Nina Simon, Executive Director of Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History spoke at MuseumNext Indianapolis in September 2015, sharing her experience of building inclusive practice into the museum that she leads.
Nina: Before we get started, just a couple of logistical notes. First of all I, as many of you know, believe strongly in participation but I also speak quickly. So what I’d like to propose is this. We have an hour. I’m going to spend half of that hour sharing with you some ideas that are on my mind and then in the second half, it’s going to be completely directed by whatever questions or things that you want to share. Throughout the presentation, you’ll see some of the questions that are on my mind but I’m happy to go wherever you want with it and this means though we’re going to enter a social contract where if there is nothing in the first half that is compelling or interesting to you, it is incumbent upon you, it is your responsibility to make the second half worthwhile.
What I wanted to talk about this morning is fighting for inclusion. I’m actually not going to talk very much about the inclusion practices at my museum but I’ll just put up this one slide of our current newsletter so you can get a sense that we get it, we do it. But I figure that this whole conference people are sharing the things we’re doing to include new people in our work and I realise that maybe it would be an opportunity this morning not to talk so much about inclusion practices but instead to talk about some of the things that we have to fight to do to do inclusion work.
Here’s my beef with the word inclusion. It’s too good. There is nobody who looks at this image and says ‘Screw those people, they don’t belong in our museum’ or at least they’re not saying it out loud. There’s no other conference going on today where people are looking at this image and being like ‘Yes, this is who we are, this is what we’re about.’ But we know that museums do exclude people. So how do we reconcile this difference between the aspiration and the fact that everybody from people in this room to the national institutions and their governor organisations say yes to inclusion? How do we reconcile that yes to inclusion with the reality of what’s actually happening?
I think that to do so, we have to acknowledge that inclusion isn’t just something that happens because we think it’s a good idea. It isn’t even something that happens because we work for it. Inclusion fundamentally is a political activist act. So I think we have to think about what we’re willing to do to fight for inclusion in our museums. I thought what I could do today is share a little bit about the fight that we’ve been fighting in Santa Cruz and more so some of the things I’ve learned about how to fight this fight that may be useful to you. As I mentioned before, there’ll be a few questions that come up and I just want to really invite you this hour to think about what are you willing to fight for, what are you willing to give up, what are you willing to get nasty about, to have to cry about to do this work to be more inclusive.
Let me tell you a little bit about my museum. Here it is. My museum has gone through a real transformation over the last few years. We’re a museum of art and history, we’re in a small community in Santa Cruz California and over the last few years, we have hugely expanded and diversified the people we involve and the ways we involve them. I’ll just say straight out that our basic litmus test for inclusion is we want our audience to be reflective of our community demographically, psychographically and attitudinally. But the easiest way to look at that and see how we’re measuring up is demographically. So we just pull out the county census and we say are we matching the age diversity, are we matching the income diversity, are we matching the ethnic diversity, are we matching the economic diversity? We’re doing great on age and economics and we’re working hard on the ethnicity side. I’ll talk a little bit about that later.
This is not what we were talking about four years ago when I came to the museum. I came to the museum as its director in May of 2011 and at the time we had two really big problems. The first was money. We didn’t have any. The day I showed up, we were a week away from closing our doors. More importantly though we had this other problem which was this problem of relevance. There were more people in Santa Cruz who knew that our building, our complex used to be the county jail than knew that it was now a museum. The museum was about to close and not enough people cared.
So we looked at these two problems and said ok, we’ve got to change. We are not fighting for inclusion, we are fighting for survival as an institution. But the way we chose to fight that fight was fundamentally about inclusion. We really have used two basic strategies in the work that we do that has continued from day one when I showed up four years ago. The first of those is empowerment. We believe that every person who walks in our door has a valuable contribution to make, that art and history are something you make, something you do, not just something you learn about. To me, this is the fundamental step of inclusion, is saying everybody matters, not in aggregate but individually people have valuable things to offer to our institution.
