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September 11, 2020 / News & Blog
This article is part of the August 2020 issue of Hand to Hand, “COVID-19: Stories from the Field.” Click here to read other articles in this issue.
The Zoom call ends, the hangout disperses. You sign off, then what? What are the first thoughts that come to mind as you return to solo work in a home office, living room, kitchen, silent museum office? In this collection of short pieces, museum staff talk about what they thought about, privately, during those many, many shelter-in-place days. How did they summon the energy to keep going? What worries them the most? These writers share what they have learned about their museum and themselves during the pandemic pause as they continue to fight for their museums’ future.
I get off the Zoom calls and I think: this wasn’t what I had planned at all for the spring of 2020. I was so sure we would be planning our expansion and capital campaign, a creative and fitting way to end my career. But instead: a pandemic, closing the museum, stay-at-home orders, economic freefall, and then worldwide demonstrations in response to the killing of George Floyd.
I find myself struggling to pivot, to prioritize, to make sense, to give myself a little time when I am not working and worrying, and all the while I’m missing my museum, my staff, and being in the company of others. Internally, I find strength in my relationships with colleagues, my decades of weathering other crises, my ability to stay calm and focused, and in all I have learned from my mentors who have helped shape my career. Externally, I find strength in what the LICM staff, board, and I have built over the years—a museum that always strives to do better, to do good, to stretch itself and face challenges together and head on. More broadly, the support of the full museum community provides the collegial support necessary to navigate the current crises in our field and in our nation.
I am honored and proud of staff members who have stayed the course, worked so hard and with so much passion for what we do. Questioning, debating, moving forward together. Facing our challenges with the certainty that, although this is not what we had planned, we will be steadfast in meeting the challenges and be a better organization in the future for it. New learning of a different kind. But the biggest challenge really—beyond the financial, of course—is trying to figure out what role a children’s museum plays in a non-touch world. How do we now communicate our value? How can we turn some of these challenges into opportunities?
In the end, in spite of a delayed expansion project that I was very much looking forward to, I made my peace with this: my strengths as a leader are needed and well matched for this kind of challenge, for this moment.
After I hung up, my mind wandered back to the time some of my Leadership Akron group colleagues convinced me to run a leg of a marathon with them. After some friendly cajoling about how I had what it took and could easily do it since I would be on a team, I agreed to run the shortest leg in the race. On race day, my husband and two sons came out to cheer me on. Once they saw me on route, they’d drive up ahead to catch me somewhere along my next mile point. Once they were out of sight, I slowed down to walk a bit. Just as I slowed my pace, they reappeared, driving up beside me. Naturally, I picked up the pace and kept running while they cheered me on and gave me several air high fives.
I have been in need of similar air high fives since museum life came to a sudden halt on that eerie Friday the 13th last March. I often feel like I’m in a Grand Prix race and the announcer has just said “racers start your engines.” He counts down 3-2-1 as I’m revving up to make my best start only to suddenly and unexpectedly be slowed down by multiple surprise twists and turns newly added to the track. The constant engine “revving” is my ongoing brainstorming of new ways to generate revenue while the physical doors to the museum are closed.
Although I long for more riveting reasons—like a sudden influx of revenue—to receive high fives, the ongoing support of my board of directors and other museum supporters motivates me. Seeing the mayor wearing one of our museum face masks and collaborating with volunteers who are committed to seeing the museum weather the storm keeps me going. The support of fellow arts organization colleagues, ACM Leadership Call discussions, and state museum association meetings help me feel connected and inspired to keep up a steady pace in the race to preserve, protect, and reopen the museum.
Paradigm shifts for organizations often come planned and over a period of time, but the pandemic paradigm switch arrived swiftly like a thief in the night.
