The author of what is becoming the cutting-edge bible for museum administrators, Nina Simon is being hailed nationally as a visionary.
The three years I spent as the girlfriend of a stand up comedian taught me one very important lesson: You do not, under any circumstances, sit in the front row.
I learned my lesson early on, after a knockoff Adam Sandler-type at a chintzy Long Island club spent three of his allotted five minutes commenting on the simple fact that I was eating a sandwich.
“She’s got a sandwich! What kind is it? Turkey? Turkey! Everyone, she’s got a turkey sandwich!”
I felt like I was on the bus to middle school and a bully had hijacked the driver’s PA system, announcing the contents of my lunch box to all the other kids. After that I stayed far away from the stage, watching from the backs of dimly lit rooms as other sorry audience members got trapped in the horrifying death march that is “participation.”
And yet, if all of what I described above is true—which it is—why then, did I leave the Museum of Art and History (the MAH) in downtown Santa Cruz on a recent Friday evening having (a) willingly contributed to a chalk-written poem on a staircase, (b) posed jauntily for a photograph intended for public display on the museum’s website while (c) holding up a colorful tissue-paper collage I made at some sort of wax art station, standing shoulder to shoulder with a half-dozen strangers?
Because of Nina Simon.
While arts attendance is dwindling across the country, there is one place where Americans still are participating—the Internet. About 1 billion people use Facebook. YouTube has 800 million users. By contrast, the National Endowment for the Arts found that only 51 million people went to an art museum in the U.S. in 2008 (the most recent year for which they have data). But here in Santa Cruz, Simon is convinced that the two worlds can be merged.
Called a “museum visionary” by Smithsonian magazine, Nina Simon and her staff—one of whom moved here from Sweden solely for the chance to learn from her—have transformed downtown’s Museum of Art and History (MAH) from a traditional and largely unknown museum into a thriving, active hub for the entire city of Santa Cruz by asking one question: “How do we take what makes participation work on the web and embed it into a physical space?”
Creators vs. Critics
In her book, The Participatory Museum, Simon references a study by Forrester Research, which found that online audiences participate in five different ways. There are “creators” who produce content, “critics” who rate and review, “collectors” who organize and aggregate links, “joiners” who maintain accounts on sites like Facebook, and “spectators” who read blogs and watch YouTube videos. It is no surprise that there are far more “spectators,” “joiners” and “critics” than there are “creators.” Not everyone wants to be front and center, and thankfully that’s not the only way to participate.
Take YouTube for example. “While I agree that museums should not focus on showcasing videos of cats doing silly things, as a platform,” Simon writes, “YouTube is an extraordinary service…your participation as a view affects the status of each video in the system. Just by watching, you are an important participant.”
With an understanding of what works on the web, Simon has refocused the goals of the MAH and turned it into a warm, interactive place. The success of the museum since she became executive director in May 2011 is staggering. Attendance more than doubled in her first year, rocketing from 17,349 up to 37,361 visitors.
“Nationally, 10 percent growth in attendance is considered astronomical growth in a museum,” says Simon, “and so to have 120 percent growth is just totally wild.”
Rocket Science—With Puppets!
Lacking an art history background, Simon instead studied engineering and math in college. She began her career at NASA, engineering prototypes for remote sensing of the Earth’s surface. In her spare time she volunteered at a science museum, doing electronics workshops and puppet shows about math. She eventually left the lucrative job at NASA to pursue museum work full time—a scary decision, especially considering her first museum job after NASA paid seven dollars an hour, and Simon was indeed scared. But she didn’t let that stop her.
“It’s not that she’s less worried or intimidated than anyone else at the start of a new challenge, but that she is very determined that she’s gonna overcome that,” says her husband Sibley. “If she needs to change then she will change and learn something new. She has a very strong can-do spirit.”
Her engineering brain stayed with her through the career change, and today she successfully uses the tools of prototyping, data-driven experimentation and what she calls “the engineering design cycle” to get back-of-the-room people like me to participate at her museum.
And participate they do. People are so involved at the MAH that Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Downtown Association Chip says that audiences not only participate at the museum, they create it.
“Nina has been brilliant in that she’s not programming [the museum]. She’s got an amazing staff, and they’re not programming it either. The community is programming the museum,” he says.
If Santa Cruz is orchestrating the MAH, it’s safe to say that Simon is the conductor. In an afternoon spent at the museum with her—the careful engineering quietly influencing each participatory exercise, each community member contribution—this becomes clearer and clearer.
In her office, which features an entire wall covered in comment cards from the MAH’s visitors, she pulls a blue Post-It note off her computer monitor. “Kept her sweatshirt forever,” it reads.
A museum attendee wrote that as a contribution to part of an exhibition called “Love Gone Wrong” in spring of 2012. The staff at the MAH painted a broken heart on the wall with a prompt that said, “After the breakup I…” They left a bunch of Post-Its and pencils and let people finish the sentence.
After the breakup I kept her sweatshirt forever.
“I keep a lot of things people have made, but this is one of my favorites,” says Simon. “We can’t write a label that tells this story.”