So the first thing you’ll see when you walk in our museum is a comment wall where you can share ideas for how to improve the museum. We invite people to share their skills with the museum, to share their objects, their stories, to share who they are not just on the outside but on the inside. And we focus really specifically on empowering people who may feel like they don’t have a voice often in our community. Because again, we believe that everybody has within them the ability to bring something creative, to bring an incredible story, to bring a powerful part of themselves into our museum and we want to value and empower that part.
So it starts with individuals. But then the second half of what we do is focused on what those individuals do together. When I came to the museum, we had a very traditional kind of audience mix, mostly retirees and school groups. And we knew if we were going to grow, I didn’t want to just trade who we had for somebody else. I’ve always been really resistant to targeted marketing and instead we decided we were going to focus on this idea of social bridging, that the museum would be a place where you build bridges with people who are different from you. So our social proposition is not that you will come to the museum and meet people who are like you but that you will come to the museum and you will meet people who are not like you and it’ll be a safe and awesome place to do that.
This is one of my favourite images because it shows some of the diversity of people who feel welcome in our space. You’ve got the art bike freak guy in the front, you’ve got some retirees, some people with little kids. There’s even a homeless guy in the back with a piece of plastic over his head and everybody is feeling like this is a good place to be. We focus really explicitly on how to design for social bridging because the bonding side, the having fun with people who are like you, people do that on their own. That’s easy. What’s hard is to say how are we going to get strangers around the table in an exhibition talking about love. How are we going to bring artists who come from completely different mediums, completely different walks of life together as creative collaborators? How are we going to invite people to make connections across race and ethnicity? How are we going to invite people to make connections across generations? How are we going to invite people to make connections across the things that they love? I’m not going to talk much about this image but I’ll just say that this is a Hawaiian motorcycle club and basically a friendly biker gang connecting with us around this amazing surf history project we’ve been doing this summer.
So for us, this dual connection, empowering individuals, valuing them and then saying we are not here for you to be reinforced with people who are like you but we are here to bridge with people who are not like you, those are the two tenets of the work that we do and I think in a lot of ways they’re very core to what inclusion is about. For us, the outcome has been pretty extraordinary. In a town of 62,000 people when I came, we were engaging about 17,000 people a year. We’re now involving about a little over 50,000 people now as participants and then we’re also working with about 2,500 locals as collaborators in the work we do. We’ve gone from being in the red for years to a double budget, we’re expanding and as an executive director I’ve got to say all these numbers are important to me.
But the thing that’s more important to me is what people are saying about how their relationship with the museum has changed. I just snapped this picture of a comment card just a couple of weeks ago, of somebody saying that we’ve done an incredible job making them our museum, a reflection of us and a place where we can appreciate art, share it with each other, learn and make new connections. ‘Although I’ve been to beautiful museums all over the world, this museum is unique. I dance with my friends here, I watch live performances here. Thank you.’ This idea that it’s not messaging out our museum but that it’s what people are saying back to us as what they love most about it, that is for me the most rewarding part of my work.
Let me just end all the nice stuff here because I want to really say that look, we couldn’t do this without a fight, a real serious fight. I have had people email me upset, I have had people say racist shit to me, I have had people say ‘I’m taking my money and I’m walking away.’ And I have to look at all those people and say it’s as somebody once said to me, bless and release. ‘I hope you find a place to support that you’re really excited about.’ I have been profiled in our local newspaper in the local cartoon section several times but this was my favourite. This is me down in the corner yelling at Michelangelo as he paints the Sistine chapel, ‘Hey, nice job but it’s a bit passive, you must engage the visitor, think interactive, maybe leave room for visitors to colour in your work with crayons. You know, dumb down your work.’ Which is like the ultimate thing we hear about participation and inclusion.
