Nina Simon MAH Santa Cruz
A&E

How Nina Simon Reinvented Santa Cruz Art

The outgoing director of the Museum of Art & History talks art elitism, forging new community ties and what’s next

PHOTO: KIM DELANEY

Nina Simon, the internationally renowned creative force behind the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, is preparing for a new journey.

In November of last year, a startling bit of news emerged from behind the walls of the Museum of Art and History (MAH) when Simon, the organization’s dynamic executive director, announced that she was leaving after eight years and a major turnaround at the local art institution. The news sent cultural shock waves throughout the community.

Simon’s tenure was not without some controversy—it is Santa Cruz, after all—as the 37-year-old Simon pushed more than a few envelopes in traditional museum management and curating styles during her tenure.

Trained as an engineer at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, Simon employed many of the cutting-edge ideas she had explored in her innovative blog Museum 2.0, first book The Participatory Museum and follow-up title The Art of Relevance. In so doing, she ruffled the feathers of some art and history traditionalists, most a generation or two older than herself.

But even for her critics, it’s hard to deny that Simon—along with the talented staff she assembled around her, and the community that rallied behind her vision—had turned a floundering, seemingly visionless institution into a thriving, dynamic organization remarkably in tune with the pulse of the greater Santa Cruz community.

The numbers tell the tale in a rather startling way: When Simon assumed her leadership role at MAH, the museum’s annual budget was in disastrous shape. Income in 2011 was $630,000, with expenses at $835,000. MAH was headed for bankruptcy. During the last calendar year under Simon’s tenure, MAH’s annual budget was $2.5 million—nearly a 400% increase in little more than eight years—and the MAH was running in the black by roughly $400,000.

Even more significantly, annual attendance at MAH in 2011—and let us be candid, the place often felt like a morgue—stood at 17,000 people. By last year, attendance had increased nearly nine-fold, to 148,000 visitors. And perhaps most critical of all, the attendance had radically changed in terms of age, race and income levels.

Simon’s impact on MAH was almost instantaneous. She eliminated a staff position and imposed salary reductions (including for herself), quickly raised $1 million, and assembled a Renewed Ambition Task Force charged with redefining funding goals and identifying growth opportunities. In short, she moved mountains.

Eight years later, she has decided on a change in the course of her professional career, forming a separate nonprofit—OF/BY/FOR ALL—that will attempt to bring MAH’s concept of community engagement to museums and other cultural organizations around the world. With only a short time left at MAH, Simon talked with Good Times Senior Contributing Editor Geoffrey Dunn about her accomplishments, where she hopes MAH is headed and the new challenges before her.  

It’s hard to believe it’s been eight years since you took over the helm of MAH. Has it gone by quickly for you, or was it more difficult than it seemed?

NINA SIMON: The time has gone quickly, but it’s also fundamentally changed my life. When I started at the MAH, I loved Santa Cruz in the abstract. Leading the MAH meant embracing Santa Cruz County in all its depth and complications. We opened the doors for new people to get involved, and they flooded in. They brought brilliant and kooky ideas. They donated their time and creativity. We hugged and we argued. We started conversations and relationships that will never end.

I did an extensive interview with you for Good Times shortly after you took over MAH. I re-read it this week, and one of the things I couldn’t help but notice was that several, if not most, of the goals you envisioned then have today become a reality. And concepts like ‘Museum 2.0’ and ‘interactive encounters’ and ‘the participatory museum’—which were all rather new and even a little vague back then—are now part of the community vernacular. Did you accomplish all, or most, of what you set out to do? And did you expect these ideas to be so thoroughly embraced by the community at large?

I accomplished most of what I hoped to do—and, well, more. But it wasn’t really me that did it. It was our community, which not only welcomed a new way of interacting with a museum, but did so with gusto. Over eight years, we invited hundreds of thousands of new people—people of every age, income level, race, and ethnicity—to come in.

