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New Vision and Building Listing – A Message from Alicia L. Goehring

Dear Friends:

We have some exciting news to share: A bold new vision for the California Historical Society! We are eager to share the news with all our friends, partners, and supporters.

As you know, the California Historical Society (CHS) has helped Californians find meaning from the past since 1871. For decades our collections have been respected for their depth of California history, and as the statutorily recognized state historical society since 1979, we have prioritized free public access to our collections and developed a track record of compelling exhibits, programs, and educational services. CHS is proud of our achievements and strengths, but in an era where it is often difficult to distinguish fact from fiction, it is time to do more, broaden our reach, and strengthen our impact.

In 2020, the California Historical Society will embark on a bold new vision to collect, share, and honor the extraordinarily diverse stories throughout our state so that Californians may utilize history’s lessons to create a brighter tomorrow for everyone.

This new direction embodies CHS’s fundamental values:

  • Statewide impact
  • Diversity and inclusion in leadership, staffing, programming, interpretation, and services
  • PK-16 education and lifelong learning
  • Relevancy to contemporary lives
  • Sharing authority with others
  • Effective and mutually beneficial partnerships
  • Accessibility of CHS collections and services

Five new strategies will bring CHS services and programs to communities throughout the state and expand our impact from thousands to hundreds of thousands of Californians every year.

  • Provide technical assistance, training, and resources to the hundreds of unstaffed and understaffed cultural and local history organizations throughout California. CHS will station multiple field service specialists around the state to work directly with organizations, providing them with tools and expertise to help them bring history to life for their constituents. In addition, CHS will administer a competitive mini-grants program to help organizations fund their efforts. Over 500 cultural and local history organizations operate in more than 300 communities, represent a myriad of cultural groups, and serve as the most accessible history organizations for schools, families, and adults. By serving this network, our reach will extend far beyond what we would be able to achieve alone.
  • Develop partnerships with multiple California universities to provide invaluable learning experiences for history students through practicums, internships, class projects, and thesis opportunities. This initiative represents a win for students, faculty, cultural and local history organizations, and CHS.
  • Deliver new learning opportunities directly to Californians through schools, museums, historical societies, cultural centers, libraries, and our own gallery. We will utilize new educational tools such as traveling banner exhibitions for museums and libraries, history trunks for school children, and classroom resource packets for teachers.
  • Increase access to our incomparable collections by adding thousands of items to the CHS Digital Library and continuing our stellar reference services. Our holdings comprise over 1 million items.
  • Utilize the power of the internet to increase accessibility to our resources and services. We will greatly expand our online presence by featuring a robust array of new resources such as webinars, crowd-curated exhibits, and K-12 curriculum resources through our Teaching California program.

Reaction to the vision and strategies thus far has been positive.  One local historical society board member described it as “manna from heaven.”  A board member from another local historical society immediately started suggesting topics for webinars.  A prospective supporter commented that he has been wanting the organization to have more of a statewide impact for quite some time.

We have received some excellent questions about the details including how the new vision will impact CHS’s commitment to the San Francisco Bay area; the wisdom of changing the current operational model; how the new vision will be funded; what the status of the potential Old U.S. Mint project is; and how the pandemic has affected the roll-out of this vision. First, while we intend to broaden our outreach and impact, we continue to believe in the important role San Francisco and the Bay Area play in California’s past, present, and future, and plan to stay active in the Bay Area cultural arena.

Second, as we mentioned early on in this letter, CHS is proud of our strengths and achievements over the past several years. But the reality is that the current operational model, while not “broken,” is not functioning well and has not for several years. Like many nonprofits, we struggle on a regular basis because our funding model is not sustainable. When our organization is compared with very successful state historical societies throughout the country, we find that these other organizations: more fully embrace online earned revenue opportunities; have much larger memberships and broader bases of annual financial support; operate more robust fundraising and marketing departments; benefit from both public and private funding; and assertively practice their missions throughout their states. The great news is that CHS has the potential to do all this and more. California’s story, dating back thousands of years ago to last week, is compelling and globally relevant. Californians care deeply about their past, present, and future. And the California Historical Society has extraordinary collections, talented staff, dedicated leadership, and loyal members and donors.