But here’s the wild thing to me about this. We don’t hear this in our field. Why did it take a political cartoonist in my small town to raise an issue that we know we’re talking about behind our hands in our field? I think we’ve got to take these fights forward, we’ve got to be ready to engage these fights and do them honestly and openly with each other and then be grateful when other people are doing so as well. And when somebody says something that’s just like straight out discriminatory to me, it’s easy for me to cast it off. But what gets more interesting are quotes like this one, a person saying to me ‘It’s really great that new people are involved but you know, it’s solid character and content that endures. And that’s not elitist, it’s just the way it is.’ Or this trustee who said to me when we were working on our theory of change and our idea around empowerment, he said ‘I don’t go to a museum to be empowered.’ And this is somebody I know well and I really like and I turned to her and I said ‘You’ve been mayor here a couple of times. I don’t think you need the museum to feel empowered.’
These are fights, discussions that we have to have every day and I think it all comes from this fantasy we have about how including more people is going to happen. We have this fantasy that we say ok, we have the people we have and we’re just going to get more of them. And the core of what we do doesn’t have to move, we’ll just find some more people, give them a bigger hug. This is not how inclusion works in my experience at least. In my experience it’s more like this, you say ‘Here are the people we have and we’re going to change to get more of them.’
This is really what happened for us and I can say two things about this diagram. The first, the safe part of this is that not that many purple circle people left. Most of the people who loved and traditionally supported our museum have continued to be excited about the museum, have been more excited to see how many people and how much engagement there is. These are the people who say ‘It’s so great to see young people in the museum, it’s so great to see people I’ve never met before in the museum.’ Not a lot of people left.
But here’s the scary part of doing this kind of work. To do this work, to have this kind of growth, we had to completely re-centre our programming and our mission outside of where we had been before. We had to say what does it look like to really involve and include and welcome these people who we know are out there but who are not responding to who we are now. It’s like if you’re hosting a party and you said we’ve got to offer a whole other party to get a whole other group of guests. It’s still going to be a party but it’s going to be different music, different host at the door, different food, different activities, it’s a different way of working.
Let me just show one example of early some of the friction we had around this. One of the projects we do is this project called Pop Up Museum. It’s a museum that can exist anywhere any time for a couple of hours. People bring their own objects to a place, hand write labels and you have a conversation about it. We’ve done them all over the place and we empower other people to do so as well. If you want to do pop up museums, there’s a toolkit online at popupmuseum.org. But anyway this was the poster from the very first pop up museum. We did it the night before Valentine’s Day a few years ago and we did it at a bar and the theme was F my Ex and we were taking off from the museum of broken relationships and the deal was bring an object from a broken relationship to this bar, hand write a label, let’s have a conversation, it’s going to be a great time.
You can imagine how those yellow circle people, those new people saw this as an invitation to a totally different party and they were really excited about it. But you can also imagine, as there were, some purple circle people who were really not happy about this and I’ve learned two things from this experience. The first, and I think the sum total of my marketing knowledge can be summed up in this statement, do not use the letter F alone on a poster. I have learned that is just a bad idea, not worth it. But more seriously, there were people who were just really concerned, they felt like the irreverence, the ephemerality of the pop up museum and how it was being presented was just counter in a very basic way to what a museum is.
And so I encouraged the intern at the time who was running this program to write a blog post about it on our website and we got this really interesting comment back from a guy who said ‘I’m closer to the stodgy traditional museum supporter than to the audiences you’re currently trying to reach but I strongly support your outreach and attempts to involve new communities. That was what made me become a member.’ And he says this last thing ‘And I still occasionally go to the museum but I’m willing to support it as an important community resource.’ I think this is totally fascinating because here you have a guy who is self identifying as a purple circle person who’s saying this museum didn’t even matter to me until you were doing this yellow circle thing. And the whole value proposition for him is not about a club or a place for him, it’s about a place for our community and he’s psyched to support that. Love it, I want a million members like this.
