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Scott Stulen, Director of Philbrook Museum of Art on how the organization responded to Covid-19

Filmed at Philbrook Museum of Art in September 2020.

Jeff Martin sits down with Scott Stulen, the Director of Philbrook Museum of Art to talk about how the museum responded to Covid-19, how the pandemic has changed the institution and the lessons that he’ll be taking away from 2020.

Jeff Martin: All right, Scott. So I think a good place to start might be thinking about where we were leading up to this moment. I think we’ve focused so much on the response and the reaction, we haven’t really talked too much about how prepared or unprepared we were when this all started. So we closed the museum basically around St. Patrick’s Day in mid March and we were pretty quick to respond, but I want to go back a little bit and talk about how we got there. So you’ve been at the museum since 2016.

Scott Stulen: That’s right.

Jeff Martin: And you’ve been here, talk about a turbulent time, you’ve overseen a lot of really interesting moments in not just American history, but in Philbrook history. I’m just curious to hear what you were expecting when you started and what it’s been like these past few years?

Scott Stulen: That’s a good question. I tend to frame when I think about like my tenure, is because I started just a little bit before the 2016 election. So it becomes a way of framing that moment a little bit too. But coming in and this is my first director job, so I came from the Indianapolis Museum of Art, now Newfields, as a curator. So coming in to this position, but as a very different type of curator where I did more audience experience and performing arts and things of that nature. I think coming in I probably had some notions of what a director position would be and what the role is, and then there’s reality when you come in and actually see what you have to work with, what needs to be done, the easy things that can be done, and then some of the things that are going to take longer so that reality sets in.

Scott Stulen: And I think some of the best advice that I got early on was just to listen, so I spent most of that first six months talking to staff, talking to people in the community, trying to understand what this place is, but also understanding what this place wasn’t and how do we start to connect more there. And I think Philbrook had been on a trajectory for about a decade now in trying to become more of the community and connecting there, and had been successful in some ways and had some ways to go in some other directions. So I think we accelerated that when I came in and we started to do more events here, we started to do more things that gathered people to the museum. And some of its more complicated, things of thinking about different exhibitions or different programmes.

Scott Stulen: Some of it was simple, just putting picnic tables in the gardens and lifting some of the restrictions there. And a lot of it was just saying like this is a place for everybody in Tulsa to come, a place you can come and hang out, a place that you can come and make it your own and it’s not something that is singular, meaning that you can come and have a different type of experience. You can come and go to a film one night, come and go through the galleries a different day, come and just walk through the gardens on a different day. So we’ve been on that path and I think it was also thinking about a balance in that, how do we do some really serious issues? So dealing with something like immigration, dealing with something like we did an Islamic art show last year, but also how we can do some things that might be more playful and fun.

Scott Stulen: And you can do both, I think this is where I feel very strongly for a museum that we can balance those two things. So leading up into what happened in March, I think it put us in a different position than some places because we’d already been doing some of these things. And the size of museum we are we’re not so small that we have no resources, we’re also not so large that change takes an incredible amount of time. So I think it allowed us to be a little bit more responsive maybe than some.

Jeff Martin: I look back at these last few years, especially leading up to the moment that we’re in now and there are a few things that stick out to me as pivot points. I’ll mention a couple and you tell me if you think that’s the case.

Scott Stulen: Sure, yeah.

Jeff Martin: One would be of course in the aftermath of the election, not politically, but there was just a moment where we felt there was something happening here, people felt more divided than ever, you decided to write a letter basically to the community about that feeling, but also added an action point to that which was, we wanted to do something positive. The idea was what can we do? We’re a museum, what role can we play in this moment to offer something? And you decided to give free memberships to all teachers in Oklahoma, not just Tulsa, not just our city, not just our county, but any teacher who’s a public school teacher in Oklahoma had the opportunity to get that. So that’s point one, do you want to talk about that just for a second?

Scott Stulen: Sure. And I think that came from a place of you see a lot… I used to do it all the time make statements, but really wanting to follow it up with some action. And that was a simple thing of watching actually election results come in and Oklahoma had a ballot initiative that was about supporting teacher salaries that was defeated. And watching that come in and I remember texting some of the leadership here at the museum and basically saying, “What can we do? And can we do this membership programme? And why can’t we?” And I was like, “I think we can do that.” And we did it basically the next day, so part of it was not only responding, but being able to do it relatively quickly.

Scott Stulen: So I think what’s really important it’s one thing to make that statement, it’s another thing to follow it up with action and continue to do that and I think that’s something that we’ve been able to do. And we don’t always get it right, but it’s something we’ve been able to do since and I think what was interesting too, that was really early on, is to get a sense of where our community is at. So the response to that from the board, the response from donors, the response to that from the staff and the community was overwhelmingly positive. And it’s partly because we anchor that on principles and not the politics. And I think that was really key of saying that these are the things we stand for, these are the things we believe in and they should align with your politics too. And that’s something that became very hard for people to push back on because of how we position that.

