The Nina Simon era at the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz is coming to an end.
Simon and the MAH’s board of directors announced this week that she will leave her position as the museum’s executive director in 2019, and the board will begin the search for a replacement in December. Simon will become the director of a new nonprofit, in association with the MAH, to help cultural organizations around the world pursue innovations in developing their communities. She and her family will remain residents of Santa Cruz County.
Simon radically transformed the MAH during her eight-year tenure as its leader. Before she assumed the job in 2011, the MAH was a traditional, if unremarkable, community museum with a twin mission of preserving local history and promoting fine art through periodic exhibitions. Today, it’s the vortex of a wide range of community activities from socio-politically oriented exhibitions to celebratory fire festivals. Simon’s leadership also includes the $5 million Abbott Square project, which transformed the small plaza adjacent to the museum into a bustling urban community space in the spirit of San Pedro Square in San Jose and the Grand Central Market in Los Angeles. Attendance has grown more than eight-fold, from 17,000 in 2010 to 148,000 in 2017, according to the MAH’s statistics.
Once a successor is hired, Simon will spearhead a new organization called OF/BY/FOR ALL, which will seek to take the lessons from the transformation of the MAH and create a framework for other community-focused organizations to emulate—including not only other museums, but parks, libraries and media organizations.
Simon is quick to correct the notion that she’ll take on the role of a consultant. “We’re really seeing this as a movement,” she says. “The MAH is a beautiful place and it is perceived as a leader and an incubator of these kinds of approaches. This is about putting more fuel into sharing that energy and these opportunities globally.”
The new effort has been in the planning stages for about a year, and the specific relationship between the MAH and the new organization has yet to be determined. “The idea,” says Simon, “is to have strong separate entities—the MAH doing great local work, and OF/BY/FOR ALL sharing the secret sauce and the framework [of the MAH] that we see being adaptable in many different contexts.”
The move is a natural extension of Simon’s career as a kind of agent for bold democratization of historically elitist museum culture. She laid the groundwork of her vision in her ongoing blog “Museum 2.0,” which began in 2006, and the publication of her book The Participatory Museum in 2010. Her mission, she says, is to break down the barriers that have prevented full participation of communities in their local institutions, not only as audiences but as creators and decision-makers, an approach reflected in her new organization’s Lincoln-esque use of the prepositions “of,” “by,” and “for.”
Though she’s ready to take the MAH model global, Simon says that leaving her position was “a very hard decision to make.” Of her successor, she says, “I honestly think this is the best executive director job in the world. [Whoever is hired] is going to be one of the luckiest people in the world.”