What I want to do now with these next 15 minutes is share with you four tips, things that I’ve learned that have been helpful to me in having and fighting this fight over the last few years. The first is to start small. Charles made a great statement from his Dad, ‘You’ve got to have a goal’ and it’s great to have a big goal but you’ve got to start moving in a way that you feel like you have an attack right away. I think it’s important to start small for two reasons. One is if you try and do everything at once, you’ll get exhausted and frustrated and you might feel overwhelmed. But two, and I think this actually happens more often, is if you try and tackle the whole thing you might get exhausted and overwhelmed and you might give up. So if you can find a way to start small, you can start taking those actions in a way that you can bite off and keep building and building towards that goal.
You may be hearing things at this conference about amazing programs. This is this awesome community leadership group we run for 45 leaders from throughout our county and I realise as I look at this image how deeply Santa Cruz it is. But you may be hearing things at this conference and thinking shit, we are so far from that. That’s fine. Find a place to start small. And for me, one of the easiest ways to think about starting small with inclusion is to think about the question ‘What kind of invitation could you make to somebody to get involved?’ Ultimately to me at the end of the day, inclusion is about inviting people, inviting them into your experience.
So I want to share a very small way that we invite people that has really been transformative for us. We send out an email once a week to a whole bunch of people in our community and there’s often a section we call Wish List where we say ‘We need some stuff.’ Wish List started because we were cheap, we had no money and we wanted a lot of stuff but we found over time that it was a really fascinating and very successful engagement and really inclusion strategy in a way that we hadn’t even thought about. Here’s my example I want to share with you which is when we were asking for cardboard boxes about a year and a half ago now. We found that first of all, people really respond to the Wish List, people drop stuff off in droves especially when it’s easy like cardboard boxes. In this case actually there was a guy who blogged about the fact that this inspired him to clean out his garage which his wife had been complaining that he should do forever, to load up his bike trailer with cardboard boxes and to bring them down to the museum.
These cardboard boxes and others turned into a castle which ultimately became the backdrop for this co-creative family opera happening at the museum and when I saw this [vial] castle, I thought about how awesome it was that yes, there were a million ways you could be involved in this opera but my guess, and I have no idea, is that guy with the cardboard boxes on his bike trailer was not signing up to wear a silly costume and sing on stage at the museum. But there was still a way for him to be involved and for him to turn something that was a problem in his life into something creative and magical.
I think about this project and I think about the question of again, how do we invite people in. We found that again and again as we invite people in different ways, it changes the relationship people have with the museum. This is one of my favourite comment cards we’ve ever had and I really love it really just for this last sentence. ‘Thanks for trusting us.’ I don’t think this person’s saying thanks for trusting us not to break the art or thanks for trusting us to show up here but thanks for trusting us to be part of it, to bring ourselves to this place, for inviting us, for asking us to be included. So I ask you what small invitation could you make, what small action could you take to involve people and be more inclusive?
Ok, if you’re going to fight, you need some weapons. I want to talk about three kinds – strategic weapons, personal body armour and inventory. First, strategic weapons. This is our theory of change, it’s like a mission statement for us. It’s a one pager that’s our playbook of why we do what we do. You can’t really see it very well but let me just say that you probably in your institution have some kind of strategic document. Maybe it’s a strategic plan, maybe it’s an impact statement, whatever it is somewhere there is language written down, ratified by the board that says here’s what we’re here to do. And if you can’t read this, I’ll just note that the most important part of it is this final part of it which is the impact statement for us, the ultimate thing we are trying to do which is build a stronger and more connected community.
Let me suggest that these strategic documents, they are strategic weaponry. You can use them as arsenal to pierce through with things you care about and you can use them as shields when people start to ask about the things that you’re doing. If you think about third grade grammatical sentence structure, if you can just master this sentence, ‘We can accomplish this part of our mission by doing what?’ People may not like it, people may not agree with it. Maybe your mission statement is just some aspirational words on paper but people have to listen to it because the mission statement theoretically is why your institution exists.