Jeff Martin: Yeah. And that programme continues to this day and keeps growing. And one great thing I’ll say about that having worked with you during that time was, of course an initiative like that coming from the director of Museum of courses is, “Hey, I want to do this thing,” But it wasn’t as if you just said, “Here’s the thing, go do it.” We did work on that as a group and we messaged it together and it felt collaborative even though it was something that you want to do. So I think getting that buy in from the staff is always important. So the second pivot point that I want to talk about, is when we decided to start doing immigration ceremonies here, naturalisation, immigration ceremonies.

Jeff Martin: The City of Tulsa does these quite frequently, it’s usually in the courthouse, or in City Hall, or in a government building. And in a moment where that conversation was happening and going in a pretty negative place in a lot of places, we decided to do that. We used our auditorium where we’re talking right now and had a pretty amazing experience for that first one. Can you talk about what that meant to you and what that felt like? And we’ve continued to do that.

Scott Stulen: Well, and I think we should give credit to you being you’re talk to me is that you were a big part of that, of reaching out to the city and making that happen. But I think it was a way of us thinking about how are we relevant? So what are some key issues that are being talked about in our community and also in society and how do we respond? And I really feel strongly that we are in the business of educating, we also are in the business of changing people’s minds and some of the best ways that we can change people’s minds is opening up a dialogue. So not coming out heavy handed on it, but often it’s thinking about a more subtle way that we can approach it.

Scott Stulen: So bringing that naturalisation ceremony to the museum, to this stage, having photographs taken out in the gardens or in front of some of the artwork by new citizens was such a wonderful way to do it, and honestly for me it was one of the most touching programmes we’ve ever done here. And if you had never been to one of those ceremonies, I highly recommend it for people because it makes you really question what does it mean to be in this case in American? But what does it mean to be of the place that you are? What are those values that we share and are we upholding those? What do we really take for granted? And I think we’ve done it several times and each time it has that same significance to it. But to your point, I think what it was is a way for us being part of a dialogue, but doing it through action and also being civically part of our community and not set apart.

Jeff Martin: Yeah. And it’s a very emotional ceremony and having done it beyond that first time it continues to be. One of the great things of that moment was seeing the unity of our staff and what that meant to our staff. Most of our staff was in attendance watching it, you could see people crying across the room and it really meant a lot to them, you could feel a palpable pride in work the workplace. Is that something that you think about much in terms of we want to give people a quality of life, but this is almost beyond that. Making people feel as if the work they’re doing transcends their job description.

Scott Stulen: I think it means everything. Most of us that choose to work in this field are not doing it for riches and fame, we’re doing it because we truly think the work that we’re doing matters. I also think it’s why people choose to go into the field, it’s why people stay probably longer in the field than some other careers. I think it’s also one of the things that makes a lot of us exhausted too. It’s thinking about when you work in a field where if I work a little longer I might be able to impact more people, you tend to say, “I’m just going to push and do more.” And do more and more and more. It’s not a bad thing, but I think it’s something that’s very prevalent in nonprofits, in any sort of service work and I do put museums in that category.

Scott Stulen: So I think it’s important, you want to give your colleagues who you work with to be all pushing towards the same goal, have that same satisfaction in the work we’re doing. And the biggest thing is when you go home, or you’re out in the community, you’re like what you’re doing matters and I feel really strongly I want to be part of a museum that matters to the community that we live in. Not be a part, not be speaking to an audience internationally, but not matter to the people next door. I think you can do both, but I think it’s really important that you matter to your community.

Jeff Martin: The third, there’s actually four, but one’s kind of silent, but the third pivot point here I wanted to talk about was you mentioned that we did a show of Islamic art called Wondrous Worlds. That was about a year ago and we had not done a show like that before and Philbrook has been in existence for over 75 years. It was a new show for us, but important to what we were doing, we want to have a really diverse offering. We had many discussions leading up to that show about what to do if there’s any hate speech or any response that might be needed. So those conversations have been happening because we’re realistic and we know the world that we live in and have to deal with some of those darker impulses.

Jeff Martin: But we did the show and then one day we get a call that some of our billboards that we have up in the community and we had them place throughout the city, in all different parts of town had been vandalised with some hate speech written on them. We worked as a group to put out a response very, very quickly about that and it was I would say within a couple of hours, very quickly denouncing that, showing pride in the work that we’re doing. And the following weekend ended up being the busiest weekend of that entire show, which was a great show. And in terms of turning lemons into lemonade and using a moment that is a sad commentary on a certain aspect of American life and trying to make the best out of it, can you speak to what that experience was like?

Scott Stulen: Sure. And I think part of it was is that we had prepared for it. So that when it happened we were able to respond even more quickly than the news crews that came in, we had our statement out before they even had a news story out there. And the biggest thing is that we responded that we didn’t backtrack, we stood on the principles of why we’re doing that exhibition, what the museum is about and put that out there very firmly. But I think also did it in a way of which that felt like again, we weren’t making a political statement, we were standing on the principles that were here and because of that we had that response that you mentioned. People came, people bought memberships, it completely changed the news story about it.

