The 2010s were a transformative decade for the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz. Ten years ago, it was a traditional, if sleepy, community museum struggling for relevance and bleeding red ink. Now, the MAH is a different animal altogether, a temple of creative chaos, the anchor of a vibrant new town square, a Santa Cruz cultural crossroads that attracts close to 150,000 visitors a year.
But with a new decade comes yet another new era at the MAH. Gone, after eight years on the job, is Nina Simon, the charismatic revolutionary who envisioned and executed the museum’s remarkable makeover. In her seat as the new executive director at the MAH is 52-year-old native Minnesotan Robb Woulfe, who comes to town after nearly two decades of working to develop and nurture arts communities in such Santa Cruz-simpatico places as Park City, Utah, Breckinridge, Colorado, and Ann Arbor, Michigan.
For those holding out hope that the MAH might return to its roots as a quiet, old-school museum, Woulfe’s hiring is probably not good news.
“I said in my cover letter that I am not a traditional museum director, and I’m not,” says Woulfe, who began his tenure Feb. 10. “But it’s interesting when you start to look at the landscape nationally, and even globally, how traditional museums are starting to change their thinking, how we’re getting out of the four walls and redefining the experience of public space.”
Simon announced in the fall of 2018 that she was leaving the MAH to start up her own nonprofit called Of/By/For All. Last June, the museum turned to trustee Antonia Franco to serve as interim director while the MAH’s board of directors went through an exhaustive search for Simon’s successor.
“Nina was pretty spectacular, and unusual,” says board president Carola Barton, who headed up the board’s search committee. “We knew that we were not going to find another Nina, nor should we want to. So, we took some time to figure it out.” The 16-member board went on a retreat and did some thinking and arguing about the museum’s mission post-Simon. From an initial group of 34 candidates drawn from all over the world, the board offered the job to Woulfe.
“We wanted somebody with that same spirit of creativity,”says Barton, “and the organizational skills to pull things together, to come up with his own ideas, to ask questions about why we’re doing this or doing that. You can’t have a viable organization without questioning whether or not you should continue to do the things you’ve been doing in the same way.”
Woulfe inherits an institution with an operating budget of around $3 million, 18 full-time staffers, 11 part-timers and 26 interns. The MAH’s mission includes its formal exhibition spaces, arts programming at adjacent Abbott Square, and off-site locations including the Davenport Jail and the Evergreen Cemetery.
Woulfe says that he does not come to Santa Cruz with any kind of ambitious program or vision already in his back pocket. He says he is now learning about the community and developing relationships. “I’m taking it all in. I’m a very analytical person and I’m just learning what has worked here, what hasn’t worked, and hearing stories from a wide group of community members.”
For a decade, Woulfe served as the artistic director of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, a three-week music, theater and arts festival co-sponsored by the city of Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan. For the past five years, he was the CEO of Breckenridge Creative Arts in Colorado and served as an advisor in the creation of an arts/cultural district in Park City, Utah, the home of the Sundance Film Festival.
“I’m the new guy in town, and the first question everyone has is, ‘Which way are you going?,’” says Woulfe. “I would say I’m in the middle.”
One thing that Woulfe strongly supports is the MAH’s tendency toward eclecticism—interactive, hands-on arts “experiences” clanging against traditional gallery shows. “It’s all very intentional. But I like that appearance that it’s a mash-up, a hodgepodge. It’s all play space. It’s all relevant and all very much about what will have meaning to our guests.”
The public space of Abbott Square is of particular interest to the former festival director. “I look at that space and think, ‘What can we do with it? How can we enliven it and activate it?’ When I interviewed here, I came in the night before and was walking around downtown. And there was such great energy in Abbott Square. How can we continue to leverage that?”
Simon’s tenure was marked by a lively, sometimes heated debate over what the MAH was supposed to be—a museum, or some kind of community center? “We’re both,” says board president Barton. “We wanted to fulfill the mission of community connection through art and history. So we’re not an either/or. We’re both, and that’s pretty special.”
On March 12, the MAH will host an event it’s calling a “Community Brainstorm,” in which the public is invited to share ideas about programs, exhibits and the future of the museum. It comes at a fortuitous time, given that the museum’s new leader—a newcomer to Santa Cruz and, as Carola Barton calls him, “a fresh pair of eyes”—is in listening mode.
“I will listen to anyone,” says Woulfe, who grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. “It doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to do what you tell me to do. But it does inform my thinking. I strongly believe that if you listen to enough people, certain themes come out, and that’s where you start gravitating toward.
“Balance, balance, balance. I just think it keeps coming back to that. It’s going to be a mash-up. I think that brings different people together, offers a little something for everybody, breaks down all those ideas about high art and low art and gives people real quality experiences. Sometimes those (programs and exhibits) will be homegrown. Sometimes they’ll come from the other side of the world.”
The MAH’s Community Brainstorm will be 6-8pm on Thursday, March 12, at the Museum of Art & History, 705 Front St., Santa Cruz. Free. santacruzmah.org.