HOT SPOT Simon has also pushed to make the museum a gathering place for community events like Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

HOT SPOT Simon has also pushed to make the museum a gathering place for community events like Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

And they weren’t just visitors, they were volunteers and collaborators co-creating new exhibitions and events. They were donors and members supporting a new public mission. Some of our most successful programs—and our extraordinary financial growth—are thanks to our partners.

I think the concept of being a team player is part of your mantra.

There are a lot of museums around the world trying to involve people more actively in how they work. In most cities, a few people get involved, and a lot of people complain. In Santa Cruz, we had the opposite. A ton of people got involved, and only a few complained. We got further, faster, because the whole spirit of creative community participation is so close to the heart of what Santa Cruz County is all about.

Agreed. Given that, what do you consider to be your most definitive accomplishments at MAH?

There are many internal accomplishments: the financial turnaround, building a strong and diverse staff and board, and rebuilding the mission and culture of the institution. But externally, I’m most proud of three community projects: the Princes of Surf exhibition [2015], the Lost Childhoods foster youth project [2017], and the reinvention of Abbott Square.

Since I was involved in the ‘Princes of Surf’ exhibit [with partners Kim Stoner, Bob Pearson and Barney Langner] let’s start there. I know you said that this exhibit had a profound impact on you and that, in part, inspired you to write your second book, ‘The Art of Relevance.’ What was it about that exhibit that proved so pivotal?

It was an exhibition that was truly community-sourced. Kim walked into the MAH office one day, and later with you, telling this fantastical story about how the first surfboards ever used on the mainland U.S.A. were hidden in storage in Hawaii, and that they were made right here in Santa Cruz. From the very start, that exhibition was driven not just by your group’s enthusiasm, but by dozens of partners who truly took ownership of the project.

A lot of times, organizations will talk about partnerships in a very transactional or superficial way. But in the case of Princes of Surf, the partnerships were deep. They took the MAH further than I could ever have imagined. And for me personally, it was a really powerful testament to what can happen when an institution gives up control and shares power with passionate community members.

Passions definitely run deep in those communities. I was in the middle of it and was blown away not only by the passion, but also by the breadth of its traction.

What those community members taught us was that Princes of Surf was not just an exhibition about surfing. It was an exhibition about crossing cultures. I’ll never forget the Polynesian biker club that came down to help with the big paddle out, and the Hawaiian elder who blessed the boards. These partners brought in new voices and perspectives that enriched the exhibition. They taught me that no one owns the story. No one owns the objects. They are a shared heritage that bind us to each other across our differences.

You told me the other day that ‘Lost Childhoods’ also had a profound impact on you.

That exhibition was our most ambitious attempt to put together all the ways we involve community at the MAH. We worked with partners—foster youth and advocates—who had no reason to trust us, or even know we existed. But we built that trust, and we built the exhibition together.

'LOST CHILDHOODS' MAH's 2017 foster youth exhibit only happened after Simon's team convinced young people and advocates who had "no reason to trust us, or even know we existed" to participate.

‘LOST CHILDHOODS’ MAH’s 2017 foster youth exhibit only happened after Simon’s team convinced young people and advocates who had “no reason to trust us, or even know we existed” to participate.

The co-creation involved was deep and hard and important. The resulting exhibition told stories that had never been told, coming from voices that had often been silenced. And it encouraged visitors not just to participate, but to take action to help foster youth, and by doing so, make our community stronger.

In many ways, that was a revolutionary exhibit.

The model we created for Lost Childhoods—the “community issue exhibition”—is now a signature model for the MAH. We wrote a toolkit on how to do it and shared it around the world. We refined the model again this year for the current exhibition on seniors and social isolation, We’re Still Here. The community issue exhibition model was spearheaded by Stacey Marie Garcia, our director of community engagement. I think it’s a game changer for the MAH and for the world of museums. It shows that art and history can spark social action to build stronger, more connected communities. And I know Stacey and the team will keep doing just that.