Scott Stulen: And it’s partly because we were quick and got in front of it, we own the situation and then put ourself out there in counter to it. I think the other thing that we were clear to say is this wasn’t an indictment of the entire community. It was a very small group that had that vocal feeling about it and not to basically just cast huge wide condemnation of what was happening there and I think because of that, we had that response. And I think what was encouraging is that overwhelmingly with that show, the amount of pushback from it was incredibly minimal. And I think that said a lot too of what people were ready for what people wanted to hear, but also spoke to what our community is about.

Jeff Martin: The last thing I want to mention that’s more recent, right before the pandemic really took hold our last big event was an event we did about the HBO show Watchmen. And for those who may not know or haven’t seen the show, the show is set in an alternate version of Tulsa and the inciting incident in the pilot episode and then carries out through the season is the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, which is very much a real event and something that we’re leading up to the centennial of next spring. We did this event, we incorporated a lot of partners and really took a deep dive into that subtext of the show. We had people like our friend Hannibal Johnson who is one of the leading experts on the race massacre and Black Wall Street and Greenwood, the neighbourhood that was destroyed during the massacre.

Jeff Martin: We had all kinds of participants in that event, worked with a lot of community partners and we will talk about this in just a little bit, but part of this last few months of course, is beyond the pandemic has been this Black Lives Matter movement and the social justice upheaval in our country right now. We know we have lots of work to do in that regard, but having done that event before this new wave of that set us up some partnerships that we will continue working on. You can’t base what we’re doing off of one or two events now, but having had some thought to be doing that ahead of time, I guess my question is the events of the last few months did not start this conversation for us, we’ve known this as an issue. It’s certainly accelerated what we need to be doing, when did that come on your radar as the director of the museum?

Scott Stulen: I think it’s been there for a long time and coming into Tulsa almost immediately. So I can tell you as somebody that did not grow up in Tulsa I learned of the massacre when I was doing research about moving here. And I was honestly shocked that I hadn’t heard of it and somewhat ashamed that I didn’t know that, but then coming here realising that it was something that wasn’t widely talked about until the last maybe decade or so. And obviously that’s changed and deservedly so, but also just that this horrible moment in the history of the United States that had really been brushed aside and not talked about. So then coming into an institution here that is in a predominantly white area town, that is in historic mansion, that has all the trappings that the museum field has about the white hierarchy that’s basically assembled how museums have been structured, all of that and then this layer on top of it.

Scott Stulen: So it’s something that you have to address, you’re obligated to address, and it’s something we’ve been doing steps towards that and will accelerate a lot of those steps going forward not just for next year, but into the decades to come. And part of it is you have to build those relationships, this isn’t something that’s suddenly you flip a switch and you say, “Oh, we haven’t done this and suddenly tomorrow we’re going to have all these relationships repaired.” It doesn’t work like that. It becomes reaching out, it’s building the relationships, building trust, inviting people in and I think a big piece of it is knowing when you just get out of the way and you give your platform over. A lot of the Watchman event for example, is inviting people from the community in to come and be part of that programme and for us just to be a stage for them to do that.

Scott Stulen: And I think it’s a mix, there’s times we have to understand we have resources that can contribute to the community to help in these ways, to help further social justice, help further dismantling systematic racism where we can and there’s times in which we need to be giving things up. And I’ll tell you what, if it doesn’t feel like you’re losing something you’re not doing enough. And that’s really in the position right now is we need to figure out where we can do that and it’s not easy work, but it’s the work that needs to be done.

Jeff Martin: So it’s March 2020 and we’re about to open a new exhibition called Tulsa Treasures, which is a show we’ve been working on for quite some time which was a look at the hidden collections in people’s homes and things that people collect from PEZ dispensers, to Andy Warhol paintings and everything in between. A lot of work went into it, our curators have been out and about going to people’s homes and trying to find these little hidden gems throughout the city. The opening weekend is the weekend that we closed due to COVID-19, so that opening never actually happened. Talk to me about what that couple of days around closing the museum was like for you, emotionally, professionally.

Scott Stulen: Sure. Honestly it’s one of the most surreal times I can ever imagine and now even thinking back to it, it feels like an alternate universe in a way because of the speed. And I think this is part of it, is we went from on a Thursday of having a donor event that night for that exhibition. To in the morning having a meeting about maybe two weeks from now we’ll have a meeting about thinking about postponing some things depending on what happens. To you by two o’clock that same day saying we’re cancelling tonight. To the next morning saying we’re cancelling the whole weekend and that happened within less than 24 hours. And then within 72 hours we were in a position of saying, I think we’re going to be shut down indefinitely going forward.

Scott Stulen: And that was incredibly fast how that happened and where you’re making decisions by the minute literally, and you’re having to make decisions that are really have huge ramifications to them with very little information. And I think that was the really difficult thing in that period is doing the best we can to ensure safety of course first, but all the other things that go into closing a museum down. From the collections, to security, to how we’re messaging things in the public and understanding in these early stages that people just didn’t know a lot. So I think we did all that and what I credit us for is that almost immediately, like that Friday that we closed down, we pulled a small team together across departments and said, “Okay, we’re shutting down, but we’re not going to shut our mission down.

