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Days of Los Muertos: Community Engagement Strategies for the Future

Palm Springs Art Museum and the Coachella Valley

Presented at the California Association of Museums Conference


March 2-4, 2016 Riverside, CA

COLLABORATORS: Keri Jhaveri Director of Education & Public Programs at Palm Springs Art
Museum and Arlene Amick Managing Director at Palm Springs Art Museum The Galen in Palm
Desert.

AUTHOR: Gabriela Rodriguez-Gomez, CAM Fellow


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Days of Los Muertos is a one month collaboration of scheduled events between cultural
and historical institutions from Palm Springs to Coachella celebrating Day of the Dead. This
case study considers Days of Los Muertos as an important action item in Palm Springs Art
Museum's strategic plan. Representatives from the museum, along with other institutions,
presented a panel discussion at The California Association of Museums Conference in
Riverside titled "Days of Los Muertos: Collaboration and Community Building" (Session 1 C)
on March 3, 2016. Moderated by Michaleen Gallagher, Director of Education and
Environmental Programs at The Sunnylands Center & Gardens, with fellow panelists Jocelyn
Vargas, Director of Community Programs at Raices Cultura in Coachella; Arlene Amick
Managing Director, Palm Springs Art Museum The Galen in Palm Desert; Tizoc DeAztlan,
Race Director of Run with Los Muertos; and Kyle Pong, Director of Education at Childrens
Discovery Museum of the Desert in Rancho Mirage. In attendance representing Palm Springs
Art Museum were Keri Jhaveri, Director of Education & Public Programs; Jeb Bonner, Chief
Financial Officer / Deputy Director; and myself, Gabriela Rodriguez-Gomez, CAC Coordinator.

The panelists discussed the importance of collaboration between cultural and historical
institutions throughout the Coachella Valley, and the challenges as well as the benefits of such
an undertaking by multiple organizations. The Days of Los Muertos events are organized with
an emphasis on community outreach where educational and social programs are designed to
allow the local and regional population an opportunity to celebrate Day of the Dead. The
festivities and traditions associated with the celebration of Day of the Dead are learned and
interpreted using universal symbols; for example, the honoring of loved ones who have passed
away with the an altar. Other more contemporary activities include participating in a run or
marathon in their memory, known as Run with Los Muertos in Coachella, in order to foster a
positive understanding regarding life, death, and renewal. Noted benefits of Days of Los
Muertos are successful community engagement, significant growth of shared resources and
networking among institutions, promoting an active lifestyle, and creating non-exclusive
programs that connect the local and greater communities of Coachella Valley with Day of the
Dead.

Palm Springs Art Museum and The Galen in Palm Desert are locations that not only
continue to participate and organize with neighboring institutions to launch Days of Los
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Muertos, but are also vital cultural hubs that are currently implementing a new strategic plan.
By incorporating Days of Los Muertos as a integral part of Palm Springs Art Museum's
scheduled events, the initiatives stated on the "Strategic Plan: Vision 20/20" will swiftly work
toward achieving the goal of connecting a diverse audience to art and culture. This case study
asks the critical question, how will Palm Springs Art Museum's "Vision 20/20" goal of
connecting audiences to art and culture be achieved successfully? The action to consider is to
continue participation in Days of Los Muertos events. Long-term community engagement is
best achieved through sustained collaborative efforts, proven by current professionals involved
in Days of Los Muertos. These events are active examples that need fostering, and although
challenges exist, there is a possibility these could be resolved collectively. The Days of Los
Muertos events scheduled at Palm Springs Art Museum and The Galen in Palm Desert are
collaborative efforts that are to be recognized as current actions toward executing the
institutional goals set forth by "Vision 20/20."

Gabriela Rodriguez-Gomez. Day of the Dead Celebration at Palm Springs Art


Museum. Digital Photograph. October 26, 2014.

