Blogpost: Abbott Square: Using a community-based approach to bring a Museum into the public sphere

This is the fifth in a Placemaking Profile series in which we will share short conversations we’ve had with urban innovators – from those who are actively building places that foster social inclusion to those who listen, engage, and tell stories from the communities.

For more information about placemaking, please click here.

From our previous conversations with leading placemakers in Canada, Lebanon, the UK, the US, Belgium, and more, it is clear that there is a growing need - and creative energy to support that need - to open up our public spaces both physically and psychologically. With that need comes opportunities to repurpose and reconnect assets - from libraries to greenspaces - to foster places in which we can share visions, resources, and power.

When we talk about building out the civic commons, one important piece of the puzzle are civic institutions like galleries, museums, and archives. How can these places that often take us outside of our immediate context (temporal, geographic, etc.) ground us in order to build a stronger, more connected community? How can the wealth of knowledge and ideas contained within these institutions be brought out into the communities in which they’re located?

We were lucky enough to connect with Nina Simon, museum visionary and Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, just after she was in Toronto to give a keynote at NEXT, the 2017 Canadian Association of Science Centres' annual conference. Read on to find out how the MAH is both sharing out and inviting in to expand traditional museum programming while fostering important conversations about place.

Responses are lightly adapted from our Q&A with Nina.

You state that “the MAH fundamentally has two jobs: we bring art and history out into our community, and we invite our community in”; this is a powerful statement in a world where retreating into private spheres is seen as an acceptable solution. How did this mission statement develop?

Retreating into private spheres is neither ethically acceptable nor financially sustainable. The MAH almost closed in 2011 because it was perceived in our community as closed-off and insular. Our subsequent rebirth and transformative growth was rooted in a community-based approach. We believe we exist for our community, with our community, period.

As we started doing community-based work, we built a strategic framework around it, which we call a theory of change, connecting the activities we do to the impact we seek. The impact we focus on is using art and history to build a stronger, more connected community. Our community doesn’t live solely in our building. Our work shouldn’t, either.

Relatedly, what do you see as next steps to continuing to expand your audience?

We are expanding into Abbott Square to bring the MAH experience out into our immediate downtown community. But we don’t intend to stop there. Strategically, we see growth at the MAH in the next five years as happening beyond the building. We want the museum to be the creative heart of an ever-expanding network of community connections and partnerships. These connections are both ephemeral (pop up museums, collaborative festivals) and permanent (history exhibits in bus stops, public art projects). We are investing on multiple levels to build a more connected community across our region.

The idea of bringing the community into the MAH can be connected to breaking apart the public/private space dichotomy. What have been some of the key actions involved in changing a traditional museum setting to one that is open and interactive?

The first step to being open is being open. Open to possibilities. Open to new ideas and perspectives. Open to the people who walk in your doors. We see creative and cultural assets everywhere in our community, and we think it’s our job to amplify, connect, and empower them. It’s a basic mindshift from scarcity thinking to abundance thinking.

Can you give a few examples of how you are engaging with people who may not normally enter a museum setting?

  1. We bridge people from different cultural and economic backgrounds frequently in our projects. For example, in the spring of 2017 we presented an exhibition called WE WHO WORK, pairing Hung Liu’s gorgeous portraits of ancient Chinese laborers with contemporary tools from locals who are day workers. Most day workers in our community are low-income, Latino, often exploited, often ignored. Bringing them and their labor stories into the exhibition brings them dignity and ties their struggles to those of the historic laborers in the artwork.
  2. We embrace the full spectrum of creative expression in our community. Our biggest annual event, the GLOW festival, is a digital art and fire street festival. It was started when a group of local world-famous fire artists approached the MAH and said, “we never get to show our work here in Santa Cruz County.” Their art may not hang on gallery walls, but it is powerful and worth sharing. We worked hard to showcase their work in a safe, fun, incredible festival experience that has become a signature MAH event.
  3. We make safe space for other groups to use the MAH as their cultural platform. The MAH is home to a writing tutoring center, a puppetry institute, research projects, a racial justice group, Chamber of Commerce meetings, and many, many other endeavors. We want the MAH to be seen as a convening space, and we have worked hard to say yes to as many community groups as possible who can get and bring value here.

