Early in the afternoon at the First Friday in March, as attendance began to grow and the staff was busy, a visitor to the Futzie Nutzle exhibit slashed a painting with a knife.
No one saw the perpetrator, who committed the first act of vandalism in the history of the museum, and no evidence was left for the police.
Executive Director Nina Simon described the artist’s works as “witty, fun, with an edge.” The damaged painting by artist Futzie Nutzle, aka Bruce Kleinsmith, showed a New Yorker magazine cover that he had made as a birthday present to himself when he turned 70.
“I don’t know who the person was or what they were thinking," said Simon. "It is very sad that this happened. He said he wanted to take the high road and have a positive note on it. We all felt terrific about the show and it was a real shame that this has happened.”
She said she believes that “any museum is really an act of trust and faith between the artists, the museum, and the community. We have all kinds of things out that could be destroyed or stolen, beautiful things that were created with a lot of care and attention.”
Since Simon has been on board First Friday has tripled in attendance – now to about 1,500 people on a regular basis – but the museum is still a small museum.
“We can’t afford to hire security guards and put cameras all over the place. And frankly, I want to create an environment in which you don’t feel like a guard is always breathing down your neck.
“So it’s really sad for me when this kind of violation of trust happens, because it makes us doubt what we’re trying to do – be a great community place. I think of it as an act of malicious vandalism and I presume that it will never happen again.”
Simon had a second violation last weekend when someone walked off with one of the LED hula-hoops being used at the GLOW exhibit.
Although the staff offices are just a few yards away from the gallery where the painting was slashed, Simon said that no one feared for their personal safety.
“It’s made us realize we need more gallery hosts, volunteers who walk through the galleries, particularly on First Friday when we have a lot of people in the building.”
Only 30-years-old, she has worked in museums for the last 10 years, learning and supporting her believe in participatory museums in places like Boston and Washington, DC. The Los Angeles native moved to Santa Cruz with her husband in 2007.
Before joining MAH, she spent years jetting off to consult with museums around the world, teaching them how to engage with their communities and to invite their audiences to become active collaborators. When the director’s position opened in Santa Cruz, Simon called it a “great fit and I get to ride my bike to work.” She and her husband live in a cabin in the woods in Happy Valley.
“I knew that people in Santa Cruz wanted to participate but I didn’t know the level at which they wanted to. People in grocery stores come up to me and want to talk about it.
"In most communities the level of participation is around 2-5 percent of visitors. Here it’s more like 30-50 percent of visitors are getting involved in these activities. The community is so excited to engage in drawing their own thing, telling their own story,” Simon said.
One of the walls in her office is painted cobalt blue and papered with visitors’ comment cards. Her first day on the job she put up a comment board in the lobby.
“People can make suggestions and tell us their dreams about what they want the Museum to be and I read everyone. I often respond to people and I keep a lot of them up here on my wall to inspire me. We make sure we’re being responsive to all the great ideas of the community.”
Some of the ideas the museum has adopted include after school art classes for kids and for adults, lighted costumes and digital art. “This fall we'll be doing a giant mobile of all the comments we got in the first year of doing this,” Simon said.
New exhibits will open on March 31.
“My hope and expectation for this museum is that the audience will grow tremendously over the next few years and I don’t think that with more people come more problems, but I do think we have to be more thoughtful about how do we make this museum a welcoming, comfortable place for visitors and for artists and historians who want to participate,” she said.
“One of the great things we’re seeing is a lot of people are coming to the museum who have never been here before. We owe it to them and ourselves to not just welcome them but that we help them understand how to have a great museum experience.”
At the May First Friday they will be partnering withwith a bike-to-work theme, bike art, and margaritas made with bike-operated blenders.
“We’re trying on First Fridays not to just produce our own experience but to make it a time to showcase other non-profits and businesses who want to sponsor a night.
“On Third Fridays we’re also having terrific experiences and are drawing 500-600 people and starting this summer we’ll be open late every Friday night and expand out to Abbott Square with our programming.”
Because of recent rains, the outdoor part of the Glow Fire and Light Festival has been rescheduled to March 23.
“We’ll have fabulous fire sculptures created by local innovators whose work only gets to be shown at Burning Man. We have been working very closely with the Santa Cruz Fire Department to be able to put this on. We’ll have the Dancetronauts with a space ship that goes about 15 feet in the air with LED lights attached. Dancers in sexy astronaut wear will make for a real party on the street. We’ll close Cooper Street and also use Abbott Square,” said Simon.
Where will this museum be next year at this time?
“The Museum will be on the map the way other core experiences
and places in the community are. We will be a hub for a certain kind of community activity that’s exciting, family-friendly, and helps people experience art and local history in a whole new way. Our exhibitions are moving in a way that involves a lot of community objects and stories.
“The exhibition we’re opening next, 'All You Need Is Love,' includes participation from school kids and homeless families and couples who live at Dominican Oaks who have been married for over 60 years. We’re really trying to move in a direction where exhibitions reflect and showcase the diverse energy of Santa Cruz and not just the art or the history side.
“People come up to me now and say, ‘The Museum is really active!’ and I say, “Oh, we’re really only on Step 1 of 27.”