By 7 p.m. Friday, the clicker at the front desk of the Museum of Art and History (MAH) read 430 people. It was the First Friday of May, the day Santa Cruz's downtown businesses and museum throw open their doors to the public, dismissing the need to charge admission, all for the sake of sharing local art.
This night at the MAH felt different though, charged with the excitment of starting something new. It ran through the crowd, which mingled with food and snacks on the outside courtyard, up the three flights of stairs off which the MAH’s four gallery rooms are, and onto to the sculpture garden patio overlooking it all.
Celebrating her fifth day as Executive Director of the MAH, Nina Simon—who comes to us after having worked as a museum consultant and exhibit design expert for museums all over the world—welcomed the Santa Cruz crowd on her first-First Friday as the museum's director.
“First Friday is a great example of the reality that people don’t just want to experience art by standing in front of it in a quiet room. They want to enjoy it, have a drink, talk with their friends, and be in a convivial atmosphere conducive to that. Art shouldn’t be painful, it shouldn’t be like going to the dentist,” says Simon.
The walking and talking guest artist that night was painter and art professor at Cabrillo College, Ron Milhoan. His talk, did not feel like going to the dentist.
Packed into the auditorium room, the audience didn’t seem to care that it was hotter than a sauna and air was scarce. Every person was engrossed in the subject of Milhoan's talk, which made the leisurely sweat on our brows seem like a luxury.
Milhoan's painting exhibit No Place to Hide takes you to the vast plains of middle America, at the time of the first settlers. A time when pioneers saw advertisements and set off with their families to the “Garden of Eden” in the West, with the incentive of free land after five years of homesteading it.
“Two out of five farmers succeeded. This was a difficult endeavor, surviving dry farming, extreme weather-patterns, winds and empty lonely spaces,” said Milhoan.
No Place to Hide pays homage to Milhoan’s ancestors who came in a covered wagon, and ended up settling in Overton, Nebraska in 1862, before they made it West. It's dedicated to his grandmother, whose sister died while crossing the plains, and the family decided to settle where she was buried.
“This feeling-memory of close knit family and open space and intense weather has made a lasting impression on me,” said Milhoan.
Richly colored paintings, abstracted images of a bleak past but real enough to believe. Hints of ancestral hardship come through Milhoans dections of his ancestors “seeking shelter" or "planting a fragile fruit sapling with an eye on the approaching storm,” as he put it. But Milhoan's paintings also step into his own childhood memories of growing up in Nebraska, like the painting of his Uncle Jake smoking a tobacco pipe.
“I remember going to their house, and I would walk in and the sunlight would filter through, the room would be full of smoke, the sun made it look more blue. And he’d be sitting there just like that,” says Milhoan. He thinks he might work more blue into the painting sometime. His paintings hang on the third floor, in the "Art Forum Gallery" until July 17.
Milhoan told Patch he is excited about the Simon's new post as Executive Director of the museum.
“She’s dynamite. Just so bright and energetic. I like her idea of not being too snooty about art and making this a center where we can come together,” says Milhoan.
In her first week, Simon installed a bulletin board where people can tack their comments and suggestions for the museum, as well as express their reactions to the art they have seen through poems, statements and drawings.
"It's just great to have the energy and the space," said Simon, standing in front of the comment board.
No Place to Hide can be seen until July 17, in the “Art Gallery Forum” which is located on the third floor of the MAH. 705 Front Street, Santa Cruz. 831.429.1963