Third, there is the question of funding. The pursuit of this new vision will involve engaging like-minded individuals, organizations, foundations, corporations, and government entities to collaborate with us financially and programmatically to develop a sustainable model of funding the organization.

Fourth, CHS and the City of San Francisco have been active partners in a due diligence assessment regarding the possible use of the Old U.S. Mint building on Mission Street in San Francisco.  The partners have studied how the Mint could be rehabilitated and rededicated as a museum and community center with CHS as its steward and curator. This comprehensive exploration continues, and the project remains on our list of possible long-range opportunities. If the City and CHS decide it is mutually beneficial to move forward with the project, the vision described above would help us prepare for this future effort. The more time we spend collecting stories from throughout the state, the better prepared we will be to develop a place that focuses on the stories of all Californians.

Finally, how has the pandemic impacted the roll-out of this vision? The past four months have been rough. Earned revenues have dried up and face-to-face development efforts have been delayed. However, staff have been working from home and taken the opportunity to test a few initiatives that will play central roles in launching the new vision including the Tell Your Story project, the production of videos for our YouTube channel, and the provision of a great deal of content for our blog, e-newsletter, website, and social media, allowing us to share stories with thousands of new users. This vision, developed in the weeks before the shelter-in-place order, provides us with a blueprint for the future.

The leadership of CHS is fully committed to pursuing this new vision and is moving forward with four important actions. First, the Board of Trustees will list the CHS headquarters building at 678 Mission Street in San Francisco on the market in mid-July. Our lovely headquarters building has served the organization well for the past 27 years. It has allowed us to showcase our collections, provide excellent library reference services, and host thought-provoking programs. However, we find ourselves with the vast majority of our financial resources tied up in the value of the building, spend too many staff hours maintaining our own facility, and are encumbered with a space that met our needs in 1993 but will not meet our needs in 2025. By taking this step, we can free up financial resources to seed our work in building our organizational capacity and financial sustainability (see the attributes of highly successful state historical societies on page two), pay others to do the work that is not mission related (rent to cover building management, maintenance, and security), and find space that will better suit the needs of a less centralized organization. We will need up to 36 months to implement a move of our venerable collections to a new space, so we will not be moving immediately. Though we envision having one-person offices in several places throughout the state as described in the first strategy outlined on page one, we intend to keep our headquarters in San Francisco or the greater Bay Area. Over the months to come we will determine our specific space needs for this facility.

Second, throughout the past several months we have been in discussions with the administration of the University of California Riverside regarding collaborating with their History Department’s Public History Program to pilot the type of partnership described on page two of this letter. We are just weeks away from signing a memorandum of understanding to this effect.

Third, we will identify the specific tools and tactics we will employ to implement the vision and corresponding five strategies. We will do this through surveys and dialogue with prospective partners, beneficiaries, and supporters, and with other state historical societies throughout the country.

Fourth, we will immediately start to implement projects that we have tested in the past two months. We will increase the number of webinars we host and the utilization of YouTube to share these webinars. Our one-hour program on the first suffrage march in the U.S. has been viewed almost 600 times. This is an excellent way to share content throughout the state. In addition, we will continue to collect stories through our new, nationally recognized Tell Your Story initiative on our website. This is a great example of how we can reflect each one of our organization’s values through a timely and relevant project.

The world is changing rapidly, and Californians find themselves relying more than ever on the lessons of the past to identify consequences and develop solutions. With this bold new direction, the California Historical Society will work throughout the state to share the diverse stories of California and collaborate with its citizens to create a better and more equitable future. We thank you for your support in the past and hope we can continue to rely on your loyalty in the future.

Sincerely,

Tony Gonzalez
Chair, Board of Trustees

Alicia L. Goehring
Executive Director and CEO