In what ways do you measure engagement and impact?

For us, success looks like our audience reflecting the age, income, and ethnic diversity of our county. That’s our basic measuring stick. Beyond that, we measure whether people feel empowered through MAH programs and whether our programs are catalyzing new cultural bridges across divides in our community.

How do we measure these things? We survey people directly with targeted questions, and we also observe and capture stories of impact. For example, on the bridging side, we ask visitors: “Did you have a positive experience with someone from a different cultural background?” And then we also listen for the later stories of deeper bridging: an Oaxacan music group and historical association who team up on an event, a composer and a sculptor who partner on a project, a partner from a marginalized background who tells us she’s made more friends and felt more welcome because of her involvement with the MAH.

One of our thematic areas at Cities for People is strengthening the civic commons (i.e., sharing the planning, management, and use of community assets). Does this framing apply to your work in connecting spaces that were previously viewed as unrelated to one another?

Yes and no. On the one hand, because of the MAH’s impact focus on building a more connected community, we spend a lot of our time sharing / connecting / partnering / co-conspiring. We have literally thousands of local partners. We encourage MAH staff to serve on boards, volunteer for other organizations, and get involved in civic projects. We are delighted to share our knowledge and assets with others… and we learn from them too.

On the other hand, we have a heavy bias for action. We’re not willing to spend years in planning. At the MAH, we’re serious about community participation, but we’re also serious about the fact that that participation has to lead somewhere--to a powerful outcome that all our participants can take pride in. If a particular opportunity appears to be stuck in a multi-year planning loop, we move on.

The MAH seems to pay particular attention to appealing to many age groups - something which art institutions seem to struggle with. What steps have you taken to build all-ages programming into your plans?

We don’t target our programming to specific groups. Instead, we focus on bridging--making the MAH a place you come to interact with people from many different walks of life. That means that we don’t do “young adult” events or “family” events. We do community events, and we design them to appeal to many different constituencies.

For example, we found that only families with small kids would come to an event called “Family Art Day,” but people of all ages--including families with kids--would come to a “Radical Craft Night” featuring hands-on activities, blacksmithing, even a taxidermy demonstration. Bridging different cultural offerings in one space brings together people of many different ages and backgrounds.

How did the Pop-up Museum idea (a temporary exhibit created by whomever comes up with an idea) come into being?

A UW graduate student, Michelle DelCarlo, developed it as part of her master’s thesis in museology. We loved the simple, understandable, scalable format for bringing people together around objects and conversations. We worked with Michelle to adapt her model into a structure that we use in Santa Cruz County and that we share with the world via www.popupmuseum.org. The MAH’s free Pop Up Museum toolkit has been downloaded over 12,000 times by people in 128 countries.

How did you connect with residents in neighbourhoods away from the MAH to bring the museum experience to their communities?

We’re always looking outward. Where we are interested in a particular community (whether defined by neighborhood, cultural practice, age, etc.), we seek out their events, favored places, and experiences. We are guests in their spaces, learning what they love and value. Then, we reach out, focusing on how we can amplify the incredible work they do.

Can you point to examples of civic institutions that have taken a similar approach to breaking down walls (literally or metaphorically) to integrate and connect their space with the urban fabric surrounding it? I.e., are there any comparable projects that have served as inspiration to you and your team?

Yes - many. Here are just a few...

  • The Laundromat Project in New York City, which puts artists to work in laundromats in low-income neighborhoods.
  • Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle, which co-creates exhibitions with community members, putting their voices and artifacts first.
  • Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts in San Francisco, which uses contemporary art to catalyze new ideas about how the city can move forward.
  • Queens Museum in New York, which activates deep partnerships in Corona Plaza.

 Learn more about this transformative project:

  • Why We’re Building Abbott Square (blogpost written by Nina Simon for her blog Museum 2.0)
  • In Santa Cruz? Come visit the MAH and Abbott Square.
  • Keen to host your own Pop Up Museum? You can use MAH’s Pop Up Museum Organizer’s kit, which offers tips and step-by-step advice on hosting Pop Up Museums.
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