What is Day of the Dead? To explain the concept of Day of the Dead would require a
separate study all its own; however, it is essential to know that each year on November 2nd
communities in Mexico and the United States choose to celebrate Day of the Dead. The
activities associated with Day of the Dead, well known in the U.S., are rooted in Mexican
culture and are generally practiced in Central America more so than in South America. The
celebrations focus on honoring and respecting the dead with traditions that involve using the
cempasúchil / marigold flower, incense, candles, papel picado, pan de muerto, sugar skull
candies, papier maché skulls, and photographs or objects (religious and personal) linked to the
deceased to decorate their gravestones at the cemetery or on altars at home. These universal
symbols trigger the idea that on November 2nd, following November 1st All Saints' Day, the
memories and physical remnants of the departed are honored and remembered in festive
activities. The events organized during Days of Los Muertos are closely related to the concept

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of honoring and remembering those who have passed away. At Palm Springs Art Museum and
The Galen in Palm Desert educational programs and activities are designed to engage the
audience with the artists, symbols, and culture associated with Day of the Dead. Since 2007-
08, Palm Springs Art Museum has hosted events in Palm Springs and Palm Desert bringing in
over one thousand visitors to each event yearly. In 2014, for example, The Galen in Palm
Desert had 400 visitors and Palm Springs received 2,236 visitors for the events scheduled. As
a member of the administrative staff, I participated in the Day of the Dead celebrations in Palm
Springs Art Museum on October 26, and the connection with the visitors was immediate and
memorable.

Gabriela Rodriguez-Gomez. Day of the Dead Celebration at Palm Springs Art


Museum. Digital Photograph. October 26, 2014.

As stated in the Introduction to the "Strategic Plan: Vision 20/20," the Coachella Valley
is growing in population with diverse backgrounds each year and as of 2014 residents in
Coachella Valley are 51% Latino and 41% Caucasian. The plan touches upon the idea that
Palm Springs Art Museum must continue to connect with the greater community, seasonal
residents and tourists, but more importantly the local and regional communities that attend
year-round. Therefore, by collaborating with institutions in the Coachella Valley Palm Springs
Art Museum will essentially achieve the goal stated, "we will strengthen and expand our
partnerships with local and national institutions to connect art to broader perspectives." The
challenge of non-competitive scheduling was highlighted during the panel discussion. Although
it is an achievement to start an institutional collaborative schedule, it is incredibly difficult to
plan around each other while maintaining a cohesive branding and marketing strategy. Early
planning and transparency in communication is key to establishing programs that
accommodate the institutions involved. For example, shared networking and connecting art to
broaden perspectives with Day of the Dead occurred in 2013-14, as the symbol of the
'calavera' skull was chosen as the logo for the events.

By having an open dialogue during early planning and keeping to a united brand
through the use of the 'calavera' or skull symbol, in the end will enhance institutional

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collaboration. Early scheduling with no conflict of events will eliminate delay in publication
deadlines and hopefully will result in more attendance through effective marketing. The visitor
experience could be enhanced by targeting social media outlets to announce the event, or
perhaps each year having new entertainment and or artists featured through underwriting and
sponsorship opportunities. Although this study will not discuss extensively the financial
revenues and expenditures of the events, it should be noted that each event is given a
conservative budget. However, sponsorship opportunities or professional artist involvement
are options that could benefit the event. Also, local businesses and corporations could be
approached to sponsor, donate, or contribute support for the educational and cultural
programs.

Left: Anonymous. Day of the Dead 'calaveras' at The Sunnylands Center & Gardens, image taken
from website. Right: Anonymous. 'Calavera' sculpture of large scale skull located at each event,
image taken at Run with Los Muertos by Gabriela Rodriguez-Gomez, November 2014.

In "Vision 20/20" the goal of connecting audiences to art and culture is achieved by the
following actions: create art and cultural experiences that provide connections,
transformations, reflection, and renewal for all audiences. More importantly, the final action
under the goal of updating the visitor experience is to make Palm Springs Art Museum "My
Museum / Mi Museo," and to be considered a valued resource to local communities. Therefore,
in order to create a "transformative experience that expands our understanding of ourselves
and the world," as stated in the new mission statement, the museum must continue to engage
with Days of Los Muertos in order to strengthen involvement locally and regionally. The
universal themes taught in the celebrations of Day of the Dead emphasize the concepts of life,
death, and renewal as well as connect the participating audience with the deep understanding
that art and culture is also a transformative journey in both the world of the living and the dead.
Once the challenges of competitive scheduling are resolved these collaborative non-exclusive
events will establish long-term community engagement strategies for the future.

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Gabriela Rodriguez-Gomez
UCLA PhD Chicana/o Studies graduate student, May 2016 - Present.
Palm Springs Art Museum, Contemporary Art Council Coordinator, Oct. 2013 - May 2016.

The case study discusses Palm Springs Art Museum's new "Strategic Plan: Vision 20/20" and
highlights current actions that currently engage the local and regional community by
participating in events celebrating Day of the Dead titled Days of Los Muertos.