Scott Stulen: So what are we going to do, starting Monday, that we can still remain relevant? How can we message things? Are there things that we can activate?” And I think part of that too is how do we eliminate some of the processes and red tape that just are not going to work in this environment? You cannot make decisions by the minute in the old way a museum processes it, it just won’t work. And also understanding that the stakes are relatively low with some of that so why not try some things? So I give credit to our team that embraced that and came up with ideas almost immediately and things that we were able to roll out within a couple of weeks that were significant.

Jeff Martin: There’s a scene in Apollo 13 where they’re stuck in space, the ship has failed them and back in the command centre down here on Earth they’re trying to figure out what to do. And there’s this great moment where they go, “Okay, what do they have on the ship?”

Scott Stulen: That’s right.

Jeff Martin: And then they bring in all this stuff and they say, “What can we make out of this stuff?” And then there’s a blackboard and they’re like, “Okay, we have a vacuum and a tube and whatever it is, how can we make this thing do what it needs to do?” It very much felt like that and it’s both stressful and it’s invigorating because problem solving can be invigorating. I do wonder though, have you had enough distance to look back on it now, six months later or so and say you would have done anything different? Do you have any way of assessing your decision making?

Scott Stulen: I think it’s easy to say that now, there’s nothing that jumps out to me to and says, “Oh, we did that completely wrong.” I think based on the information that we had at the time and even information we have now I think we handled those early things well. There’s always things that you can go back and say, “Well, I can slightly tweak that because I know this now.” And it’s easy to do that now, but there’s not any glaring thing. I think the thing that I think we did well early on is that we addressed two things that we saw coming. One is that we thought it’s going to be longer than a few weeks so we made decisions based on longer than a few weeks.

Scott Stulen: And we made some of those decisive decisions early, so we made some financial decisions pretty early that actually helped us out much and put us in a better financial position later on because we’ve made some of those decisions earlier on. And so that allowed us to hang on to more staff for example, and the board align really well with that too. One key I would say early on that was really helpful and thinking about people that might be watching this and advice going in any crisis situation, it’s communication is everything. And so for me, I made it a point for those first couple months to email the board and staff every day with what was going on. And some days it was not a lot, and some days it was a small novel depending on what happening that day. And then we’ve shifted over to different communication [crosstalk 00:25:13]-

Jeff Martin: Still to this day you’re doing daily video updates and sometimes they’re a minute long and it’s like, “Hey everybody. It’s beautiful outside, go out and have a beer on the lawn and just relax,” But sometimes it’s very specific to a certain problem we’re trying to solve or whatever.

Scott Stulen: It’s helped keep connection and I think that’s been really helpful in it. I think it’s easy to say now that wouldn’t it be great if we would have had more digital capabilities going into this than we had to scramble to put together? It’s easy to look at some of that stuff going forward, I think there’s things that we’ve adapted too whether it’s cleaning protocols and having certain things on hand and everybody in the worlds has been dealing with some of that.

Jeff Martin: Well, it’s very much that cliche of you go to war with the army that you have not the ones you want and-

Speaker 1: Well, I want to say too like with the Apollo 13 reference which I love, I love that part of the movie too because I think that is so much about how creativity actually works. Is you’re given a situation, it’s not usually the situation you pick and you’re getting a set of tools which usually aren’t the situation that are ideal. And we had a simple thing like that, it was we’ve got a couple of cameras, we’ve got the internet, we’ve got the staff members and we have no money.

Speaker 1: And I think this is really key too and I think it’s important too for the audience that usually watches these is that we’re not an institution that is flush with a huge endowment. We are not rolling in cash so that we can just throw money at solving these problems. We’re like many of you, we have very limited financial resources, what we have is a talented staff and we have the will to try to do some of these things. And sometimes that’s enough and I think in this environment, it’s how do we come up with new programmes or new ideas with very little money?

Jeff Martin: That’s a good point. Actually the place where we are richest is in creativity and will and I think the dedication to try to figure stuff out. There’s never a moment in the past months where I felt completely helpless, it’s almost felt like we’re on it. We don’t know the answer yet, but we will get there and that’s a good feeling when you’re trying to bridge some weird moment.

Speaker 1: That’s the mindset and I think it’s really easy and I think about this too of cultural organisations coming into this moment. So this moment is thrust upon you and you basically have a choice, you can either put your head down and just hope this goes over and a lot of places have done that. They’ve just kind of been like, “Let’s just let this storm pass and we’ll go back to February.” It’s a strategy, not one I agree with, that’s a strategy or you say this is an opportunity. So this is a moment of which we can take advantage of what’s happening here, enact major change in a short period of time and also try to predict where we’re going.

Speaker 1: Because I think we can all agree where we’re going to go is not back to January and February, I don’t know what exactly that’s going to look like, what kind of hybrid of things, but certain things are going to change. Certain things have already changed I think personally, some for the better, probably some for the worse, but it’s going to change. So I want us to be in that thing of thinking about this as not as an a challenge of which we’re paralysed by it, but an opportunity that we can seize and control it and that’s everything. If you feel like you’re in more in control of it that means everything.