What led you to take on Abbott Square? In some ways that seemed like a stretch.

Six years ago, we started out thinking about Abbott Square as a MAH expansion project—a way to connect the museum to the vibrant creative life of downtown. We’d also learned from a Latinx-focused ethnographic study that outdoor programming was particularly appealing to local Latinx families. We wanted to reach more people, and more diverse people, and we saw Abbott Square as a great place to do it.

And that idea kept evolving.

Once we started community conversations about the potential for Abbott Square, the “why” shifted to community desire for a town square. While locals were interested in the MAH, they were much more interested in having a downtown gathering place. What started as being about the MAH became more about the community. Community members’ expressed needs and desires drove the planning of Abbott Square and led to major decisions we would not have made if this project was “just” a MAH extension—the addition of the food court being the most significant. While this was exciting, it was also a bit disconcerting. At times, it felt like we were taking on a new sister project to the MAH in Abbott Square, as opposed to an expansion of our existing work. Some MAH donors questioned whether we were really in the business of building a public plaza and whether we should raise money to do so.

That seems like a legitimate question.

To my grateful surprise, that sense of separation resolved itself as the MAH’s strategy evolved in alignment with the project. While we were designing Abbott Square with community members, we were also strengthening the MAH’s overall commitment to build a stronger, more connected community. We knew this impact could only happen if we expanded our work further beyond our walls.

I know a lot of people thought it would never happen, that it was a disaster in the making.

Building Abbott Square was intense. We raised $5 million from our community, but we also dealt with hundreds of community members—including people in power —who simply did not believe the project was possible. Henri Matisse once said that creativity takes courage. We needed a lot of both to get this project done.

DOWNTOWN SQUARE The launch of Abbott Square Market required a $5 million fundraising effort and overcoming serious skepticism.

DOWNTOWN SQUARE The launch of Abbott Square Market required a $5 million fundraising effort and overcoming serious skepticism.

Every time I see moms with strollers meeting up in Abbott Square, or a pack of teens coming down after school, I’m reminded how many people didn’t believe this was possible. I’m reminded how easy it would have been to give up on this project. But I’m also reminded how satisfying and meaningful it is to do the impossible. One of my absolute favorite things to do is to sit in Abbott Square and watch people discover it for the first time. People have adopted it so quickly into the life of downtown, and I’m proud of that.

Some of the changes you imposed on the museum, including Abbott Square, generated criticism, mostly from some of the old guard types who wanted more traditional explorations of art and history.

Not everyone liked how we, and I, led the MAH. But as a leader, I have to weigh those small number of critical voices against the hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic people who got newly involved—including many who had never felt welcome in a museum before. For every critic, there were literally a thousand new people telling us how grateful they were for the changes. When I think of the loudest critics of our work, I think of people who wanted the MAH to be a more exclusive, elitist, academic place.

I think that’s the wrong vision for a public institution. I think it’s the wrong vision for Santa Cruz. For a museum to survive and thrive today, it must be relevant and meaningful for many people from many backgrounds. It must sway to the pulse of the cultural community in which it resides. It must be radically inclusive, constantly working to invite new people to connect for new reasons. That’s what we tried to do at the MAH.

I remember our first encounter nearly a decade ago. One of the things we discussed was the financial situation at the MAH—it was dismal then—and I had seen the annual audits that had been conducted over the last several years. You really turned things around in short order. And as a former executive director of a local nonprofit, I was duly impressed. What was your approach to the money dance?

We turned around quickly, and then grew aggressively year over year. Over time, we quadrupled the budget and built healthy reserves for the first time in the organization’s history. We did it in three steps. First, we made hard cuts, scaling back to a core operation we could sustain. Then, we started doing new things with spit and duct tape to give people a glimpse of what we hoped to create. Finally, we asked those who were intrigued to invest and help us build a new kind of museum.

