Nina Simon

A thought leader transforming the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History into a community gem.

“How can we have intentions to be welcoming but not actually be welcoming people in?” asks Nina Simon, executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH). For more than a decade, she has been a leading voice in pushing cultural institutions around the world to adopt new models of operating in order to stay relevant to the communities they serve. “You can’t just say that you’re going to be for the community. You can’t just hang up a Bienvenidos sign. You have to really do the work to become representative of them, to be created by them, so they feel ownership and true involvement in the space.”

Simon grew up in Los Angeles and went to school for electrical engineering. After college, she moved to the East Coast and landed what she thought was her dream job at NASA. But in the meantime, she found another interest: having seen throughout her schooling and in her work how badly people struggle with math, she became interested in finding innovative new ways to educate. She began working with local children’s museums to help design interactive exhibits. “I just fell in love with the world of museums as places that invited people to learn and explore without there being a test or a grade.”

She had found her calling and soon left the engineering world to throw herself, full-time, into museum curation, working with cultural institutions and science centers and “making puppet shows about infinity.” Eventually, she landed a large project at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.; later, she became a curator at the Tech Museum of Innovation
in San Jose.

“I came from a family where we didn’t go to museums all the time,” she says. For Simon—the engineer—it’s more a matter of needing a solution to a problem. “We have a world where people are really creative and engaged artistically, are really curious about the past and the world,” she says, “and yet many people see museums—which are places to explore art, history, and science—as irrelevant.” Simon soon realized she had another opportunity to share what she was learning in the field of exhibition design. “There was a lot of talk in the museum industry about how what we called ‘Web 2.0,’ things like Wikipedia and YouTube, was going to potentially change the way that museums work. I started to hear people who I thought of as mentors and leaders in the museum field ask questions like, ‘What is the Wikipedia of museums, what is the YouTube of museums?’ So, in 2006, I started Museum 2.0.” The blog, which offers new ideas on how institutions can grow with technology, rethink their top-down structures, and engage more effectively with communities, has become one of the most-read online sources of content for arts and cultural institutions.

“It’s kind of a Silicon Valley story,” Simon muses. “I started a blog when I was 24, and suddenly, within a year, was starting to be treated like an expert because I had been exploring a topic that was emergent.” It wasn’t long before she was being recruited to help open and transform different types of cultural centers around the world. When she settled in Santa Cruz with her family, Simon didn’t plan on taking a position at the Museum of Art & History. But when the floundering organization reached out to her in 2010 with the opportunity to put her ideas into practice in her local community, she decided to take it.

The transformations she implemented at MAH, which she highlights at her numerous speaking engagements and in her best-selling books, The Participatory Museum and The Art of Relevance, included giving local community partners a chance to co-curate exhibitions, hiring bilingual staff to ensure Spanish-speakers feel welcome, and altering the makeup of the board of directors to include better representation of the people the museum serves—not just wealthy donors. “Every community is different,” she points out in one of her TED talks. “What says welcome to one says keep out to another.” Her goal was to find what she calls “new doors,” ways to make more members of the community feel welcome.

It worked. In just a few years, MAH went from being nearly broke to sustainably funded and thriving, from being a forgotten and ignored building downtown to being a busy community space filled with people and creativity. A new outdoor public gathering place called Abbott Square opened adjacent to the museum, bringing together art and cultural activities with restaurants, a bar, and a performance space.

“When I came on, we had 17,000 visitors—and the majority of those were retired white folks and school kids on school field trips. We just closed the fiscal year with 148,000,” Simon exclaims. That’s 10 times the patronage the museum received seven years ago. In addition, the current audience reflects the diversity of the county. “We really think what we’re doing is about building community, and you don’t just do that inside the museum,” she adds. “Being welcoming to people also means having a great place to sit and connect that cultural and creative experience to the social experience.”

Simon’s latest project, launched earlier this year, is OF, BY & FOR ALL, a global initiative offering a certification process that organizations can opt into with a goal of becoming more “of, by, and for” their specific communities. It provides an online assessment that anybody can take, as well as tools and resources to help institutions work toward the kinds of changes she has pushed for.

“There’s no question that there is a trend and an exploration of community participation happening in cultural institutions,” Simon says. “I am certainly very pleased that people read the blog, read the books, tell me they’re using the work…but to some extent, I’m dissatisfied by how far we have—or haven’t—gotten. Cultural institutions still primarily serve a small niche of most communities, a niche that is whiter, wealthier, and older than the general population. And I think that, yes, there may be a lot of institutions that now have post-it walls or have somebody engaging people online, but I wonder. Is that moving to the fundraising plan? Is that moving to how exhibitions are planned and how programming is developed?”

Simon knows that some of these transformations won’t work for every organization, but for many community-based museums, cultural groups, and educational facilities, such changes may be not only a powerful and important way to stay relevant to the people served but the only way to survive and thrive going forward.

“I feel very passionately from what we’ve seen here in Santa Cruz at the MAH that making institutional change—to be an organization that is of, by, and for community—has shown an incredible transformation in who’s coming in, how we’re funded, and in what we’re able to accomplish in terms of impact…and I want to see that kind of change happen for other institutions.”

Written by Nathan Zanon
Photography by Daniel Garcia

This article originally appeared in Issue 10.5 “Dine”


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