Jeff Martin: Yeah. One of the things that has been hardest about this moment is we talked about our team, our team is smaller now because we had to lose some people. And that’s not something that’s unique to us, that’s been pretty across the board not just for museums, but so many businesses and organisations around the country. You mentioned this is the first time you’ve been a director of a museum so it’s obviously the first time you’ve had to be the final call on a decision of that magnitude. Obviously, the way that impacted those people’s lives is far worse than the way it makes us feel about it, but just talk about that decision making and what that’s been like.

Speaker 1: It’s hands down the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my career. It sits with you, I think about it every day. It’s something obviously I think you’ve stated well, saying that obviously the impact it has on people’s lives is more than any feeling that I will personally have, but it is something that it makes me sick thinking about it. Also, knowing that making those decisions as we needed to make saved other people’s jobs too and that’s the counter to all of this, it’s partly what comes with the gig and it’s partly what you get. There’s the good and the bad of all of this, but in the end of the day those are the decisions that you have to make and it’s a decision that a board needs to make and obviously leadership needs to make too.

Speaker 1: And the thing that you try to keep in mind is how are we trying to execute our mission and continue to serve the community? And by making the moves we made, we stabilised the museum in order to keep helping people going forward. That’s not a justification for doing things, but there’s just certain financial realities and I can share it with this group, we have about an $8 million operating budget, and we had to cut between two and a half and three million of that which is significant. And we did dip into our endowment, we did look at other means of restricted funds that we’re able to move around and other things to lessen-

Jeff Martin: And we took advantage of some of the offerings like the PPP-

Speaker 1: Correct.

Jeff Martin: Payroll, Assistance Programme and some of the government offerings, we did take advantage of those grants and other things. Basically, all hands on deck kind of…

Speaker 1: We pulled every lever that we could and we’ll still pull more going forward because we’re not out of this yet going forward. But I think it comes to a certain point, I think the one thing is that setting aside the real world implications of staff and thinking about the broader implications of the field, I think looking at what happened going into this crisis and how quickly so many museums were in crisis mode, six weeks in basically being out of cash, it tells you how close to the edge most cultural institutions had been running.

Speaker 1: There was no reserve, there was really no ability to be resilient because of something happening like this and I think that’s an indication too of where our goals have been set for the field. So many of our goals have been about more and I’ll call out, if you look at most directors bios the things that are in there is how many square feet have you added to your museum? How many objects have you added to the collection? How many dollars did you add to the endowment? It’s about growth and so much of success has been tied to growth, maybe that’s not right.

Jeff Martin: Because growth and sustainability often are not the same thing.

Speaker 1: They’re counter. And we know there’s a lot of whether it’s a foundation, an individual donor, or the ego of people that might be in charge, is that what’s the biggest way of showing that you’ve done something? Well, build a new building full of new art. And I’m not saying all those are wrong necessarily, but it puts you in a position where the sustainability gets threatened as you continue to add and keep pushing up against the means of which you have to support the institution. And we know as a whole, the financial resources have been in decline for decades because corporate giving isn’t there, membership might be down, attendance might be down. And it’s looking for other ways to keep growing while you’re fighting the financial side of it.

Speaker 1: So what I’m hoping actually comes out of this moment as we all start looking at, what does sustainability look like? How do you build maybe a museum that is slightly smaller, but is more resilient? How do you have more full time benefited positions for staff? How do you think about you have more positions and maybe in multiple roles that allow you to be more flexible? How do you think about ways on your funding side that you don’t have things that are going to dry up instantly if you hit a little bump? So you think about a way like how do we become more sustainable, more integrated into the community and that we can handle the next crisis because there’ll be another one, handle that a little bit more effectively than maybe this one.

Jeff Martin: You mentioned growth and some of those traps that a lot of institutions have fallen into over the years, we’ve fallen into that ourselves. We had a satellite location that we opened in 2013 called Philbrook Downtown, which was in the heart of the district area of Tulsa. This was dedicated to certain aspects of our collection and some other things. For a myriad reasons it didn’t quite work out and you had to make the ultimate decision to close that space. Now this happened pre COVID-19, in some ways very luckily because of the drag that that would have had on us even more in a financial sense.

Jeff Martin: And this is nothing on anyone who had a decision making in that creation, past directors, past board member I was here at the time, we thought it was going to be something that it ended up not being. And it wasn’t solely for the fault of the museum, the area never quite became what it was thought to be, the traffic never quite materialised as what maybe we had hoped, a lot of reasons went into that. Talk about that decision, closing something and the swallowing of the pride and having to go to people that gave a fair amount of money and say, “Hey, you gave money to this thing seven years ago or whatever, it’s going away.” Talk about that.

Speaker 1: It’s hard and I got beat up quite a bit going through that process, but it was the right thing to do for the institution. And I think this is part of it is that I think the decisions made to do that project early on were right, it was great to try it, everything made sense to give it a shot. But then as you learn more, as you get the information you start to project that forward, you also need to make other decisions. And I think this is part of it, we should not be trapped by decisions that were made in the past that can be changed and we shouldn’t be trapped by things that we feel that are sacred that you can’t touch if they aren’t actually doing your mission.