So if you can tie the work you’re doing and I would guess that everybody here, you may not have a statement like this but you probably have a statement that has some words around inclusion. Engage all Minnesotans, inspire the innovator in everyone, whatever it is, there is language in your institution that you can use strategically to be able to move this kind of work forward. This is helpful when you’re trying to get something pitched but it’s also helpful when you find that something you’re doing is taking off and people are getting nervous about it.
Let me just share a quick example of that. Last fall, there was a big story in the Wall Street Journal about crowd curation and they led with a story about our museum and this exhibition we were doing called ‘Everybody’s Ocean’ that invited massive open call for artwork about the ocean. We were totally psyched. Santa Cruz never is in the Wall Street Journal, never, but I want you to look at this image that they led with and this image created a really interesting conversation in our museum because there are two ways I think to look at this image. It’s kind of like a [unintelligible 00:20:44] test for how you feel about participation. On the one hand, you could look at this and say it’s fabulous, we’ve got all these different people in the museum, so much activity, so much involvement. Or you could look at it and say this is a mess, this looks like it’s just here to be trendy or something and this is not a serious … what a museum should do.
But we were able to look at it and to think about this statement to say heck yeah, this is what we should be doing and actually I’ll just note that this image ended up looking not too dissimilar from how the exhibition itself looked. Hundreds of people from professionals who won the Guggenheim Fellowship to amateurs brought in their work and our community grew stronger through this exhibition, connecting with each other across differences, connecting with different art mediums and approaches and perspectives on the ocean. And by the way, I’ll just note that people also did a lot of things that we think about wanting in traditional museums, deep looking at the work, reading the labels, coming to the talks. And when I look at a show like ‘Everybody’s Ocean’ for us it’s not controversial. For us it is in our strategic wheelhouse and controversy or question that comes up about that allows us to reaffirm that strategic wheelhouse and to say yes, this is what we meant or maybe no, it’s not what we meant and where are we going to go based on that.
So that’s the strategic side of this armour. The second piece I want to just briefly touch on is body armour. If you’re going to fight, you’ve got to take care of yourself. I spend a lot of time with activists and with social service workers and they talk a lot about this term self care. I’d actually never heard this term until a couple of years ago and as I say I’m working with more folks in this world and you hear it all the time with people who are fighting hard, who are working on hard stuff, that if you are going to work on hard stuff, if people are going to be mean to you, you’ve got to find a way to protect yourself as you do that. And not protect yourself by stopping doing the work but protecting yourself with a great friend you can bitch with, with exercise, whatever it is for you that is your kind of personal body armour but find some. Don’t retreat. Find a way to build some body armour so that you can keep fighting.
Let me say that the best kind of weaponry, this last kind of weaponry I want to talk about is finding other people for your army. I want to share an example from New Zealand. This is one of my favourite examples of people in a really big democratic institution making very big change and doing so by connecting with each other. And I’ll just note that while this site is pretty dormant now, you can watch this revolution happen on their blog which is still up at this link. Let me just first say that ruru is the Maori word for owl so that’s why there’s an owl and that’s why there’s this word ruru.
So this revolution started with a few staff members at a huge institution who said we want to make some changes here and they started by making swag, they made these buttons and they would go up to colleagues and say ‘Hey, we’re starting a revolution, do you want a button?’ Some people were like ‘No thanks’ but they started to be able to identify other people who were in their army by their buttons. They started to get together to talk about what could we do, how do we want to start small, what action do we want to take first and they decided they wanted to do something around visitor voices in a museum with a label project. Here’s some members of the ruru revolution who are piloting out some labels. They worked with visitors. They got a little more bold about public programming and engaging people in new ways and ended up doing some very public projects and to invite people to share their own voices in the museum which, as you can tell by the image in the upper left, got quite permanent in a lot of cases.
