A project initiated by

Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH)

"We've spent the past six years focused on this local community – but there's an argument for adding an ‘s’ to that, and saying we’re now helping build stronger, more connected communities instead of community.”

The MAH, as it is colloquially known, first came together in the 1980s as a merger between the recently established Art Museum of Santa Cruz County, and the Santa Cruz Historical Society, founded in the 1950s. The two organisations occupied the former county jail building – turning it from “a place of incarceration to a place of inspiration” – and in the 1990s renovated this building as offices while moving into its own new-built home next door. When Nina Simon joined the organisation as executive director in 2011, it was in severe financial straits: she has since built up the staff team from seven to 27, and the annual budget to roughly $2m and rising. Roughly a third of that income is earned through commercial rents (although the three buildings comprising the site are technically county property, the museum keeps all earnings); another third comes from grants; and the final third from contributions including donations, sponsorships, memberships and an annual fundraising gala. Only 5% of earnings come from admissions and programme fees.

Mission: building a stronger, more connected community

MAH’s mission, or vision, has shifted under Nina Simon’s directorship. When she joined in 2011, “the vision statement said that the museum should be a thriving, central gathering place for the community”. For the first several years, Simon used this statement as the mandate to drive organisational growth. Changes she made to the organisation – including, in 2017, the opening of Abbott Square, an outdoors “creative town square” and indoors food plaza, shaped in collaboration with Abbott Square Market – led to staff and board deciding this goal had been largely achieved. And so they shaped the current “impact statement: to build a stronger, more connected community”.

This is important in Santa Cruz, says Simon, because – as a city of 60,000 inhabitants, and a county of 250,000 – it is a place of “strong divides: between whites and Latinos, and rich and poor”. On the one hand it’s close to wealthy Silicon Valley; on the other hand, its natural resources – sitting between the ocean and the Redwood Mountains – both attract a lot of tourism and support agricultural business. “So you have these huge divides between people who are making or have made their money in Silicon Valley and live in beautiful beach houses, and people who are working service jobs in tourism or working in the fields, for whom the cost of living relative to the income that you can make is very challenging.”

It is the local community the MAH is focused on: “Obviously we’re happy to have tourists, but they are not a primary audience for us. We often say success is our audience reflecting the age, income and ethnic diversity of our county.” The pricing strategy at the museum reflects this: “A year ago it cost $5 to visit the museum, and we debated moving to free admission – but we raised the price to $10, because for the people who were able and willing to pay, the difference was not material, but for us it makes it easier to be strategic about subsidising others to come in.” Now more than half its audience attends for free, and 90% of the programme is free.

“We often say success is our audience reflecting the age, income and ethnic diversity of our county.”

Engage, empower and fuel

When Simon joined the MAH, “it was on the brink financially, and programmatically was not seen by the majority of our community as a relevant and compelling place. I believe that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste, and the financial crisis created urgency and focus for us on transformation.” That transformation began inside the organisation itself. There were just seven staff members when she joined; rather than “re-hire for positions that had previously existed, we rebuilt in a different direction”. Her team now stands at 27, and is separated into three departments:

1: Engage

In charge of programming exhibitions and events, community activities beyond the museum, and relationship building, this is the MAH’s biggest team (16 people) – and reflects its “unique model, where everything is produced in partnership with our community: with artists and historians, but also with religious groups, amateur performers, politicians, activists, youth, community groups”. The staff, which include community organisers, work under an unusually descriptive set of job titles: alongside the Director of Community Engagement and Events Manager are a Dialogue Catalyst, Creativity Catalyst and Exhibitions Catalyst, the nomenclature intended to convey the ways in which this team works “with our community to activate and share ideas.”

“Everything is produced in partnership with our community: with artists and historians, but also with religious groups, amateur performers, politicians, activists, youth, community groups.”

2: Fuel

This team “fuel the engagement activities: they bring in money, do marketing to bring in people, and we have a team of Igniters who are our guest services staff, it’s their job to invite visitors to imagine that they might be partners and contributors. We don’t separate donors and sponsors from collaborators and volunteers: all of them are partners. The Fuel team’s job is to bring in the great resources – whether money or expertise – of those partners.”

3: Empower

This is the smallest team, comprised of accounting, human resources, facilities management and graphic design – all the people who “empower Fuel and Engage to do their work well.”

