Champion of the Arts: Nina Simon Pries Open the Doors

Photo used with permission of Ms. Simon

When Nina Simon walked into the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) as its newly appointed executive director in 2011, the museum had $16-thousand in the bank; $36-thousand dollars in unpaid bills and no philanthropist in the wings ready to write a big check. Although the museum had been in its location for 20 years, she said people remembered the building as a county jail and the majority did not even know the museum existed. MAH was on the verge of closing its doors.

Flash forward eight years, MAH has an annual budget of $2.5-million—nearly a 400-percent increase—and money in the bank. More important, the annual attendance has grown from an estimated 17,000 people to 148,000 visitors last year. The audience also changed, becoming more diverse in terms of age, race, ethnicity, and income level.

How did Ms. Simon do it? She told a TEDx audience that she recognized that people were interested in culture and seeking ways to learn from each other. However, they were choosing to engage outside of traditional cultural institutions because they didn’t find those institutions relevant. She believed museums could become that type of place, but it had to begin with the seeing itself in new ways, which led to the financial turnaround; building a strong and diverse staff and board and rebuilding the mission and culture of the institution.

Based on the belief “that culture belongs to everybody, and, as stewards of cultural heritage and producers of culture, museums should involve and showcase the diversity of voices within our communities,” Ms. Simon pried open the doors. Along with her team, they first raised money and then tackled the traditional top down model—the museum staff produced exhibitions and the visitors consume them. Ms. Simon and her team invited its visitors to see themselves as creative agents and co-creators in the process. They were also encouraged to contribute something—from art to feedback—to make the museum a better experience for all. Thousands of people contributed content that allowed them to share their stories or learn from the stories of others.

One project that generated tremendous community engagement was “Santa Cruz Collects,” a recurring exhibition exploring why individuals and institutions collect. MAH involved community members by having them show objects from their personal collections. They also created the installation “Memory Jars” to acknowledge the physical things and memories that people cherished. The community was invited to place assemblages inside mason jars, and make labels telling the stories behind them. The collection included 600 jars and was on display for three months.

Did Ms. Simon have resistance? Setback? Challenges? You better believe it! You can read all about her journey in an interview published online in June in Good Times Santa Cruz.

On her blog, she summarized her experience this way:

“I hired community organizers and creative conveners. We made it our mission to open the museum up. To younger people. To Latinx people. To people who were unsure if their story, their art, their voice mattered in our community. We made the MAH a museum of “and” – art AND history, participation AND contemplation, loud Friday nights and quiet Tuesday afternoons. The friction, the hybridity, different people from different walks of life colliding through art and history and public life – that’s what building a more connected community is all about.

“People often are afraid to lead change because they know that some will resist that change. That’s true. But it’s also true that if you are changing an organization to be more inclusive and relevant, many, many people will fall in love with the change. They will thank you for the change. They will push you to keep changing. I don’t see leading change as hard or painful. I see it as a great privilege, and I feel lucky to do it.

Ms. Simon’s efforts are an example of my belief that the work of community engagement for arts and cultural institutions requires us to be mission driven. Not only did she assemble a staff and board from diverse backgrounds and with diverse experiences, the MAH team made it a priority to make key decisions based upon inclusive dialogue with community stakeholders. The programs Ms. Simon implemented at MAH were organic, fun and executable. They also are replicable, which I believe is a very important component of community engagement. She makes the “how to” information available through her blog and books.

Even more important, I applaud Ms. Simon’s efforts to ensure that the financial resources were in place before the programs began. Without the financial foundation, Ms. Simon knew the programs could not be sustainable. At the same time, the investment in community outreach and engagement generates more revenue and opens the doors to limitless possibilities.

I have learned from my extensive, professional experiences that the communities we are seeking to engage recognize and respond to sincerity, commitment and openness, which invites and welcomes them to support arts and cultural institutions in a whole new way. When I first arrived at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), my initial efforts to get to know the community included a welcoming reception, dinners and lunches. I had no other agenda other than wanting to get to know people and to listen to their concerns.

Ms. Simon is a true Champion of the Arts and a changemaker. I’m excited to see the impact of her next project—Of/By/For All—which she says will help build a movement and network of diverse civic and cultural organizations working together to create a more inclusive world. I applaud her efforts.