Onward! Talking about what works AND…What doesn’t

When I’m invited to speak, I like to say something original, or, why talk at all. Right? But who knew my ideas for addressing the California Museums Association in Napa this spring would be so off-the charts unconventional that the group’s executive committee even had to convene a call just to adjudicate on my topic before I was allowed to speak. Here’s what I proposed talking about: the short seven year run, and early death of COPIA, the multi-million dollar non-profit institution dedicated to the evolving culture of at the intersection of American wine and food and the arts, backed by none less than Robert Mondavi and Julia Child.

I must admit, I was surprised that there was so much pushback on the very idea of my talk. People are positively stuck on being positive, even when real life begs us to examine the negatives closely to find out what went wrong and why. It’s more than a facile exercise in “learning from failures”. COPIA was a carefully planned, fully funded, strongly supported institution, so it matters why it didn’t fly, or — did fly, but ultimately faltered, and fell.

Post-mortems on COPIA, which opened in 2001 and closed in 2008, captured the numbers, the economic winds of change, and the cultural zeitgeist. What was not fully or thoughtfully examined is what the more invisible costs were. In other words, the $70+ million dollars spent on COPIA’s construction and eight year presence might have done more and better work in any of a variety of community initiatives in human services, the arts and culture.

COPIA did make a contribution, but, was it worth it? Did the mission and numbers ever really make sense? Was the exuberance matched with public interest, demand or even need? These are questions worth asking at the outset of any project, no matter which deep pockets might be involved.

For every project the first task is to ask the right questions. That way, the work and the legacy should prompt fewer questions about what didn’t work, and more about what did.

Download the “A Most Generous Season’s Greeting from California!” PDF [728kb] here.

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