Episode 52

52. Paula Santos Dives Into The "How" of Museum Work on Cultura Conscious


October 15th, 2018

10 mins 26 secs

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About this Episode

By day, Paula Santos is Community Engagement Manager at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. By night, she hosts the excellent Cultura Conscious podcast.

On Cultura Conscious, which just celebrated its one-year anniversary, Santos interviews cultural workers on their work with justice and equity. The discussions dive deep into what Santos calls the "nuts and bolts" of museum work.

On this episode, Santos describes her thoughts about the relationship between cultural institutions and the communities they identify as “underserved,” gives examples on how institutions can cede power, and explains how the idea for her podcast came out of a cultural worker discussion collective she was a part of in New York City.

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Topics Discussed:
00:00 Intro
00:15 Paula Santos
00:53 Cultural Institutions and Communities
04:14: Cultura Conscious
05:27: The Idea for the Show
06:55: Nuts and Bolts of Museum Work
07:58: Subscribe to Cultura Conscious
09:50: Outro & Club Archipelago

Museum Archipelago is a fortnightly museum podcast guiding you through the rocky landscape of museums and surrounding culture. Subscribe to the podcast for free to never miss an episode.


Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 52. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear and the only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

Paula Santos and I have some things in common. We both work in the museum world during the day, and by night, we both host podcasts about museums.

We even describe our day jobs in the same way: we are programmers. I am a computer programmer, writing the code that runs interactive media displays in museums. And Santos, as Community Engagement Manager at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is a museum programmer, managing programs and events.

Paula Santos: Hello, I’m Paula Santos, I’m a podcaster, museum educator, and community organizing learner.

Over the past year or so, Santos has been thinking about the assumptions cultural institutions make about the communities they identify as “underserved.”

Paula Santos: We don’t always have to lead with our audiences need x, y, z, these people are underserved for x, y, z reasons. Our communities have social capital, they have art, they have their own resources, that us as institutions can absolutely build with, and that understanding that it isn't just a top down effect, where here we have a huge grant, and now we're going to fly a helicopter over this community and throw art supplies around.

When we spoke, Santos was a day away from presenting a culminating event of a show, and acknowledged that not just helicoptering in made a lot of people, including herself, nervous.

Paula Santos: We as an institution can build with a community and that means also ceding our power. And that makes a lot of people very nervous at a granular level. As a programer, it does make me nervous. For example, I have this program tomorrow where I really try to the best of my ability to cede the floor to an organization of young queer people to put on a culminating event for a show that we have at one of our satellite spaces. I'm nervous. I'm nervous not because I don't believe in them, I totally believe in their vision, and they will be there, and they’re going to follow through, but I'm nervous because I ceded that control and I don't know how the institution will respond in the long run. When it's actually happening, that is totally relinquishing of control, as much as I can give.]

Santos’s nervousness is part of her conscious effort not to take the easy route in her work. Her critique is that many institutions, when attempting to serve as many people as possible, take the easy route -- and helicoptering in is easier than actually ceding control.

Paula Santos: We make a lot of choices in who we serve, why we do what we do, what kind of money do we pursue for our programs, where we are going to bend for funders, and we are entirely part of the larger machine of what makes things unjust and oppressive. So I feel like that's where I stand. It's not so much, we have a civic duty of justice, but more like we are members of society and how can we do cultural work in a way where we can truly work with all aspects of society, and not just the ones that are most convenient or the ones that are most privileged, or the ones that are easiest. A lot of the decisions when we think about justice and all those sorts of things, it isn’t so much that people are making ideological decisions a lot of times they’re making decisions based on time.

Santos is particularly interested in how the work we do in museums, non-profits or other cultural organizations intersects and is informed by larger questions of race and inequity in society. The work that Santos does, and her honesty discussing it, is what makes her podcast so compelling.

Paula Santos: My podcast is called Cultura Conscious, where I interview cultural workers on their work in community, on their work with justice and equity.

Santos chose a title that gave her enough room to explore many types of topics with many cultural producers.

Paula Santos: I think that I wanted to show a little bit of the fact that I'm bilingual, that I'm a woman of color, and that this was going to be really thoughtful about culture. I was like, Culture Conscious and I was like ugh, does that sound like an after-school special? So then just putting it in Spanish finally landed in a place where I was like this is not super heavy as a name, it’s not like I’m toeing around a name that’s like, oh my god, I have deep cultural knowledge, but maybe could allow me to explore many types of topics.

The idea for the show came from a cultural worker discussion collective which Santos was a part of when she lived in New York.

Paula Santos: Talk about a really formative experience. A group of colleagues, really spearheaded by Kiana Hendricks, who was my first guest, she started a collective of cultural workers in New York. All of us had kind of overlapped at the Brooklyn museum in some way or another. This group really helped me figure out what I really had to say and contribute about cultural work in general and also even just realizing that I did have something to contribute, period. Essentially what we we were doing was a collective of professional development. It would be anything from marketing and branding to talking about critical race theory or whatever it may be. Now that I think about it, thinking about grassroots and community work — we have each other and we build together, that we don’t have to wait for institutions or wait for other people to deem us worthy of granting us some form of knowledge. We can build that ourselves. And my conversations with collective members were so fruitful and so insightful. I was like I want to start this podcast, and everyone was so supportive.]

Cultura Conscious just celebrated its year anniversary. Santos says that she wanted make sure that all her guests for the first year were people of color, a trend which will for at least the next few episodes. The podcast comes directly out of her interest in what she calls the nuts and bolts of museum work -- where she sees the justice work museums and individuals need happening.

Paula Santos: All this nitty gritty stuff that you wouldn’t find in a journal article, or on a blog post about a culminating thing about a program, but just the day to day. There are people who are doing everyday, nuts and bolts work that are very invested in justice work, and they’re not the people who are leading the national conferences or the keynotes. I’m far more interested in that nuts and bolts aspect, which is probably why my interviews are so long.

That is why Santos and I only have some things in common.

Cultura Conscious is an excellent podcast, and you should subscribe and listen at culturaconscious.com. There’s a theme to Santos’s work: we don’t have to wait for institutions or wait for other people to deem us worthy. The whole structure of podcasting is an exercise in not waiting for permission from someone else. And crucially, it’s a reminder to those working within institutions that arts and culture creators don’t wait for permission either.

Paula Santos: The power of what happens when people come together that excites me so much, and I’m trying to reconcile that with being at a major institution, certain decisions that have to be made because of the way things are run, that make it very difficult at times to really keep up the momentum of community work, and many times even just be responsive to community in that moment in time. So I'm really grappling with this conflict of yes, community work! Let's do it! But then also releasing the churn of nonprofits and institutions. What I will say is that my work, I hope I can create programs, create collaborations, create partnerships where we really open ourselves up as institutions. And like I said in the beginning, really cede the floor cede our power, let community show us what they create and make the focal point of our work.