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Citizen Placemaker: Nina Simon on Museums as Community Hubs

Ethan Kent
May 31, 2012
Jan 3, 2018
Meet Nina!

In our Citizen Placemaker series, we chat with amazing and inspiring people from outside the architecture, planning, and government worlds (the more traditional haunts of Placemakers) whose work exemplifies how creating great places goes far beyond the physical spaces that make up our cities.

This time around, we chatted Nina Simon (@ninaksimon) who, after working with many of the world's great museums as a consultant on participatory exhibit design, stepped into the director role at the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz, California, last spring. Charged with (among other things) repositioning the MAH as "a thriving, central gathering place" for the community, Nina and her team have been hard at work over the past year, re-thinking how the building's public areas are used.

Can you start off by talking a bit about what you've been doing to make MAH's lobby more of an engaging public space and draw people in off the street?

At this point, it's all about short-term experiments and events. I came into this organization at a time of extreme financial stress. I knew we had to dramatically reposition our institution relative to the community, but we had no money to do anything to the infrastructure...plus, that tends to be a lengthy process with slow results. Instead, we activated the space with the best engagement tool possible: people.

Last summer, we created Makers at the MAH, a program series in which makers of all kinds--boat-builders, clothing designers, sculptors, chalk painters--take over the lobby for a Saturday and do their work in our space. We've moved many family art workshops out of the classroom and into the lobby. When outside groups want to perform or hold workshops or erect a crazy sculpture or hand out free plants, we say yes. Over time, we've made more permanent physical changes, but we prioritize keeping the space flexible enough for programming. We try to have flowers around, and the doors open, and smiling people who greet you warmly. The people are the key.

Adopting a "just say yes" strategy can be a big change for museums, where curating is such a fundamental part of what you do. How does openness change the way a cultural organization operates?

We don't say yes indiscriminately--we say yes with a conversation about values and what we mutually hope to achieve. We have a strong vision for the type of experiences we want to promote and support here, both for individuals and as a social space. We use those as our guide, and then we try to be as open as possible in figuring out whether a proposed project meets those goals.

For example, one of our key goals are encouraging active participation. That means we're not interested in passive audience experiences at the MAH. When an artist comes to us with a desire to make a performance or some other kind of traditional presentation, we challenge her to work with us to make it something that visitors can actively co-create. This goal also refocuses us away from artistic type or quality and towards visitor engagement. When a local reskilling group came to us seeking a home for their Seed Library (a cabinet where people can freely take and share seeds to grow food), it fit our participatory goal completely--and thus it was easy to say yes, even though a Seed Library is not a traditional museum lobby fixture.

Visitors interact with a sculpture by Daniel Wenger in the MAH lobby. / Photo: Museum of Art and History

One of our 11 Placemaking Principles is that people will always say "it can't be done" when you try to do something new in a public space. Have you encountered any opposition in pursuing MAH's mission to become more of a community gathering place?

Yes, but much less than you'd expect. The vast majority of people, both new to the museum and traditional supporters, are ecstatic that the MAH is becoming an active cultural hub for the community. That said, there have been pockets of discomfort with our evolution. There are a few artists and supporters who feel that our interactive and participatory approach does a disservice to the pure contemplation of art, and that our inclusion of amateur participants diminishes the overall quality of the experience. Some people think that our welcoming, comfortable spaces are too funky or casual for a museum setting. But the results--100% increase in attendance, 30% increase in membership, new donors--make us confident that we are on the right track.

Our team is constantly working to be as transparent as possible about why we do the things we do so that we can communicate openly about this strategy. We are very intentional about having chairs in the elevator. We take our post-its seriously. The more we can convey the goals and effects of these changes, the more people understand what we're doing--even if they don't like it personally.

You wrote recently on your blog about being struck by how “Santa Cruz” a lot of the museum's story is. How does your city inspire and inform what you do?

Santa Cruz is a small community, but it's known around the world as a beautiful, energizing place with a rare blend of support for individual expression and progressive collective action. It's not unusual to hear an artist say, "I'm all about the community," or for a non-artist to talk about the value of creativity in his/her life. Visitors to the MAH are excited to have the opportunity to share their thoughts, make a collage, or hug a stranger. I've never seen a museum with a higher level of participation per visitor.

Santa Cruz County also has some core challenges that the MAH is trying to help tackle. People here are earnestly engaged in trying to make the community a better place, but there are some serious social divisions beneath our progressive personae. For the MAH, this means actively developing and pursuing partnerships and programs that focus on "social bridging." One of our primary objectives is to bring people together from different backgrounds around shared learning and cultural experiences. Our hope is that by doing so, we can contribute towards creating a more cohesive, civic society.

Families get involved with a participatory lobby project led by dancer Andrew Purchin and collage artist Lisa Hochstein. / Photo: Museum of Art and History
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