Speed of change means that “we’re constantly reinventing the structure. We’re more like a start-up than we are a non-profit: we’re growing, and we keep changing as we grow.” The key ethos is that the internal language of the organisation should “help tell the story that this is a different kind of museum, but also give staff members an aspirational component, guiding them to certain kinds of work”. This is why there are no “curators” at the MAH: “We felt that Curator connoted a certain level of authority and a kind of control that was antithetical to our model.” Instead there is a “Collections Catalyst, whose job is to ignite people’s interest and involvement with the collection, and an Exhibition Catalyst, whose job is to work with artists and community members to develop relevant, community-building exhibitions”.

“We’re constantly reinventing the structure. We’re more like a start-up than we are a non-profit: we’re growing, and we keep changing as we grow.”

Creation and connection

Simon’s own thinking about participation and co-creation has changed since she published her influential book The Participatory Museum in 2010. “Previously when I was working with different museums on participatory strategies, I still had that clear line between who’s a visitor and who’s staff. I didn’t have a vision for how critical it is to have an intermediate layer of partners.”

The difference at the MAH is that: “Our whole institution is wired for community participation and partnership. Instead of there being one exhibit where you can participate, or one opportunity for co-creation, there’s this permeating message repeated throughout the building: how our staff talk to people is all about, you belong here, you can help make it happen. We don’t want to just say, here’s an experience for you, we want to empower you in helping us build on that experience. Our strategy has been to say that, anybody who comes to us wanting to get involved, we want an easy way to say yes. And we want to focus on engaging those communities who don’t have the power to come to us on their own.”

“Our whole institution is wired for community participation and partnership. Instead of there being one exhibit where you can participate, or one opportunity for co-creation, there’s this permeating message repeated throughout the building: how our staff talk to people is all about, you belong here, you can help make it happen.”

Those communities might be marginalised young people or Latino families on low incomes, and engagement happens in a variety of ways, including:

1: Co-created exhibitions

The MAH stages six temporary exhibitions per year, two of which are “issue-driven and very connected to social action. We focus on empowering people who are marginalised in voice, to share their art and their history.” In doing so, the MAH also works to build connections between that community and others in Santa Cruz. For instance, for a recent exhibition “co-created with foster youths telling stories from their own experience”, the young people also worked with “artists, social workers and politicians, different communities all connecting with each other”. The result, says Simon, has been “not just a very rich exhibition, but some real policy change, youth getting new opportunities in very concrete ways, because we’re doing that bridging”.

2: Abbott Square

Opened in 2017, Abbott Square sits between the museum building and its commercial building, and was the MAH’s response to “an incredible need in downtown Santa Cruz for a place to bring people together. We didn’t have a town square, and no indoor place can fulfil that function.” Funders initially questioned whether a plaza and food hall were the right direction for the MAH, but Simon argues that: “If we’re going to build a stronger, more connected community, we can’t just do it inside the walls of the museum – and we had heard from groups who are not likely to attend the museum, including Latino families, that food was a key part of any experience they were going to have, and critical to how they think about what brings community together.”

“If we’re going to build a stronger, more connected community, we can’t just do it inside the walls of the museum – and we had heard from groups who are not likely to attend the museum, including Latino families, that food was a key part of any experience they were going to have, and critical to how they think about what brings community together.”

3: External activities

As attendance rates have risen, the MAH has begun to look at “how are we of service, and how we could build stronger, more connected communities in different places, through activities that may never lead to the people involved coming to the museum itself”. Primarily this work is happening with Latino communities, and varies from the MAH hosting art booths at festivals, to long-term relationships such as the one with the grassroots volunteer-led organisation Senderos, who use music and dance to support children of Oaxaca heritage, but wanted to reach beyond its own community. “We do a lot of things together, whether it’s us setting up an art activity at their festival, or them doing a performance at the MAH, or writing grant support letters for each other. There’s a lot of intersection that is about being real partners.”

What next?

The speed of change at the MAH means “we have built a reputation for being creative and for getting things done”, which is opening up opportunities to do more. One recent approach has been from a group in Salinas, a majority Latino community commuting distance from Santa Cruz, which is building a cultural centre and has asked for MAH’s help in getting it launched. With all such offers, “we’re trying to assess: is this something we can uniquely do and be good at? And is this going to contribute to the goal that we have? We’ve spent the past six years focused on this local community – but there’s an argument for adding an ‘s’ to that, and saying we’re now helping build stronger, more connected communities instead of community.”

But that speed also means that for the near future the MAH’s focus is on ensuring that “our business model is completely robust”. At the same time, it is interested in “building and deepening relationships, as opposed to feeling like we need to continually acquire new”. The opening of Abbott Square led to “a deluge” of new visitors, and for Simon the question now is: “Who do we want to deepen our relationships with among them?”

Photo courtesy of MAH

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