Prior to St. Patrick’s Day, when the i.d.e.a. Museum closed, we were thriving. Attendance and revenues had increased, and we had received $5 million in city bond funds to support Phase I of our Site Master Plan. The i.d.e.a. Museum Foundation was conducting a philanthropic feasibility study while the City of Mesa’s Engineering Department conducted a facility feasibility study. Our long-anticipated vision for growth was nearing reality… and then COVID-19 hit.
We immediately shifted gears, immersing ourselves in quickly making multiple decisions even with incomplete information. How long would we be closed? Should we cancel our annual fundraiser? How could we realign our city and our museum foundation’s budgets? Could we quickly create virtual programs to stay connected to our audience? How could we revise our interactive exhibits to meet new sanitation protocols? These questions and more occupied my thoughts 24/7.
After stakeholder discussions and over the short course of a few weeks, the annual fundraiser was cancelled, thirteen part-time and two full-time staff were laid off, we lost $260,000 in combined revenues, social media and web content increased, a one-way route was devised throughout the museum with a revision of fifteen interactives, and an outdoor space was planned for activation.
I have distaste for the “new normal.” There’s nothing normal about this. We are a resilient team that has been through four paradigm shifts in fourteen years. We use Susan Kenny Stevens’ book Nonprofit Lifecycles: Stage-Based Wisdom for Nonprofit Capacity to gauge our approaches and progress. We share with each other ways to stay healthy, and despite the sudden and pervasive upheaval, we know that “this too shall pass.”
When we closed our doors on March 13 to protect the safety and wellbeing of our community, we thought it would be short lived. As the days passed and the shelter-in-place orders became mandated, it was evident we were headed for unprecedented times. The world was changing fast. No industries had planned for serious environmental disruption, and our “high-touch” children’s museum was no different. We were grappling with issues we couldn’t have predicted, and the only certainty was uncertainty. Public, private, for-profit, and nonprofit sectors all faced the same problems.
Questions were endless: How long will this last? What do we do with staff? What can we continue to provide? How will all this affect children and their families? What does this do to our value proposition to the social capital we have developed through our programs? How will the museum survive? (Just to name a few.) What plagued my middle-of-the-night sleep were thoughts of limited cash reserves and no endowment. Our budget is based on 85 percent earned revenue. To close even temporarily was tantamount to a possible and permanent end. Without guests, school tours, outreach, events, memberships, and more, our daily earned income dried up overnight. And even though we had contingency plans for “normal” disasters, our current situation was worse than 9/11 and the 2008 recession combined. The road ahead looked impossible. As someone who usually thrives in crisis and can usually handle the curveballs thrown my way, I felt overwhelmed and a little scared. Would this thirty-year-old organization end under my leadership?
Enter the Zooms, the webinars, and the PPP money to keep my chief operating and program officers employed. Overwhelmed by what needed to happen, working with these two staff members and listening to my peers on our invaluable weekly calls, I realized this was not something I alone had to “fix.”
COVID-19 has asked humans to do something that the rest of nature does nearly every day—adapt. I focused on accepting that this was a pivotal time to not let what we couldn’t do interfere with what we could do. Present circumstances didn’t determine where we could go, they merely determined where we needed to start.
Some of my happiest moments in life are when I find a way to squeeze in an extra activity between commitments. If I fly into a city for a meeting, I try to arrive a little early, so I can explore the city before the meeting starts. If I go to a conference, I may stay an extra few days in the area to explore a nearby National Park before I head back home and to work. Sometimes when I am at the museum and one meeting ends early, I’ll take a walk along the river before the next meeting begins.
Now that life has been upended by COVID-19, I’ve found new hours to use in similar ways. With stay-at-home orders, instead of commuting to work in the morning, I now take a long walk in those early hours with my two Labradors, Abby and Arlo. Instead of commuting home in the evenings, I now grab my camera or flyrod and walk down to the river near my house.
I am thankful to have not lost a friend or loved one due to the pandemic. But I have lost the momentum my museum team has built over the past five years. Projects are on hold. Open staff positions are frozen. Budgets have been cut. Previous operations and revenues numbers—including those from the recent first quarter of 2020—are now meaningless as predictors of the future.
