USF's Museum Blog

Inspiring Relevance: Nina Simon Advocates for Change

By Greer Montgomery (MA, 2017)

Last fall, the USF community had the opportunity to hear Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (the MAH) and Museum 2.0 blogger speak about her recent book, The Art of Relevance.  The event, hosted by the University of San Francisco Museum Studies Graduate Association, brought together museum professionals from across the Bay Area to hear Nina’s revelatory approaches to how museums can foster greater meaning and relevance within their communities. Students and museum professionals from a range of Bay Area institutions, including the Bay Area Emerging Museum Professionals, were represented in the audience.

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Nina Simon, Executive Director, Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History

Over the past decade, Nina has been revolutionizing conceptions of museum-visitor interaction and exploring ways that museums can become relevant to more diverse communities.  She has made her mark as an independent “experience designer” focusing on creating audience-driven exhibitions and education programs.  Nina comes from an unusual background for the arts and museum world– she holds a BS in electrical engineering and mathematics.  She has previously worked as a curator at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and as the Experience Development Specialist at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.  In 2012, Nina received the American Alliance for Museums’ Nancy Hanks Memorial Award.  She was named one of the 50 most “powerful and influential people in nonprofit arts” by the Western States Arts Federation in 2012 and 2013.

Jon Moscone, Chief of Civic Engagement at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), wrote the foreword to The Art of Relevance and introduced Nina at the October event.  John works to promote YBCA’s mission for the public; he focuses on creative placemaking, youth programming, political advocacy and community partnerships.  Prior to his work at YBCA, John served for 15 years as artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theater (Cal Shakes) in Berkeley and Orinda, California.  A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, John is the first recipient of the Zelda Fichandler Award, given by the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation for “transforming the American theater through his unique and creative work.” He is also a Future for Good Fellow at Institute for the Future and serves on the national board of Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Project.

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Jon Moscone, Chief of Civic Engagement, YBCA

Of The Art of Relevance, John says:

If you are looking into the space of meaning and wondering why you can’t get in, or looking out onto the street from that space and wondering why they are not coming, then this is the book that you must read, right now, and maybe twice.

The Art of Relevance offers a series of anecdotes and examples addressing the question: how can mission-driven organizations become more meaningful to more people?  Nina has drawn on examples from her personal life, her career, and her experiences at the MAH to make the case for greater public engagement within all types of cultural institutions.

During the talk, Nina’s description of the MAH’s 2015 exhibition, Princes of Surf, exemplified Nina and the MAH’s commitment to empowering the local community.  This landmark exhibition brought two original redwood boards from Hawaii’s Bishop Museum back to Santa Cruz, where they had first been used by Hawaiian princes in the 1880’s.  The boards are considered to be the first ridden by surfers in the Americas, and Santa Cruz’s status as the site of this event is a huge point of pride among the local community.  According to Nina, “People had an emotional connection (to the ‘Princes of Surf’ exhibit and related programs) that was fundamentally different. There was a real sense of excitement and energy that was different than what I expected.”

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Nina Simon Discuses MAH’s 2015 exhibition, Princes of Surf

Nina, a captivating storyteller, speaks of relevance using the metaphor of doors and keys. She explains:

Imagine a locked door. Behind the door is a room that holds something powerful—information, emotion, experience, value. The room is dazzling. The room is locked.  Relevance is the key to that door. Without it, you can’t experience the magic that room has to offer. With it, you can enter. The power of relevance is not how connected that room is to what you already know. The power is in the experiences the room offers … and how wonderful it feels to open the door and walk inside.

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Nina advocates for museums to forgo perceiving visitor needs, a long held practice; instead, museums should give visitors exhibitions and programming that is relevant to visitors’ lives.  During the talk, Nina argued that too many museums, fearful of losing members, are hesitant to make changes based on the wants of their public. She explained, “they swing between issuing press releases about change while reassuring insiders that none of the good stuff will be impacted.”  Nina went on to present a Venn diagram demonstrating that, with any sort of institutional change, some percentage of the population will always fall outside the margins.  Long time visitors may be resistant to raucous family nights and terminate their membership, or a group of outsiders may continue to be turned off by a highly structured cultural institution.  However, according to Nina, museums shouldn’t worry about perfectly overlaying both circles of the Venn diagram.  What’s most important is producing the largest central overlap, while remaining true to the museum’s mission and goals.

While both Nina and the stories that she tells are highly engaging, her arguments would be strengthened by sharing more empirical evidence. How do you know if visitors are coming back? How can engagement and relevance be quantified? How does the location or type of museum impact the most effective method of engagement? Several times I also found myself wondering how Nina’s participatory practices would manifest themselves outside of Santa Cruz– in more conventional museum settings.  For example, could I really imagine visitors at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. engaging in interactive activities with Post-It notes? It’s debatable.

However, I am certain that Nina has produced powerful changes within the MAH and her field as a whole. Since Nina stepped into the role of Director, MAH attendance has tripled, membership has increased by 50 percent, and more than 4,000 local artists and community groups have collaborated on exhibitions and programming.  The museum has gone from years of financial deficit to significant and recurrent budget growth and surpluses.  By any standard, this sort of turnaround is a clear success for both the institution and the community.

Nina’s efforts to engage and empower local communities are even more essential in our current political climate.  The current administration has left communities across the country feeling estranged and disenfranchised, and museums have stepped up to advocate for those who cannot make their voices heard (MOMA, The Field Museum).  Furthermore, with the federal funding for the arts and humanities hanging in the balance, Nina’s ability to turn the MAH’s deficit into a surplus may need to serve as a model for other institutions facing the loss of federal funding.  Undoubtedly, members of the museum community will need to harness some of Nina’s effervescence and resolve to persevere in these challenging times.

Those interested in learning more about Nina and her work should check out her blog, Museum 2.0 and her earlier book, The Participatory Museum.

To learn more about USF’s graduate program in Museum Studies, click here.

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MSGA President Morgan Schlesinger (MA, 2016) introducing the event. Morgan collaborated with MSGA officers (not pictured) Allison Pohl (MA 2016), Lauren Garnese (2016) and Ben Glazier (2016) on organizing the event.

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Sofia Rivero Borrell Suarez (MA, 2017) during the Q & A

Nina Simon Poster 8.24

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