It was a radically new way of seeking resources.

We brought in millions in new funding from two major sources: national foundations, which saw the MAH as an innovative leader in the cultural sector, and local donors who care about making Santa Cruz County better. Most of these local donors were younger and more social justice-oriented than traditional museum supporters. I didn’t solicit people who wanted to see their favorite artist on the wall. I worked with donors who saw art and history as vehicles to strengthen and connect our community. It turns out there are a lot of people who care about our community and who believe that creative, new approaches can help us grow. The MAH’s unique community-driven model, and our incredibly diverse participants, makes it a place where they want to contribute.

So why leave the MAH now?

While I wouldn’t say I’ve done everything I could do at the MAH, I do feel like I’ve taken it from a place of instability to a place of richness and maturity. I knew I could do a lot of good at the MAH when it needed change and new energy. Now it has such wonderful energy, such amazing people. I know they—and a new director—will keep growing. The MAH is strong, and frankly, I think there’s another leader out there who can do more with its strength than I can.

In what ways is your farewell to MAH a new beginning for you?

I’ve spent the past eight years in a passionate love affair with Santa Cruz, doing work that is deep, local, and unbounded. There are no divisions for me between work and life. It’s all a celebration of what it means to build community here in Santa Cruz County. Every morning when I unlock the museum, I feel like I’m diving into the center of a web of beauty and diversity and unexpected connections. It will be a profound loss to no longer be tied into that web of love. But I’m ready to launch free so I can spread that love to other places. Over the past several years, I’ve learned how hungry people are for institutions that are truly public, where they can connect and grow together. We’ve done that at the MAH, and I’m eager to share what we’ve learned with colleagues leading public institutions around the world.

The Museum of Art & History will celebrate Nina Simon’s eight years as executive director this coming First Friday (June 7), from 5-9 p.m., with an hour of special acknowledgements beginning at 7 p.m.. 705 Front St., Santa Cruz. santacruzmah.org. For more on Simon’s next chapter, visit ofbyforall.org.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Walter J Smith

    June 11, 2019 at 8:18 am

    And please give Geoff my email address; thanks, Steve!

  2. Melyssa Demma

    June 6, 2019 at 3:50 pm

    Doesn’t that go to show the one’s that didn’t believe in Simone’s work, had I not just come on board recently with the Volunteers for the MAH, I would have never known any differently on the truth and what a roll she took on for our community in a whole not just the Museum…When I see the variety of faces and all ages, ethnicity and all colors, shapes and sizes of humans come to visit, I see Equality. Coming from a true local from birth to present and still residing here, yet downtown now, this is the message my Father (Peter Demma, Hip Pocket Bookstore 1964 – 1968) and many others that moved here in the “60’s” wanted for Santa Cruz. This is what my core up-bringing along with all of my peers that grew up here too and how we all would like Santa Cruz to be in the eyes of the rest of the world.
    I would like to say “Nina for President” but, I wouldn’t want to lay that one on her and sounds like she’s got her work cut out for her internationally. Bon Voyage Nina Simone, may we continue what you started and may you share the same light on as many communities your lifetime can handle! I know I speak on behalf of many, Melyssa Demma

  3. maria chomentowski

    June 6, 2019 at 12:13 pm

    Thank you Nina!!! You have done so much good here and it makes sense for you to spread that good to as many places as possible!!

    • Walter J Smith

      June 11, 2019 at 8:15 am

      Thank you, Steve Palopoli, for asking Geoff Dunn to do this interview, and for publishing it! It suggests that GT is doing what both Nina Simon and Geoff Dunn have been doing, and successfully, for years: making Santa Cruz into “the whole spirit of creative community participation [which] is so close to the heart of what Santa Cruz County is all about.”

      P. S. If you would, please pass on to Geoff that I am back in town and want/need to discuss some things with him.

      PPS our paths may have crossed back in the 1980s in a class at UCSC?

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