They were successful and they got T shirts. This is an army of people each of whom had some aspirations for change, each of whom wanted to fight but maybe not each of whom were ready to fight on their own. But by finding each other, by building an army, they were ready together to identify some opportunities to move forward and really make lasting change in their organisation. So I ask you, what weapon do you have at your disposal? What is your most useful opportunity to move forward and to protect yourself while doing it?
This relates to the army thing. One of the oddest things I find about any kind of new work but weirdly especially some inclusion work is how often we approach it in a way that is actually quite exclusive. Rather than saying how can I involve as many people as possible, how can I make space for others to be involved in this, we tunnel in and we’re like I’ve got to just do this, I’ve got to just crank on it. Let me suggest to you that if you really want to make change, the best thing you can do is not to do the thing yourself. It’s to make space for others to be part of it, that’s how people build movements.
And I really learned this from my colleague Beck Tench who’s a brilliant person in the museum library world who was hired several years ago by a science museum in North Carolina and told explicitly ‘Your job here is to take risks. If you don’t fail, you’re not doing your job.’ She was like ‘Awesome’ and ten minutes later, she was like ‘Oh shit, what am I supposed to do?’ And she realised pretty quickly that to be successful, she needed somebody else, her boss, to be a space maker for her, to give her not just the resources but the time, the encouragement, the political cover to say yes, go do this thing we’ve hired you to do. So she started being successful, she started taking on some creative risks in her institution. But then she in turn realised that the way for creative risks to spread throughout her institution was not for her to sequentially do project after project but for her to make space for others to take risks as well. I don’t care if you frame this around risk takers or space making for creativity or diversity or whatever it is for you, but this idea of making space is so core to being able to have success in this way. Let me just say that there are so many times that we screw this up, that instead of making space we shut people down. This is an example where I narrowly avoided doing that.
So the first year when I came to the museum, I said we’ve got two big goals this year and one of them is to make our building more welcoming because it felt bureaucratic, this jail thing. And so one day I walked into the museum and I see there are these two wheelie chairs which I believe came from the street and this sign that says ‘roving armchair tours, sit back, relax and enjoy the art.’ I’ve got to say my background is as an exhibit designer. I looked at this sign in all its primary colour pre-school glory and my immediate reaction was ‘We’ve got to replace this sign.’ And then I thought, wait, this person is doing her job of making the museum more welcoming, don’t shut this down.
I share this as a success story but I’ve got to say I’m sure there are a million examples like this where I did say we’ve got to replace the sign. And every time we do that kind of thing, we’re saying to somebody not ‘I support you in being part of this goal.’ We’re saying to them ‘You’re doing it wrong.’ We’re saying to them ‘You need to live up to a different level of perfection.’ We’re saying ‘I’m going to micromanage the glory and the opportunity for everybody to be part of this out of it. So if you’re going to make space for somebody, do so with generosity. Do so by saying ‘Great sign, great idea.’ We find again and again that the work that we do, we are trying more and more to not do the thing but to make space for other people to do the thing. When we hire new people, when we hire new interns I show them exactly these space making slides and I say ‘Your job, you’re not going to be measured on how well you do, you’re going to be measured on how well you make space for others to be successful here.’
And a very short example from our museum, one of our best bridging projects over the last years, Slam Dunk, is a project out of this historic cemetery called Evergreen Cemetery that the museum owns. A few years ago when I came to the museum, Evergreen was mostly a really great place to do and sell heroin. It was overrun with homeless encampments, lots of trash and so we created a partnership between the museum and the homeless services centre in which volunteers from the museum, history buffs mostly, connect with homeless adult volunteers and every week they go out and they work to improve the cemetery. They’ve been there every Monday now for four years in October, it’s incredible. They do landscaping work, they do research on the headstones, they’ve been creating beautiful paths. We’ve even, now that it’s got more attractive out there, raised some money to do some sculptures and they are completely transforming this public cemetery.