Speaker 1: So this is a point where that was actually holding us back from being able to do more of our mission, rather than helping us do more of it. So from a philosophical point it’s very easy to make that decision, then there’s all the political connections, there’s the donors, the other things you need to unpack. But all of that is things that can be done and we did, and now it’s easy to look at it now into COVID, it’s a huge blessing that we were able to do that when we did because we’d be in a worse position right now if we hadn’t.

Jeff Martin: And I don’t look at it as a failure, I think the true failure would have been having hubris enough to just ignore the problem.

Speaker 1: Right.

Jeff Martin: It takes a lot of guts in a certain way to say something isn’t working, and knowing that it probably will have some reflection back on you and your institution saying, why didn’t it work? You didn’t do it right, whatever that was right. It would almost be the easier thing just to have blinders on and not address the problem, right?

Speaker 1: Yeah.

Jeff Martin: Because if we had that open right now in late summer, fall of 2020 and the drag that that was already having on us, we probably would have to lose more staff.

Speaker 1: Yes.

Jeff Martin: I mean, there would be real world consequences to that problem.

Speaker 1: There would and it would absolutely impact staff, it would absolutely impact what we could even do as an institution because of that, there’s just the real cost of having that space. And I agree with you, it was by no means a failure, it just was something where at this point there was a different decision that needed to be made at that crossroads. And speaking just personally is I spoke about leadership and people having like bios for it, my bio is I closed the building, I cut our budget and one of the other big things is we deaccessed a piece out of the collection in order to create money that that we could buy some other artwork from it. But it’s been almost working backwards-

Jeff Martin: Which has also been very useful in this moment because there have been some changes from the museum director groups and other groups to oversee how funds are used. Not to get into the weeds too much, but we were able to use some funds from that deaccessioning of a Chinese vase that we would not have been able to utilise before. So the fact that we had those funds somewhere so I don’t know if it’s luck, but now the timing worked out in a couple of ways that we have hurt in a few ways, but we’ve also been benefiting from a couple of earlier decisions.

Speaker 1: Well, I think it all comes back to where it isn’t necessarily luck, it’s are you following your mission and do you have a consistent philosophical approach to all of this? So part of it is all those decisions as far as I’m concerned were made with consistency with them. So how do we connect our community? How do we support that effort going forward? And how do we use our assets of art and gardens to make that connection? How do we actually impact people’s lives, whether it’s make their lives better, make their lives more pleasant, educate them, change their minds, and it can be all of those things sometimes at once. So if you’re looking at things like that whether it’s doing the programme that we did for teachers, whether it’s due having a naturalisation ceremony on this stage, whether it’s looking at selling the vase.

Speaker 1: The Vase didn’t fit our collection at all, it had been sitting in storage for a couple of decades, the value have gone way up on it, the easiest thing to do with that from a museum and also director standpoint is to leave it where it was. But we made that move as risky as it actually is to sell that piece, set up a fund to now buy more artists of colour or women, fill in holes in our collection and making it meaningful to our community now. And if we wouldn’t have done that, we couldn’t do that with the speed at which we’re doing now. But I think there’s a consistency and a thread all of it and it goes back to our mission, which is to create a creative and connected community for art and gardens, simple as that.

Jeff Martin: So just as we wrap up, I want to talk about some of the things of what we’ve actually done this summer and also look at some things that are coming up. As you mentioned, we put together a team quickly, we put together this what we call a museum from home programming schedule. Where especially in those early months, it was all digital, all on online, we were doing daily programme offerings, we’ve done hundreds and hundreds of programmes at this point when you add all the little details up. And all the staff was involved, we had different people from every department helping, doing things they’d never done before, getting on camera, doing videos. We were coming up doing concerts, we’ve done opera on the rooftop, we’ve done family art club, we’ve done videos with artists, interviewing artists, late night things with our curators.

Jeff Martin: We started looking at the villa and saying, “Hey, let’s do a video about every room in the building.” And so we milked that as long as we could because we needed content, we needed that stuff and over time we’ve thought more through that. I’m pretty proud of what we did as a group and how involved everybody was with that and how I think from the outside, it looked probably much more strategic than it was, but we were going by the seat of our pants fairly early on there. What’s it been like for you seeing that and hearing the response?

Speaker 1: And I think everybody’s has been kind of flying by the seat of their pants in a lot of things, sadly I think some government has to. But I think back to that point is that we’re ability to open up to try a lot of things and we could do some very low risk experiments to see what worked and go with the stuff that had some promise. And some things that maybe didn’t work, we tried it and we move on and that’s okay and be able to do that. I think there also was a key moment early on that we knew we were going to have to pull back, we knew that we’re looking at cuts, we had a large fundraiser that normally happens in April, that had to get pushed a whole year out.

Jeff Martin: Our largest fundraiser.

Speaker 1: It’s huge. I mean, it’s a big wine event that it’s a two and a half million dollar event, it’s a big deal for us. They had to get pushed out so there was some real implications of all of that. But we made a move early on to say, we are not going to then just hold everything to ourself, we were going to give back to the community even at a time when we had need. So that’s why we launched all those programmes so we’re basically giving to the community. But we also did an effort where our membership dollars went to support the COVID relief through United Way, we create a Victory Garden out in our garden here, so we have a 30,000 square foot vegetable garden that’s producing right now a couple hundred pounds of produce every single week for the food shelter.