But my morning and afternoon walks with my dogs have helped to buffer the professional loss I feel because of COVID-19, and I feel more ready to face another uncertain day.
Recently, ACM Executive Director Laura Huerta Migus referred to us all being on the Corona-coaster! I, for one, want off this roller coaster.
In January, at Wonderscope, I deemed this year was “our” year. We had worked hard for many years preparing for and launching a capital campaign and starting construction on a new building. Construction was nearing completion; we would soon close our campaign and prepare to move into a bigger and better Wonderscope. We were due this good year.
January started well, February started to slide, then came March. This was not what we had scripted. We are now hoping we can open our new doors in October.
Despite this dire time, I’m finding pockets of joy, friendship, and solidarity. The team at Wonderscope has rallied; we have found joy and success in little things. Our board has rallied to support furloughed staff, and most importantly, I have found true friendship, collegiality, and solidarity with other museum CEOs, particularly those in the middle of the country. We call ourselves the Central U.S. Museums. We Zoom every other week. We share resources and ideas. We sympathize, and listen. The combined wisdom is extraordinary and so openly and bravely shared.
The weekly Leadership Calls hosted by ACM have been a lifeline too. We may be spread throughout the country and the world, but we are all in this together. These new friendships and support have sustained me. If you haven’t yet found a group of like-minded roller coaster riders, I urge you to do it. These conversations will be some of the best hours you will spend in the COVID-19 theme park.
THIS is it. This IS it. This is IT. This I sit. Every way you place the emphasis is a chuckle. Try it. Each moment is the only one that matters—my approach to life. Opportunities to practice equanimity knock at my door every day, as they always have.
On 3/12/20 my journal says …“And the world tilts.” But that wasn’t my first note about something stirring. Turns out on 2/7/20 I began logging symptoms. I’d just spent time in China, consulting for a children’s museum project. Touring an international school, I saw staff checking kids’ temperatures, tongues, and hands before they entered the building. “That’s normal here.” LOL. On the third day of exciting progress making plans, Debbie hit the Downer button to talk with the Chinese project team about risks. Government closures? Sure. Pandemic? Naaahhh. A week later I was sick as a dog.
We closed the museum on 3/14/20, and by 3/20/20 I terminated employment for twenty-nine people, and cut hours of thirty-one more, all done safely distanced by email, no less. By 4/11/20 we’d secured a PPP, and renewed forty jobs. Great news. But Joy was working from someone else’s home and had taken her toys with her.
As a long-time CEO, I generally bear the weight of my entire museum. I try to do right by its people—staff and visitors who bring it to life—its resources, and its many exposures (economic, legal, market, etc.). I accept that weight, and try to bring stability, curiosity, and patience to whatever comes up in a day, giving space to discover the gift every person or situation offers. That’s where the joy comes for me.
After five weeks I’d had no days off, no exercise, no nature, little sleep, and I’d cut my own hair (badly). I had ignored all the mental health advice—“Be kind to yourself,” “Who do you want to be through this?” So, I slept on that question, because 2:30 a.m. is a CEO’s golden hour.
By sunrise I had a plan to better nurture myself, and my sense of humor showed up. I thanked Anxiety for doing its job pointing out that there was a problem to be solved. I remembered that every moment of this whole thing IS what it is, and has within it all the gifts and possibilities, just as every kid who comes through the museum’s front door has within themselves. Be the kid. This is it.
I manage a program that broadly focuses on making our institution more accessible for visitors with various disabilities. I see this goal come to fruition when families first visit the museum for an event designed for visitors with disabilities, and most of them keep coming back. There is no better experience than seeing a child laughing, comfortable enough to just be who they are. For a lot of these families, just playing and enjoying themselves is not something they always get to do. It’s a big deal to have the opportunity to be a family without looks or judgment from others. Not being able to provide these opportunities is one of the major reasons I have been struggling during this pandemic.
