Nina Simon, Redesigning the Local Museum Scene

Executive Director Nina Simon’s plans for repositioning the Museum of Art & History as none other than a cultural hub and center for Santa Cruz community collaboration.

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History is currently undergoing a makeover. But wait – before you hit the delete button and head off to organize your sock drawer, you may want to hear Executive Director Nina Simon’s plans for repositioning the MAH as none other than a cultural hub and center for Santa Cruz community collaboration.

Nina sums it up aptly with one of her favorite sayings: “Visiting a museum should not feel like a trip to the dentist’s office”. Without a doubt, this dynamic former international exhibit consultant has a compelling vision of just how integrative a small community museum can be!

EB: From what I’ve read, you have a great deal of expertise and recognition in the art world, I can imagine you had some great opportunities to choose from. What attracted you to the MAH?

NS: I had been working as a consultant but living in Santa Cruz, so I was traveling a lot, and at the same time I was looking to contribute more to our community. This opportunity arose late last year when the museum was looking for a director that would help to really engage our community. My background is in working with museums on exhibit development, with a focus on helping art and history museums to offer visitors an experience that is more in line with a hands-on participatory culture. I see a growth opportunity here for realigning our community museum to truly reflect our diverse culture, and to invite people who don’t see themselves as part of this museum to connect to us.

EB: What are some of your plans to increase visibility?

NS: We have a new vision to be a thriving center for Santa Cruz around art, history, and culture. My focus is around how to make this more of a gathering place, more welcoming physically – the new MAH is a great place to hang out, study, work on projects, use as a meeting space for small groups. We’re working to overcome out-dated preconceptions of what a museum of experience should be about. Going to a museum should not be like going to the dentist. It should be a gathering place for people from all walks of life.

EB: Museums can sometimes feel either stuffy or elitist, like you need to have an education in the arts to be able to enjoy them. In general, what are some benefits an average first-time visitor can gain from visiting a museum?

NS: In the same way some people need a cup of coffee every day, I believe we all need to have the opportunity to learn something every day. A museum is an ideal place for that. It’s also a wonderful starting point for social engagement. I’m a happily married person but if I was single, this is where I’d go. It’s a great place to meet interesting people who are intellectually curious, into the art scene and open to new ideas. Finally, we are so bombarded everyday with commercial messages and packaged experiences. A special thing about museums is the chance to be in a public place that is not about selling you crap.

EB: How do you see the Santa Cruz community connecting to the MAH?

NS: In several ways. The first is come to visit and become a member.

EB: I actually just joined, and it’s surprisingly cheap for a family membership!

NS: But there’s a lot more to gain than just visiting. We want to be a good hub by being a good venue and partner to people. If your organization is related the arts, culture or history we want to be the place for you to hold your meeting or event. From an event rental perspective, there a lot we can do. There’s a lot we can do with community partnerships as well. This museum is a unique and inspiring space for a gala or community special event, which opens the doors to a whole new audience.

In terms of the visitor experience, people will have an opportunity to make art here, to have a learn something new and to have a great social experience. One of the interesting things about museums is that the vast majority of people don’t visit museums alone. We want to make their social experience positive and offer new options and activities to visitors, in addition to looking at art.

On the third floor we’ve cleared some former space and added a Creativity Lounge. We have some donated furniture, puzzles and books available and people are into it. Instead of the five minutes they would have spent on the exhibit, they’re sitting there for 45 minutes to an hour, hanging out and interacting.

EB: When I think about some of the more well-known museums, they’re often focused on a specific genre, like modern or contemporary art, or they’re really old. What will the focus of MAH be going forward? What do you feel is compelling about it?

NS: The mission of the MAH has always been contemporary art and local history. That’s where our focus will stay. We’re simply taking a broader big tent approach to art, history and culture in different ways. We have a four part program scheduled this fall, Creativity Under the Influence (it’s for adults). We’re pairing wine tasting with art making and possibly adding a creative food preparation activity. It’s not 100 percent art or history but it’s about making the connection among various forms of culture (and drinking)!

EB: Santa Cruz is such a creative community, but the arts scene is so diffuse. How does that effect your future plans for the MAH?

NS: We are going to stay locally and regionally focused, and it’s great to have the local talent to be able to do that. We’ll do more actual partnering and collaborating with artists and cultural groups. Some of our new programs like Makers of the MAH showcase local crafters and offer visitors new perspectives. We’ll be offering more than just exhibitions but programs and events designed to showcase everything that’s exciting about art.

EB: What do you find unique about the Santa Cruz art scene?

NS: I find it’s very blended in terms of enthusiasm about participation. By that I mean this is not a community with a small exclusive group of artists and then everyone else that’s not connected to art. Everyone here seems connected to art in some way in their life. I think the unique thing in Santa Cruz is that art is so pervasive, and we’re about supporting these local artists and partnering with them.

EB: What are some of your favorite museums?

NS: It’s hard to pick just a few…some of my favorites are the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark–it’s such a beautiful museum on an incredible site next to the sea. I love the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum–they have a strong focus on connecting with kids and making their lives better not just in the building but throughout the city. The Mohammad Ali Center in Louisville is an amazing tribute to a hero of mine and a well-done history museum.

I’ve worked with over 200 museums around the world, so I’ve seen some amazing examples and have gotten some great inspiration for Santa Cruz. I’ve also seen a lot of forgettable, generic institutions–and if there’s one thing that Santa Cruz deserves, it’s a museum that is as unique as we are

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Carol Carson August 21, 2011 at 04:44 PM
Nina hit the ground running when she joined MAH and it will never be the same. She has authored a book on interactive museums and is known world-wide and she just turned 30! Get ready, Santa Cruz, here comes Nina!
Marguerite MacDonald August 22, 2011 at 10:03 PM
Elizabeth, what a great article - Nina sounds perfect for the job and I can't wait to go and visit the Museum. I hope to see some follow up stories alerting readers about her accomplishments in making MAH even more exciting that it was.


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