Maker Months: July/August Update

My pregnancy-induced nesting binge has brought home the fact that I have not been much of a “maker” in recent years. Planner, editor and organizer? Yes. It takes a lot of work to run a cultural center, buy a home, and get married and all those things happened in the last two years. But actual, real-world assembly of parts and materials? Not so much.

So, in July and August I took time to re-learn some basic skills. I signed up for a few sewing classes at Workshop SF, checked out some how-to books at the San Francisco Public Library, began collecting online tutorials, ordered a sewing machine, and jumped in. So far, I’ve made three baby bibs and washcloths, a dog coat for Riggins, a baby snuggler, a blanket and some bloomers. I also hemmed our curtains and made some tablecloths for Feast of Words, SOMArts’ literary potluck.

People get crafty for all kinds of reasons and the main provocation in my case is to 1) save money, 2) have nicer things than I could otherwise afford. Not surprisingly, saving money and reaching above one’s financial means are two things I also think about daily in my work at SOMArts. At work, I like to call this “fighting above our weight.” It’s not about cutting back, it’s about doing more: how can we support more artists, reach a bigger audience, give them deeper experiences and make those experiences truly excellent?

The summer’s over and my crafting has slowed considerably, but here are a few lessons I’m taking into my work life from the world of makers.

1) Measure twice, cut once. With my first “complicated” sewing project (a dog jacket), I got way more fabric than I needed because I rushed to the fabric store before taking careful measurements, and a $20 project became twice as expensive. When producing exhibitions, lack of planning can quickly turn a $33k exhibition into a $45k exhibition. Good planning, on the other hand, will save hours of data entry and installation labor. One of the areas where planning has paid off most for SOMArts is in working with volunteers. Cultivating professors as recruitment resources, hosting orientations, creating an easy/informative signup sheet and brainstorming with the whole staff about volunteer to-do lists, jobs and shifts has catapulted us from 300 volunteer hours in 2009 to over 3,000 volunteer hours in 2012. Volunteers and interns regularly tell us that they like coming to SOMArts because they get to work on meaningful projects, learn and make a difference.

2) Master the craft … of collaboration. The makers I admire participate in communities, online and off. They use free patterns from blogs and offer their tips for making them even better, swap fabrics to save on trips to Britax, and swap skills instead of spending their money for beginner classes. At SOMArts circa 2009, we already had a smart and resourceful staff, what we added was planning and the right tools. Some of the tools we use now are Toodledo (a to-do list of ongoing tasks), Asana (free project management organizer for teams), and Volunteerforce (Salesforce software to log volunteer shifts, skills and hours).

Other tools are old-school: a disciplined approach to collaboration that includes written agreements (MOUs), frank conversations about what a particular “partnership” is (co-production? resource sharing? support services?), creation of timelines with deliverables for all collaborators, and clear goals. As with any pursuit, the more I learn about collaboration, the more I realize we could do—should do— to improve. But successful partnerships are THE single most important way that we remain deeply embedded in the communities we serve as a multicultural cultural center. And hardly a week goes by when I don’t get a thank you from partners who say working with SOMArts staff is a uniquely great experience.

3) Good results are difficult when indifference predominates.  There is an excerpt from a 1949 Singer Sewing Machine manual floating around the inter webs which begins:

Prepare yourself mentally for sewing. Think about what you are going to do. Never approach sewing with a sigh or lackadaisically. Good results are difficult when indifference predominates. Never try to sew with a sink full of dirty dishes or beds unmade. When there are urgent housekeeping chores, do them first so your mind is free to enjoy your sewing.

It goes on to say that you should make sure your hair and lipstick are in order in case your husband stops by, and is charmingly outdated. But the part that has been on my mind lately is attitude and indifference.

When I was in my early twenties aspiring to be a director, I imagined the hard or unpleasant parts of the job were like the challenges I read in my Joe Papp biography—urgent, short term obstacles where bursts of 20-hr days with inspiring teammates would overcome wrongs in the world. Leading projects is sometimes like that, but leading an organization is not like that at all. Lately this means reminding myself that even though I love what I do, sometimes work is just work: if I don’t get the unpleasant tasks out of the way (usually HR or finance-related), they clutter my mind and threaten to overwhelm the parts of my work that are the most meaningful and enjoyable. There are many days when preparing mentally makes all the difference.



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