Mother of Reinvention
A look back at the reborn Museum of Monterey (aka MoM) suggests it’s cleared the storm that nearly wrecked it.
Thursday, August 9, 2012
Just a few years ago the former Monterey Maritime and History Museum, run by the 82-year-old Monterey History and Art Association, was close to becoming Monterey history.
It was hosting lectures and exhibits on Hotel Del Monte, Monterey’s whaling and fishing industries, historic buildings, Jo Mora and Commodore Sloat, model ships, Cannery Row, naval campaigns. The 17,800-square-foot museum, built in 1992 on Custom House Plaza, hewed close to the mission of highlighting Monterey’s maritime history. But it had problems.
“It was a very contentious situation,” says current board president Mark Baer, speaking of the 18-month closure for renovations and re-organization. “Relationships between staff and board and membership were bad. [It was] one misstep after another.”
Those missteps included the museum dipping into its own endowment to pay monthly bills, declining membership and attendance, board in-fighting, assets being sold off to stay afloat, allegations and political maneuverings. Supporters were getting angry. City officials were getting worried.
“This was before the revolution,” Baer says. That revolution included the recruitment of Lisa Coscino, who had lived on the Peninsula since 1994, and most recently ran a local nonprofit and an art gallery in Pacific Grove. Beginning in August 2010, she brought in a large scale Bryant Austin whale photo for a BLUE Ocean Film Festival after-party at the still-shuttered MMHM, made them a short promotional film, and guest curated the exhibit for the reopening. After the museum reopened in June 2011, renamed Museum of Monterey, then-executive director John Bailey left.
“I said, ‘I will keep this place open until you find somebody,’” Coscino recounts. But in August 2011 they offered her the job of director. She accepted.
“We had to clean the cabinets in the kitchen,” she recalls. “We went over policy and procedures. I had everyone read [Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History director] Nina Simon’s book The Participatory Museum.”
She gleaned curating lessons from the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in her former town of L.A. (Baer also suggests moving their substantial library into their Casa Sorrano property and turning that adobe into a “jewel box for smaller gatherings” like Monterey Museum of Art’s La Mirada.)
Coscino called on well-placed connections: “Who wants to be an advisor, a historian? Who knows cooler stuff than me? Who has brilliant ideas?”
She began programming exhibits that didn’t look like anything that had come before, beginning with the re-opening salvo, Flows to Bay. It was a progressive, contemporary art exhibit of 13 artists including Chris Jordan, David Edgar, Susan Thacker and Incubus frontman Brandon Boyd, with film, lectures, tours, video, online content – with buzz.
“It set a tone for things to come,” Baer says. “We were making a statement.”
It signaled a reinterpretation in the mission of the museum from a narrow one to a broader one, from strictly local to more global, from dusty to modern.
“It had sex appeal,” Coscino says. “We’ve been in Huffington Post. When Brandon [Boyd] publicized [Flows to Bay] online, we had 1 million hits.”
Other dynamic shows followed, including Cheech Marin’s Chicanitas painting collection, with Marin coming to meet big crowds – including young Latinos – at opening and closing. Music, Love and Flowers, a look back at the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival, followed and is adding a component of psychedelic poster art this Saturday. In their theater they’re showing Henry Miller Library’s Big Sur International Short Film Series and the Monterey County Film Commission’s film series for the Monterey Pop exhibit. The deep cache of video segments on art, history and culture called the 100 Story Project was just completed and is on their website.
In an email sent last October to the community and media, Coscino sounded elated but realistic in her state of the museum: “We receive many rave reviews about MOM and some criticisms. At this point, the raves out number the critiques… a step in the right direction.”
The museum’s opened 14 exhibitions as of June 2011, Coscino says. She provided a progress report outlining “9 projects” that purports, from June 2011 to June 2012, an increase in membership from 93 to 400, and an increase in admission revenue from $230 to $3,145. Grants, private donors, partnerships and corporate sponsors (including the Grammy Museum and Levi’s) are being sought. Some exhibition highlights next year include Monterey Fire Department History, a local cartoonist and illustrator show, paintings by Lockwood de Forest and Planet Ord, a Fort Ord history-based exhibit.
“Every exhibit starts here, goes around the world and comes back, branding with the city of Monterey,” Coscino says. “That’s the plan to take over the world.”
THE MUSEUM OF MONTEREY is open 10am-5pm Tuesday-Saturday, noon-5pm Sunday, at 5 Custom House Plaza, Monterey. $5-10. 372-2608, www.MuseumOfMonterey.org