We built specific community processes appropriate to each step of the project development. Every step involved community participation. The result is a project dreamed up by our community, then harnessed, honed, and taken to completion by the MAH.

Here are three significant ways community participation influenced our project.

Community stakeholders made us confront the reality of divergent perspectives about downtown Santa Cruz. 

Going into the project, we saw the MAH’s location in downtown as a huge asset to the project. MAH staff and trustees see downtown as a vibrant retail, dining, and entertainment district, packed with diverse people. We started the Abbott Square project to bring more of the people visiting downtown into the MAH.

But when we started hosting formal community visioning workshops in 2013 with the Project for Public Spaces, we heard other opinions of downtown. We heard suburban moms describe downtown as dangerous, dirty, and unappealing. Businesspeople asked how we would keep out homeless people, drug addicts, and deviant behavior. Some people were downright incredulous that we could achieve our goals for a creative community plaza in downtown.

At first, I resisted and discounted these skeptics. I thought they had distorted perceptions of downtown. But over time, I learned to take their perceptions at face value. Their reality is not my reality... but it is real to them. And that led to two conclusions. First, that we should do what we can to address some community members’ real concerns about safety, cleanliness, and signals of welcome. We started designing ways to make Abbott Square a desirable “first landing place” in downtown—especially for families with children. And second, that while we want Abbott Square to be a welcoming community plaza downtown, we have to accept the reality that some people in our county will never come downtown. We are taking concerns about cleanliness and safety seriously. But we are focusing on people who are skeptical yet open to downtown, not those for whom that door is closed shut.

Community stakeholders drove us to add food to the project in a big way. 

When we first pitched Abbott Square to community members as a MAH project, we heard the same thing again and again: “I like the MAH. I love art and performances and family festivals. But FOOD and DRINK is going to be the thing to bring me back again and again.”

This community preference gave me a healthy dose of humility. A plaza rooted solely in creative practice was not going to achieve our community goals. So we scaled up the food component.

We went from planning for one coffee shop and a small cafe to imagining a public market with five mini-restaurants and two bars. We invested way more time, money, and energy into adding food than we had planned. We entered into a major new partnership to build Abbott Square Market. While Abbott Square still has art, history, and community at its heart, I accept the reality that food is what will drive most people to the plaza.

Community stakeholders made this a community project. 

Every step of the way, we reminded ourselves that we could only build a community plaza with our community. We found ways to engage community members in every step of the development process. Rather than engaging people in one aspect or way, we developed new forms of participation as needed. The first workshops with PPS were quite formal. They generated a fancy (and useful) report. But they were just the beginning. Here are a few other ways we involved community members in Abbott Square development:
  • We held open design competitions for the two major public art components of Abbott Square. Community members served on juries, and we invited hundreds of museum members, donors, and visitors to weigh in on proposed designs. 
  • We invited Abbott Square advocates to host their own lunches or cocktail parties at the MAH to discuss the future of downtown with their friends. 
  • We created a set of coasters with the Abbott Square core components written on them: FOOD, ART, HISTORY, PLAY, COMMUNITY. Any time we met with people about the project, we invited them to sort the coasters in order of importance and discuss their rankings. And then we encouraged them to keep and share the coasters. 
  • Whenever possible, we held public presentations/celebrations of the project. Most involved a fundraising ask, but we always made sure to welcome donors giving $1 as well as those giving $10,000. There were several events where we received gifts across that full range. 
  • We empowered a teen intern to make a video featuring MAH visitors to generate support for the project (shown at the top of this post). 
  • We invited interested folks to attend major City and County hearings on the project and to offer testimony about the value of the project to them. 
  • We formed an “Operation Abbott Square” task force of business-minded volunteers to help us plan for operational changes at the MAH post-expansion into Abbott Square. 
  • We let people put their mark on the project. Before we tore out all the pavers, we invited people to “buy a brick” for a contribution of any amount, painting their name on it right then and there. We held a demolition party where people could draw and write their names on walls that were later destroyed. And when neighbors asked if they could take home pavers for their own construction projects, we always said yes.
How have you involved community stakeholders in your capital projects?

