Tuesday, September 6, 2016

What AM I doing?

In a conversation with my great Take 5 colleagues the other day, we were talking about the shape of our days, our weeks and our months as independent professionals.  It's fairly often that I get asked questions about what I do, either by people interesting in becoming freelancers (by choice or not), people beginning their career and wondering how I got from there to here; and even people I met on airplanes, who ask things like, "so you pick the stuff on display?"  I thought I'd give a one-month (slightly longer) recap, to give a sense of what independent consulting means, at least in my case. Here goes:

In mid-July, I headed off to St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada, where I'm in the final stages of an managing and curating an exhibit for the headquarters of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.  An exhibit in a police headquarters is a first for me, and I'm working with an enthusiastic group of volunteers and designer Melanie Lethbridge.  I love St. John's, so I always make sure that my time there includes not only the archives, but also some walks out and about. This time, an evening spent watching whales cavort off Cape Spear, the easternmost point in North America.  Plus, time planning a new book project with Jane Severs, checking out the new exhibit at the Rooms, and a lively lunch with Jane and Kate Wolforth, talking all things interpretation.

In late July, I was a keynote speaker at the Association of Midwest Museums conference in Minneapolis.  I got to meet tons of great people, share some ideas on creativity and innovation, hear other great ideas, eat some amazing food and see the American Swedish Institute's beautiful new building and their historic house (plus, a chance to walk my creativity walk with some on-the-fly, totally unserious, historic house tour-giving.)  I also got a chance to catch up with Barb Wieser, an American friend from Ukraine and attend an event at the Ukrainian Cultural Center.  A big shout-out to the fabulous Paige Dansiger who captured me (above) and other speakers with her great on-the-spot sketches.

In between, and during travel, I'm catching up on emails, attempting to write blog posts, checking in with various clients, and thinking about new work including writing proposals that may or may not come to fruition. Hopefully each trip home includes a bank deposit, but not always.  See risk, below. Plus of course, finding time to enjoy summer in the Catskills--it's beautiful up here.

A relatively quick turn-around and I was off to Concord, MA, where I'm working on re-interpretation of The Old Manse for the Trustees.  The Old Manse is an historic house with a fascinating complex story, and this trip was to begin the prototyping process.  I did a training session with interpreters and some actual prototyping. It's always energizing to get feedback from visitors directly. Whether prototypes are successful or not, it's a process worth embarking on to deepen our thinking and challenge our assumptions.  On that same trip, one dinner with Rainey Tisdale, planning for a trip to Columbus, as well as catching up on everythin; and another dinner with a former Fulbrighter to Ukraine.  On the way home, I visited Fruitlands, a museum I'd heard about forever but had never been to.  If you're interested in museums I visit, I actually, and nerdily, maintain a Google map of those visits.

Again, a quick turn-around at home, enjoying summer, my husband, and a homemade music festival (thanks Gohorels!); also working to line up three international museums for my Johns Hopkins course, International Experiments in Museum Engagement, starting this week. Stay tuned for more on that.  I also agreed to serve as a Fulbright reviewer and Rainey and I began work on a journal article together.  Farmers' markets, walks in the cool evenings, and appreciating other people's gardens, all a part of home.  Plus of course, bills and invoices, emails, and other writing, and a conference call or two.

Off to the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center with a day-long review of our work together over the last several years, an appearance on public radio talking historic houses with Shannon Burke and Cindy Cormier, and making final plans for the exciting new visitor experience next year. Back home again after three days.  The week at home included work on the Old Manse, writing final text and reviewing designs for the Constabulary exhibit, JHU course prep, and prepping for a one-day workshop at the Ohio History Connection with Rainey. Plus a small bit of work for my ongoing client, Context Travel, commenting on a Paris walk framework and and a phone call about a possible speaking engagement.

That week also brought the start of an exciting new project.  With Lithuanian colleague Vaiva Lankeliene I am conducting an assessment of cultural heritage needs in Ukraine for the British Council/European Cultural Foundation.  There's much to dig in on and plans to make for a research visit in October. Thanks heavens for Google Translate, also getting used as I try to read French materials for another project possibility.

That Sunday we had an all-too infrequent Take 5 meeting here at my house.  Carolyn Macuga made the trek up a day early, so we jampacked Saturday with the Bovina Farm and Studio Tour and the Delaware County Fair.  Take 5 is always a wonderful time to reflect on our work, individually and collectively. Haven't checked out our website or signed up for the newsletter?  I hope you'll find them both useful and thought-provoking.  We talked ethics, book projects, SEOs, interpretation, and as always, ended with an infused vodka toast (this time, sour cherry, cucumber and basil, or blueberry).