They also at the same time are doing this amazing thing on our social mission which is bringing together people from very different walks of life in Santa Cruz in a beautiful way. And they do this with just a couple of hours a month of staff time. Would this project be better if we put more staff time on it? Absolutely. I think there are many ways that we could deepen the bridging, that we could improve the cemetery more if we put more staff time on it. But by focusing our staff time only on making space for these volunteers to be successful, it means that that same staff person can facilitate many other Evergreens in our community instead of having to just focus on this. When you make space, you create more space for more things to happen. So if you believe in what people can bring, if you create the opportunity for them to do so, more and more of the work that you care about, more and more of your mission work can happen. So where could you have more impact? Not by doing the thing yourself but by making space for others to do that thing.
And very briefly, I just want to note on this last piece, my original fourth one was don’t quit which I think is really important but mostly I want to acknowledge … my guess is most of you are from institutions bigger than mine. I’ve got 14 full time staff and we haven’t just drunk the Kool Aid, we’re like at the Superbowl pouring the Kool Aid over our heads and so for us, fighting for inclusion is something that happens externally. Let me tell you that it does not end at any time. Just a few weeks ago, I was with a donor and a friend, a guy I really respect and was talking about some of our Latino inclusion work and he said this. And I was like wow, all right, still got to do this work, still got to keep fighting to tell the story and to connect with people deeply because look, we all know all of us are discriminators in one way or another. All of us exhibit micro-aggressions in different ways and we’ve got to keep fighting for it.
But my guess is for most people here, you’re from a bigger institution and you’re probably dealing with these issues inside your institution. You’re probably dealing with quotes like this, people saying things like this or this or this. Let me just suggest that if you want to have this fight for and in your community, you’ve got to have this fight inside too. You’ve got to be ready to find ways, whatever your way is, happy to talk more about that, to call people on things, to ask questions. [Zapotee] always said lead with questions and to be able to keep pushing to make this fight happen. If you can find ways to start small, to arm yourself, to make space for others you will be able to take action insides your museum and outside in your community.
All of us are working so hard to invite and involve more people in our community in our work and I think that we have to, as we celebrate each other’s work, also take this opportunity of this time together to ask each other this question. To ask each other ‘How can I make space for you to be successful in the fight that you’re fighting?’ And how can we all push each other not to give up, not to equivocate but to own the fact that we’re activists and we’re fighting for something that really matters.
Thank you. We’re going to open this up for questions and conversations. We’ve got a lot of time which is awesome and I heard there are people with mikes. Here’s one of them, what’s your name? Kayla and Diana are here with mikes to empower your voice up and please feel free to take it wherever you want to take it.
Male Voice: My question actually relates back to what I was mentioning earlier when I was introducing you and hi, good to see your face! Knowing that these are concurrent themes in all of the Arts and it’s not even just in the Arts, it’s in everything, everybody is talking about how to be better representations of the communities that they serve. One of the statements that you made was someone had said something about essentially watering down the Arts. ‘Oh well, how is this not watering down the Arts?’ How do you combat that in not only your statements back someone in saying this is the ultimate goal, this is my long term plan as to how this is going to engage not only in these entertainment kind of activities and engagement activities but then getting folks back into the ‘traditional’ museum atmosphere? Does that make sense what I’m asking?
Nina: It does but it was really wonderful those words you used at the end, entertainment engagement versus traditional. I think there’s an interesting conversation to have there about why go there. Is that our goal to get back to in some way? I will say broadly in direct response to your question, some basic things we use are about reframing language. There are great political writers who talk about this. George Lakoff is a genius, he wrote this book ‘Don’t think of an elephant’ and how do we politically frame language, so how do you talk about it’s not dumbing down, it’s opening up. Or that the Wall Street Journal article really frustrated me because they were focused on this phrase ‘crowd sourcing’ and really connecting it kind of this market concept of exploitation, I would say. And it made me realise wow, if we’re using words like participation and engagement that are too unclear, we’ve got to find really basic clear ways to say it’s not about crowd sourcing, it’s about involving people. It’s about celebrating the creativity that people have in them, it’s not about getting something from them.