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a response or question, you can join the conversation here.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Introducing Abbott Square Part 2: Why We're Expanding in Public Space - and Why You Should Consider It Too

This is the second installation in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.

The MAH fundamentally has two jobs: we bring art and history out into our community, and we invite our community in.

Over the past six years, we’ve done a great job bringing the community into the MAH. Our audience has quadrupled in size, and the people walking through our doors increasingly reflect the age, income, and ethnic diversity of our County. We’re proud that the MAH is a thriving museum AND community center for Santa Cruz County, a place for people of all walks of life to connect around our shared creativity and culture.

Visitors tell us how much they love the MAH, saying things like, “I love that the MAH holds very welcoming, accessible, open-minded and open-hearted space where people from every walk of life can gather and (re)create community.” Or “I love the MAH because it is a truly participatory space where diverse groups can enjoy, express themselves, and learn from/about/with others.” Or “The MAH is a living invitation of out-of-the box, beyond-perceived-walls thinking.”

There’s a lot of love inside the MAH these days. But in the spirit of that last visitor comment, we feel it is our responsibility and our glorious opportunity to spread that love beyond our walls. If we only build community inside the building, we’re trapping ourselves and our visitors in a bubble. We want to break out. We want the MAH’s inclusive creative energy to ripple across our county. Our vision is to build a stronger, more connected community through art and history. If we really want to achieve that vision, we’ve got to get to work in all the places where people live, work, and play.

We’ve experimented with beyond-the-building engagement through projects like the Pop Up Museum, Evergreen Cemetery restoration work, and partner-led festivals. I’ve seen again and again how outdoor programming has impact beyond what can happen inside the museum. Some casual passers-by jump in to participate, and even when they don’t, they get a bit of a contact high from the fact that art is happening as part of their urban experience. The engagement may be less intimate and focused, but the opportunity for ripple effects is greatly increased. The impact outdoors is wider and wilder than anything that happens inside the walls of an institution.

So we’re going big by expanding into Abbott Square, the under-utilized plaza on the MAH’s front doorstep. The “why” behind Abbott Square evolved over time, with four main reasons at the core:
  1. marketing and audience development
  2. meeting community needs
  3. achieving our mission / strategic alignment
  4. strengthening our business model
When we started the project four years ago, the primary reason to expand into the plaza was about marketing and audience development. Abbott Square physically connects the MAH to the main drag of downtown Santa Cruz. Four years ago, we were in the early stages of expanding and diversifying MAH programming, and we saw Abbott Square as a key physical connection between the growing museum and the vibrant creative life of downtown. Furthermore, we learned from a Latinx-focused ethnographic study that outdoor programming was particularly appealing to local Latinx families. We wanted to reach more people, and more diverse people, and we saw Abbott Square as a great place to do it.

Once we started community conversations about the potential for Abbott Square, the “why” shifted to community desire for a town square. While locals were interested in the MAH, they were MUCH more interested in having a downtown gathering place. We don’t have a town square in Santa Cruz, and people feel the acute lack of creative public space. What started as being about the MAH became more about the community. Community members’ expressed needs and desires drove the planning of Abbott Square and led to major decisions we would not have made if this project was “just” a MAH extension (more on community involvement in next week’s post). While this was exciting, it was also a bit disconcerting. At times, it felt like we were taking on a new sister project to the MAH in Abbott Square, as opposed to an expansion of our existing work.

To my grateful surprise, that sense of separation resolved itself as the MAH's strategy evolved in alignment with the project. While we were designing Abbott Square with community members, we were also strengthening the MAH’s overall commitment to community-driven programs. Three years ago, we wrote a new MAH theory of change with an impact statement to build a stronger, more connected community. We knew this impact could only happen if we expanded our work further beyond our walls.