Speaker 1: And then we also turned over the platform for museum shop to sell artwork from local artists where they kept 100% of the proceeds so we just used our platform to do that. And then Jeff, you through the communications department did a lot of ways to turn over our social media platforms to other institutions and other artists to be able to talk about their work. So the idea of being generous even in a time where we have need, I think was a key moment too. I think it’s to the core of who we are, but I think it’s also something that we feel will give back to us multiple times over in the long term.

Jeff Martin: I think it gets back to what we started talking about, about that first initiative with the teacher memberships, right?

Speaker 1: Right.

Jeff Martin: It’s like, what can we do? What role can we play? I think in some ways, it’s very much the same instinct, the same impulse that has played out over these past years. Right into the middle of this pandemic we’re trying to figure all this out, the murder of George Floyd happens, the Black Lives Matter movement really kicks off and we started having some serious conversations here. Not to talk too much out of school, but we were having some pretty raw conversation with our staff.

Speaker 1: Absolutely.

Jeff Martin: There were tears, people were really conflicted about what we should be doing, what we should be saying and adding that on top of where we already were with the emotions about having to lose staff, it was a pretty tumultuous moment. But maybe you could speak to that and what has come out of that?

Speaker 1: Yeah. I know that’s something that’s shared across the entire country and if it wasn’t raw, that means we weren’t talking about it. And I think it was really important to have those dialogues and call ourselves out both individually and as an institution for what we maybe weren’t doing which is a lot. And I think there’s been a true moment of reckoning and also self examination about we’ve been talking a game over here that we have not been doing or not been doing enough and that needs to change. And I think the good thing that’s come from this is that yes, we did put out a statement like many institutions did, but we also attached that to things to hold us accountable to the stuff we are going to do, which is really important.

Speaker 1: So that’s everything from doing an audit of our diversity, equity and inclusivity policies for board and staff here, but also see how are we going to change hiring practises? How are we going to change our board makeup? How are we going to change how we select vendors who are going to be working for the institution? We’re also looking at ways as I mentioned to diversify our collection in several exhibitions that we have on the slate coming up. But part of is how do we share this platform that’s here? How do we have those dialogues with the community and also not pretend that we know all the answers because we don’t.

Jeff Martin: You mentioned that we put out a statement. We took a beat on that and paused for a moment and I would say a lot of our staff wanted us to do something immediately to be in concert with everybody else, but our concern was we can put it out there, but it’s meaningless unless it has any action or something we can be held to account attached to it. And that’s the tough thing about having dozens and dozens of people under one tent and trying to find consensus because a staff of a museum is like any group or family, you never going to have 100% by in. You just have to do what is best for the most, right?

Speaker 1: So I think there’s a balance. I mean you said, there’s we have a whole variety of people that work for the museum, the other thing is we have people that are passionate about things that work for Museum. We have a lot of different generations, different backgrounds, it’s a diverse group and we’re working to have an even more diverse into the future. So with that, you’re going to have a lot of different opinions, a lot of different feelings, in particular a younger generation that wants to respond particularly online immediately and an older generation that may want to be more measured in some of those. It isn’t to say either one is right or wrong, it’s for the institution as finding what the right tone is.

Speaker 1: And so for us we made a decision and again, it was waiting four days, it wasn’t like it was weeks. But thought we wanted to get our partners in place and the biggest thing is get some of the action items that we are going to go with our statements. So that was putting numbers to how we’re going to add to the collection, saying we were going to do this diversity audit and put that in place and have that lined up, getting some of our partners of the exhibition lined up with that. And that helped make it have some meat to it and not just being words, I think that’s the biggest thing. I don’t want to be the institution that just puts a post out there and thinks the works done.

Jeff Martin: So the museum eventually reopened with our gardens only we’ve been so lucky in a way to have this second offering having an internal space, but also having this outdoor space which has been a lifesaver for us. We opened that, had multiple processes in place, there was a separate team that still is working on the different phases, there are four phases of reopening. We had the gardens reopened, then we actually finally opened our Tulsa Treasures exhibition which was the one we were going to open the day we closed.

Speaker 1: Right.

Jeff Martin: Which went really well and tested out some things for us like are people going to wear masks and what’s the interaction going to be like? That then closed, we’ve gone back to a garden only in anticipation of reopening the Historic Home and a larger exhibition this fall called Hearts of Our People, which is our comeback show in a way. I’m just curious to know what you’re hopeful about right now and how you feel the phased reopening has gone generally.

Speaker 1: Generally it’s gone well and I think we’ve had people come back, people have been incredibly grateful to be able to come back to the museum. Not only to be able to partake, to escape a little bit, but also just have a sliver of normalcy back in their lives and this definitely is part of that. So there was definitely a feeling of joy that people had coming back and they express that. There also was some people that were apprehensive coming back until they saw the safety protocols that we had put in place in all those different whether it’s outdoor spaces or indoor spaces. And then also the staff, the staff were very kind of a little leery coming back and deservedly so until they saw the protocols that we had put in place.

