Museum Directors are Listening to What (Nina) Simon Says

The Monterey Museum of Art seems a natural comparison to the Museum of Monterey, but a more apt one lies in the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. MAH, as it’s called, is 25,000 square feet (8,000 is gallery space); their endowment, $230,000, is smaller than MoM’s; they employ 7 full time and 5 part time people, with 20 interns and 150 volunteers. It owns and operates a couple of other assets – a historic cemetery and jail and an office building. Its executive director of just two years, Nina Simon, believes the comparison works because they are both “small museums,” each have collections “deeply relevant to some and less compelling to others” and they both have “unique cultural identities.” And, Simon wrote CK2011’s The Participatory Museum, the playbook on how to revitalize flagging museums with more community engagement, which MoM executive director Mark Baer invokes often. Here’s how she and her team turned a once-dying museum into a cherished cultural center.

What shape was the Museum of Art and History in when you came on as executive director?

We were in dire need of a turnaround. We had less than one week of cash in the bank, and more distressingly, our community relevance and awareness was very low. The majority of people in our county barely knew we existed.

Two years later, the results of our transformation have been astounding. Our annual attendance more than doubled. We went from years in the red to running large surpluses that have enabled us to expand programming. And most importantly, we are now seen as a vibrant community resource by diverse people throughout Santa Cruz County.

What did it take to revitalize it?

Several things: urgency of a crisis, clarity about the new direction forward, and courage to pursue it. Our team made big sacrifices and took serious risks… it meant a serious departure from business as usual. In a lot of ways, the urgency and clarity of our financial crisis allowed us to much more aggressively pivot. We spent a lot of time listening for and responding to unmet cultural needs in our community. All of our programming is now developed in partnership with community groups, from artists to activists to businesses.

Our three big strategies are active participation, social bridging, and fearless experimentation.

Just last night, our board approved a new mission statement: “The mission of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History is to ignite shared experiences and unexpected connections.” It feels great to write that.

What did you need from your board of directors?

At the beginning, I needed their trust and support as I moved aggressively. We were able to turn around because the board was not micro-managing. They were attentive to the big picture, but they focused their energy on supporting our transformation. Our board also changed significantly in my first two years. Seven of our current 22 board members were there when I was hired. It has been wonderful to blend new energy with experienced voices.

Did you get help from the community at large?

Yes. When I started, we opened our doors to anyone who wanted to help us achieve our vision. We initiated literally hundreds of collaborative projects with artists, community groups, businesses, interns, and volunteers. We said we had a “no money, no bullshit” approach –we couldn’t fund projects, but we wouldn’t introduce any red tape either. In our first year, we did everything from giving visitors sledgehammers to help an artist create a huge co-creative sculpture to hosting an artist sleepover to restoring a historic cemetery with homeless volunteers.

One of the most important groups in the beginning was a group of local donors and community leaders who formed the “Renewed Ambition” task force… a kind of dream team of movers and shakers –most not on our board. We’re now $825,000 into the $1,000,000 campaign to expand programming, enhance our exhibitions and facility, and transform a plaza outside the museum.

What is the percentage of funding sources for MAH?

This year, it was:

40% individual contributions

27% grants

16% office building (we manage an adjacent building whose rental income supports the museum)

9% earned income from admissions and programs

8% government support from Santa Cruz County

Foundations that previously were not interested in us are now supporting us significantly because they want to invest in innovative approaches to engaging diverse audiences with the arts. Grants used to be only 9% of our income. Now they account for 27%.

What do you think MoM needs to do?

I think MoM needs what any museum needs: a coherent and meaningful sense of purpose, a board that understands its role relative to the community and to the staff, and the tools and confidence to put their vision into action. I believe that small museums have a distinctive opportunity to define themselves as more idiosyncratic, community-based organizations than large museums. We don’t have to be transactional and corporate. Just as a small coffee shop has a personality that will never be matched by Starbucks, a small museum can reflect the unique identity of a community in powerful ways.

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