Through the lens of our new theory of change, suddenly Abbott Square was core to our overall institutional strategy. Just as we have opened the MAH up to more diverse people, perspectives, art forms, and historical narratives over the past few years, now we are physically opening our facility with new offerings that are accessible and appealing to a much wider audience—including thousands of people who might not ever set foot in a museum. The people who enjoy Abbott Square’s whimsical Secret Garden, locally-rooted public market, and free outdoor performances will all experience the MAH—whether they also visit exhibition galleries or not. This intersection is not entirely a coincidence—the MAH and the Abbott Square project grew up together—but it was reassuring to realize that the community’s interest in Abbott Square was in our strategic best interest, too.

And finally, a fourth “why” was key throughout planning: Abbott Square was designed to generate revenue and maximize use of our real estate assets. The MAH has an unusual business model in that part of our revenue comes from managing Abbott Square plaza and an adjacent commercial office building. By incorporating a food market in the ground floor of that building (something community members urged us to do as part of the project), we are hopefully building a sustainable revenue source into Abbott Square. At the same time, we’re transforming a “high income, low mission impact” asset into a “higher income, high mission impact” asset. Hopefully.


I firmly believe that more creative institutions should be in the public space business. If we care about building community, we can’t just do it within our walls. We live in a time—especially in the United States—when people are more divided than ever. Space is contested, privatized, and segregated. Working on this project has opened me up to the incredible opportunities we have to claim public space for our communities and for the values that underlie our work.

Many people call this work “creative placemaking.” The idea is that creativity—not just sculptures or murals but events, art-making, art-sharing, commerce—can help turn an intersection or a riverfront or a concrete wedge into a place with a story and an identity. Creativity and culture connect us to place and to each other.

Yes, art is place making. But art is also future making. Art rejects the limitations of what we are and what we have been. It inspires us to imagine what we will be.

I want to imagine a future of downtown Santa Cruz in which creativity, commerce, and community are all welcome. I want to imagine a future in which the spirit of welcome and inclusivity that permeates the MAH spreads throughout our whole town.

We’re trying to build a slice of that future in Abbott Square. What future do you want to build in your community?

Monday, March 06, 2017

Introducing Abbott Square: A Multi-Part Series on the MAH's Expansion into Creative Public Space

I love the sound of jackhammers in the morning.

My organization, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH), is in the home stretch of a major expansion project. Over the next two months, as we head towards opening, I want to share some of the stories of this project and the process behind it.

This is not your typical museum expansion. When the construction is complete, we will have added zero square feet of gallery space. No new classrooms. Not an ounce of storage space, office space, nor exhibit prep space.

Instead, we're spending five million dollars to take our museum outside. We're transforming an underutilized downtown plaza next to the MAH, Abbott Square, into a creative town square. We're gutting an adjacent office building to host a new public market with five mini-restaurants and two bars. We're planting gardens, painting murals, chalking out performance stages, and hanging market lights. The goal is for Abbott Square to become a new creative heart of our county, a town square that brings together art, history, food, play, and community.

I've spent about half my work-time on Abbott Square over the past four years. It has been an incredible learning experience. I've immersed myself in the politics of public space, the idiosyncrasies of public-private partnerships, the opportunistic mindset of real estate development, the thrills of capital campaigns, the complications of merging current and future operations, and the creative possibilities of community co-design. I've made a lot of mistakes. There were lots of sleepless nights. I look forward to sharing some of these stories with you.

I'm a project junkie. Every time a big project approaches completion, I feel pride, excitement--and a tinge of loss. I love the uncertain energy that pulses through unfinished work. The tough decisions. The creative debates. I love the sound of jackhammers in the morning.

With the concrete flying and opening day fast approaching, I'm taking a step back to capture this project in writing. I don't want Abbott Square to be under construction forever. But I do want to keep the conversation open by sharing and discussing its story with you.