Speaker 1: And I think that’s something that actually really helped in this as we really viewed it is everybody in this together. It’s not one department that’s in charge of that safety, it’s everybody together. The mask policy goes across the whole institution, everybody gets their temperature taken as they come in to work. But I also think what helped too is that particularly for some of our frontline staff, which are often in museums some of the lowest paid and also the staff that deals with the public directly. In this case, we’re in the line of fire for a lot of things with COVID so we’ve been putting leadership staff, both of us included, have been stationed out front of the museum when we had the indoor space and now in the gardens. Greeting the guests as they come in, enforcing the mask policy, making sure that people have pre bought their tickets, answering questions, but being one line of kind of defence-

Jeff Martin: Kind of being that first touch point-

Speaker 1: Correct.

Jeff Martin: Even though there’s no touching. First touch point for people and saying, “Hey, we’ve got your back.” It’s symbolic in a way, but it’s also it helps as well.

Speaker 1: But the other thing from it, and this is why for the audience I know that’ll be watching like this interview why I think it’s so important to have leadership on the ground out there seeing what’s actually happening. Because the support for what was happening because of our protocols is one thing, it’s a whole nother thing to see the motivations. Why are people coming? What’s drawing them to come in? How long are they staying? What are they doing while they are here? What questions do they have as they’re leaving about other things that are happening? For me, it’s a whole different level of insight of just being on the ground and seeing some of that. So as you said, what am I hopeful for in the future? People do want to come back to museums, people are looking for things in their life that they can do that safe.

Speaker 1: I’ve joke that I think our blockbuster show could be like we’re safe right now, like empty walls just so we’re safe. People are so hungry to come out and do something if they feel comfortable doing it. So that’s where the safety protocols and our offerings need to mesh. We’re seeing also a lot of families coming out, probably even more so than before, a lot of younger audiences like college students, and as a whole the audience has been more diverse which is really interesting too. And I think partly maybe it’s some of our core older audience has not been coming out as much and which has been something that I think we’ll see what happens over time as the virus progresses and a vaccine comes out and says some things happen there.

Speaker 1: But there’s a lot of encouraging things about who’s been coming in this. I think the other thing too is how has this has changed our staff? I think our staff is really seeing how we can be serious museum and deal with important issues and also be a place that people can come and just have escape, enjoy and we’re just turning the sprinklers on.

Jeff Martin: And fun.

Speaker 1: And fun.

Jeff Martin: That dreaded word fun.

Speaker 1: Fun. Museums can be fun and you know. And we’ve done things like just turn the sprinklers on, on Saturdays invite people to come and run through the sprinklers. We’ve put swings up in the garden [crosstalk 00:52:28]-

Jeff Martin: Let people feed our fish.

Scott Stulen: Exactly. It does not have to be hard and nearly every museum has something like that, that they can lean on, that is simple and right now simple is enough.

Jeff Martin: Yeah. My last question is this. The world has changed, we’re in a new space, I hate the term the new normal, but let’s say it’s something like that. With those changes, expectations change, goals change, also the metrics for success change. How do you know if we’re doing well right now? Because you can’t be based off attendance and it’s certainly not based on ticket sales, what is the metric for success?

Scott Stulen: To be blunt, the metric for success right now survival. Is that our success is are we going to still be here in ’22, in ’23 and ’24? That’s first and I like the analogy of thinking about let’s say an emergency happens on an aeroplane, the first thing you have to do is put your mask on and then you help the person next to you. A lot of places are in that position right now, let’s get stabilised and then we can help. At Philbrook we’ve been done a good job of actually stabilising so then we’re able to help and partner and be part of the community. That’s an ongoing task, that is not over because I think we’re going to have to look at where some new financial support is going to come from?

Scott Stulen: We don’t know the duration of all this yet, we’re in August right now and we’re taping this when this is probably going to be watched later, we could be in a different place. But knowing that that’s a reality that we’re going to have to deal with and we’re going to take those things as we come. I could predict where I think we’re going to be three months from now, but we really don’t know because there’s a lot of factors we can’t control right now. So I think coming back to what those metrics are of success, it’s not going to be raw attendance, it’s going to be sustainability and resilience, I think it’s also going to be impact. Those are the two big ones.

Scott Stulen: How are we helping our community? How are we important? How are we relevant? How when people can come back and choose to be able to start to do things again, how are we one of those places they choose to come and do that with? And a big one is are people coming back and still buy memberships even when they can’t go to the institution? Because we feel that that is important and I want it there when I can go back. And that’s been a point where I’ve been very encouraged as our memberships have held very solid throughout all of this and I think that’s an indication that people feel like we matter in the community.

Jeff Martin: Well, thanks for chatting. This has been a lot, but it’s been… We haven’t gotten a chance to really talk much face to face actually in a while, but that’s been nice and thanks for doing that. Also, thank you all for watching. Thanks to MuseumNext for inviting us. Stay safe, stay connected and we hope to see you guys very very soon. Bye-bye.

 

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