I have a distinct childhood memory: sitting in the cafeteria at a table smaller than all the others and wishing to be “over there.” For two years, with two neurodiversities, I was in a self-contained class for second and third graders whose disabilities included learning disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and blindness or low vision. These two years were by far the two most influential of my life. Despite my teachers’ efforts to make us feel like everyone else, we lived in another world—one that always felt like it wasn’t quite made for us. Not much changed for me in middle school or high school. I was not fully mainstreamed until the last semester of my senior year in high school. To this day I feel like I never quite left behind that label of “otherness.”
Even though I had completed an internship and worked as floor staff at the children’s museum during my college years, I never intended to work in one. I wanted to be a teacher. But in 2016, a month before graduating with a master’s degree in elementary and special education, I realized teaching wasn’t for me. But how could I serve the kids I wanted to serve, and help them break the cycle of that familiar feeling of being “other”? Then, I got a call from my museum supervisor inviting me to interview for this job.
Like many cultural institutions now, we have altered our content to be delivered virtually. Through online programming, we are probably reaching even more families who may not have been able to access our museum in the past. But I am struggling, folks. Millennials often talk about FOMO (fear of missing out) when it comes to seeing what their peers are up to on social media. But for me, quarantine has evoked an intense feeling of FOMO…for my museum.
Engagement is a large part of what I do at the museum, and virtual engagement is not scratching that itch for me. As educators, we help visitors connect through conversations and sometimes just smiles. As I write this, those conversations and smiles aren’t happening. I now try to spark that engagement and connection in videos. I enjoy making videos in my new role as a museum vlogger, but I am used to “live” gleaming friendly little faces looking up at me. Now I just stare at a screen, hoping for a comment or a like—a completely new form of “engagement.”
I miss my kids. I miss the laughs. I miss the joy. I miss the smiles. I often think about the kids we serve and wonder if they are struggling too. My feeling of not being able to do enough for them is crushing. But I remind myself that we are doing the best we can, and many people in this nation feel similarly frustrated during these odd times. I have no doubt that many our museum families are feeling this way too. I just hope that everyone is being kind to themselves, and I’ll try to remember the same for me. I look forward to seeing my kids again. It is hard to say when that will be, but I am counting the days.
I finish my last digital task of the day…maybe. It is 7:00 p.m. I am sitting at my kitchen table, which has now become my pseudo-command-post-desk-family-gathering space. My eyes burn and blur. I have always had less than stellar eyesight, but over the past few short months my vision has become somewhat hazy. The house is quiet, for now. With my five-year-old out of school for close to three months, working from home has been a juggle and a struggle. My guilt is immense. Will this pandemic damage us—our children—forever?
I am surprised though at how much I have accomplished work-wise in the past few months. Dozens and dozens of grants written and submitted in hopes of receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars waiting to be distributed. Donors grateful to see our organization’s response to ensure the learning doesn’t stop. Social media and virtual programming ramped up. Staff pivoting in all sorts of directions. We are an amazing, hardworking team with an incredible leader and supportive board. All that being said, sometimes I feel like I am treading through COVID-19 quicksand.
I am and have always been grateful to work in this industry. Instead of shrinking from the pandemic, we reevaluated, took action, and kept our focus. Here in Santa Fe, our donors, our executive director, and our board are immensely strong and caring. During this period of uncertainty, the culture of our institution and our industry shines through. There’s a lot to be said for the steady, often behind-the-scenes work of building strong foundations.
At the end of each day, I say thanks because I know that no matter what happens, I will always feel proud of my work, whether it is in an office, or straight from a coffee-stained kitchen table. I am working to make a difference for our kids and families. As I close my computer and look out at the southwestern skies—a particularly beautiful sunset amidst all of this chaos—I reflect upon one of my favorite quotes from John Lennon: “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” And he was right. It’s the end of a day, but it’s not the end.