But the appearance of that poetic Post-It wasn’t just dumb luck. At a staff meeting prior to the event, she and her staff each wrote a question related to breakups on a piece of paper. Then they passed the papers around and answered each other’s questions.
“When you look at the answers it becomes pretty obvious that some questions are good, and some questions are shitty,” Simon says. “We think a lot about how we design these prompts. You start to realize pretty quickly that everybody has good stories in them… And it’s my job as the designer of the space and the experience to figure out what kind of framework I can give you so that you can bring your best, most interesting self forward.”
One floor below Simon’s office, painter/sculptor Thomas Campbell is working on a behemoth 75-foot long mural, which won’t be finished for several weeks. But that’s precisely the point—his painting is intended to showcase the process of creating art, thereby making it more approachable. (It was part of the museum’s “Work in Progress” exhibit in March.)
Since starting the project, Campbell has played host to a number of school groups, and has tried to instill in them the essence of the MAH: “The first thing I say when school groups come in is, ‘Are you guys artists?’ Pretty much they’ll all say, ‘I don’t know!’ Then I say, ‘So do you guys all do art?’ And they say, ‘Yeah, of course.’ And then I say, ‘That means you’re an artist! You’re artists! Making art is being an artist!’
“Everyone’s an artist until they stop being one,” he adds.
Simon nods grandly at this. “I feel like what you’re talking about is what we’re trying to do on a big picture. Saying, ‘Yeah, you are creating, you’re not just here to look at stuff.’”
On our way out of Campbell’s gallery she points out an arrangement of three couches and a coffee table in the hallway, saying there used to be a “scary desk” there instead.
“We are always about incremental progress,” she says. “We had people donate furniture. Is it the most gorgeous thing it could be? No. But people want to sit down and have a social experience, and it’ll keep getting better.”
“A traditional museum approaches exhibits by saying, ‘We’ll design it. We’ll build it. We’ll open it. And then we’ll see at that point if it works.’ That’s not what we do. We say, ‘Let’s figure out a prototype we can make with just cardboard and some printouts, and let’s take it out onto the floor with visitors to test.’ We’re really comfortable bringing out things that are unfinished and not worrying that everything has to be perfect,” Simon says.
The MAH wasn’t always this way, though. Before she came on board, Simon says the museum “was seen as a cold place. It was seen as a place where not a lot was happening. It was seen as a stuffy place. It was seen as a traditional place.” The museum’s board decided they wanted to cultivate more of a welcoming environment for the community to gather and participate. Simon, who was doing consulting at museums across the globe, was the right woman for the job.
Hiring Simon was “a really big moment for the museum and community in terms of the role of museums,” says the Downtown Association’s Chip. He calls what she did at the MAH “revolutionary,” and has been pleased to see how the museum’s makeover impacted Santa Cruz’s monthly First Friday events.
“When Nina came on board, right away they were open for First Fridays. They started stepping up and really participating and being active…The museum has played a huge role in First Friday’s growth. A lot of people have the idea, ‘It’s First Friday, let’s go start at the museum, and then we can fan out from there to all over town.’ There’s a certain gravity that has been really valuable to First Friday,” he says.
First Friday night events are by far the MAH’s most popular, generally drawing crowds of close to 2,000. Regular weekday attendance is rarely more than eight or ten people. In addition, the MAH holds themed Third Friday events and is open late on second and fourth Fridays, too. Third Fridays are organized by the museum’s Director of Community Programs, Stacey Marie Garcia, and usually bring in between 300 and 500 visitors.
For every Third Friday event, Garcia works with anywhere from 30 to 150 different organizations that come together to create themed events with dozens of stations for people to participate. Because of the MAH’s growing reputation as a hub for the community, more and more artists and organizations are coming to the MAH, asking how they can get involved in producing a Friday night event.
“Last year we had a woman named Anna Pollack come in and say that there’s this issue about the bee population depleting and she would love to raise awareness about that. So she worked with us to design this entire event around the idea. We showed the bee film, we had bee keepers come in—they stayed in a case, so it was good—we did some activities with encaustics using wax,” Garcia says.
Garcia met Simon while in art history graduate school in Sweden. Simon came to lecture the same day she got the job at the MAH. Garcia immediately asked if she needed an intern, and followed her to Santa Cruz. She has since been hired full time. “I came because I knew [Simon] is doing innovative things in the museum world right now and making huge steps. I wanted to learn from that,” she says.
“It’s unique to work in an organization where your boss is pushing you to do the wildest and craziest thing you can. I think that’s why we’ve been successful in certain areas—because we take risks.”
Let It Burn
The biggest risk they’ve taken, says Garcia, was last spring’s Glow/Fire Festival. Burning Man artists approached the MAH about doing a fire festival. “Go for it,” said Simon, and Garcia set about coordinating with the city, the fire department and, of course, the artists to ensure the event was a success. It was, and they have another one planned for October 2013.
Garcia has been consistently impressed by the community’s contributions, dedicating time to participate in and organize events.
“It takes a lot of dedication and drive. We’re lucky. We’re really lucky. Nina’s been a big driver in that. She really changed the way the community viewed the museum and the way the museum viewed the community, too.”