An early morning departure once again (coupled with the desire that I could both live in a beautiful place and close to an airport), off to Columbus, Ohio,  A meet-up with Rainey and a fascinating tour of the Columbus Museum of Art, a place that has embraced creativity as a key part of their mission, followed by dinner with Megan Wood, one of my former mentees. The next day, two half-day workshops at the Ohio History Connection, trying out Creativity Karaoke (amazing job, all of you!), and some deep dives into embedding creativity into an institutional culture.

Back home again, to a day full of phone calls (not as common as it once was thanks to emails): brainstorming ideas with a potential new client; talking to a professional considering career changes; catching up on prototyping at the Old Manse with Caren Ponty, one of last year's JHU students who is helping out with the project;  and trying to puzzle out the laws of Ukraine regarding museums with Vaiva. I juggled scheduling video interviews long-distance  for the Constabulary exhibit and trying to plan a few blog posts. Ended the day in a Newfoundland way by trying out one of the recipes for the Colony of Avalon's Colonial Cookoff--reasonable success with apple fritters.

What's the point of this crazy narrative?

First, if you want to be a freelancer, think about what risks you really are comfortable with.  Everyone does it differently, but for me, it means serious multi-tasking (hence why I find typos in these blog posts!)  and more than a bit of risk. There's risk in bidding new projects, and continual uncertainty in a financial sense.  I love the challenge of all that, but it's not for everyone.

Second, reflect. I've spent more time this year reflecting on my own process and the ways in which I connect with clients and audiences.  The better I understand my own process, the better I can present my work to clients.

Third, gratitude.  My career has been a complicated, sometimes surprising and circuitous line of choices, but along the way, Drew and Anna, mentors, mentees,  Rainey, my Gang of Five, other colleagues, and clients have all helped me think more deeply about the work I do, how we might do it together and what risks we might take.  I try and pass my own experiences and knowledge forward, when people ask, but I will say, honestly, the thank-yous really matter.  I'm always willing to find time for coffee or a drink to meet new people, but I've been surprised this year when I made time for a couple young professionals who never followed up with a thank-you email.  Gratitude does matter.

Fourth, network, but gently.  I don't want to be in your face or in your social media feed constantly, but I do want you to think that I'm around, that I'm doing interesting things and that you might have a good project for us together. There's a ton of advice out there about your social media presence--I just blunder my own way and I know fellow consultants who have none, but make your own decisions about it.

Fifth, keep learning.  My work is predicated on my ability to learn new things:  new tools to help me work efficiently (hello, Slack), new ways of thinking about our work (on a regular basis, hello Nina Simon),  new places to understand (hello, Latvia),  new perspectives (hello #museumsrespondto Ferguson tweetchat) and new challenges (hello, Ukrainian cultural policy).  I still think of myself as an Emerging Museum Professional, because I always think I have more to learn.

If you're interested in working with me or pondering through a new project together, be in touch!


Andrea Jones said...

I enjoyed this post, Linda. Reading it triggered more questions. I'm interested in your perspective over time -- as a person who has more exposure to more museums (and more museum people) than most of us have. You get this big picture perspective that time and consulting allows. So what trends excite you, or dishearten you? How has your practice changed over time? Does your particular brand of advice or niche in this field seem to have more value now? Can I put in a request for a part 2 of this post?

Linda Norris said...

I'll do my best--although maybe it has to be part 2, 3, 4 :)

Jennifer Uhrhane said...

Hi Linda - Practical, freelancer-in-the-arts-question: what do you use to keep track of your billable hours when you are working on many projects/conversations at once? Thanks!

Linda Norris said...

Hi Jennifer--a good question, that, I have to admit, I don't have the best question to. Generally, I hate keeping track of hours and find it almost impossible--so I tend to approach work more as accomplishing projects within the scope of the contract rather than billable hours. But I have some clients that it's important to track, and for that I use Toggl.toggl.com/app/timer. But I certainly know other people who are far more dedicated to tracking billable hours. Hope this helps!

Linda Norris said...

Or more correctly, with my mistype in the comment above, I don't have the best answer to :)

Jennifer Uhrhane said...

Thanks Linda - I will check it out!

Valerie Metzler said...

Sounds a lot like my days, weeks, months, years as an archivist and historian in private practice!