Anyway, I think there are language reframings we can do. And then very specifically to what you’re talking about around art, one of the things I like to interrogate is the word ‘quality.’ At least that’s a word I often hear that’s used as kind of like ‘But what about quality?’ And I think it behoves us to look at many different dimensions of what do we mean when we say quality. Do we mean the resume of the artists we’re working with? Do we mean their ability to engage somebody? Do we mean their ability to represent a certain perspective? Do we mean their ability to take risks? It means really different things for different institutions. So I think we have to be honest and direct about engaging the language, making sure that the language we’re using in response is not distancing in jargon but is as direct, as concrete as the words that are in people’s heads.
Last, I would just say that I think in our case, there was such a clear sense that inclusion was not about a squishy ‘Oh, engage with community.’ It was a business case for we’ve got to save this museum and some of my most ‘traditional’ board members, they had been there when they had been debating about whether to close the museum and they got real hardnosed about this. I always think about this woman in my head when people would whatever about how things were changing, she’d say ‘Where were those people when we were closing our doors? I was here then and I’m not going back there.’ And I think that not going back there doesn’t just mean I’m not going back to where we didn’t have money. It means I’m not going back to a strategy that isn’t going to work for this community.
And so I think also you have to couple the money side with the engagement side and not suggest that we can bring these new people in and it won’t affect the money either positively or negatively. Because if you can tie it to a positive financial change or in your case you’re talking about audience change, if you can link that as you did when you were up here, then I think that that changes the conversation because you can turn around and say ok, do you want to go back to having 30,000 people instead of 155,000 people? Who do you want to lose? Who shall we let go of? And just kind of interrogating that a little more tightly.
Female Voice: I’m Frith from the Museum of New Zealand. I’m interested, do you think that every experience or exhibition needs to be as inclusive as possible? Is there a risk of watering down things or maybe trying to do too much or is there room for there to be experiences that are more targeted, as long as the museum as a whole is representing everyone?
Nina: Absolutely. I think the answer is yes. We often use the term ‘museum of and’ which is this great piece by [Lynn Gurian] by that title. When we were starting especially … let me just say now four years on, we are not in the heat of this debate in my community any more but about two years ago we really were. I wrote an [op ed] in the paper about the museum of and idea and this idea that even though there are things going on that you may not choose to participate in, there also are things for you. I often use the analogy that the museum is like a restaurant with a really long menu and you don’t boycott the restaurant because there are some things on the menu that aren’t for you. It’s not that everything is for you but some things should be for you.
I will say, and I continue to find this as weird and I actually directly engage people about this when it comes up, that people who are newly coming in never seem to raise that issue. I have never met somebody who loves coming to our Friday night community festival who says ‘Why are you open on Tuesday afternoons?’ or ‘Why do you have these historic archives?’ But I have talked to many people who have been involved for a long time who seem karmically distressed by the fact that there are things that happen in the museum at times that they don’t come, in parts of it that they don’t engage with that are not for them. That’s genuinely confusing to me. The only way I can wrap my head around it is this idea that for a lot of people, the whole museum was for them and so it is like taking away as opposed to now they only get a piece of it and that’s uncomfortable.
I’ve had uncomfortable conversations. I remember when more and more young people were coming and there was a complaint that they’re all young people here and I actually pulled out demographics of our county versus our audience and said if we’re going to match our county, we need a lot more young people to come here, what do you think about that, and having those conversations. So yes, you should and can target for different groups in different ways. We also have this weird value proposition on social bridging which makes us a little different in that way.
But I think that targeting alongside is also a reasonable way to be inclusive. Just as some of those traditionalists have this karmic distress about things happening outside of their purview, it is reasonable to ask is there some kind of comparable karmic distress happening for some of these new people that they’re just not complaining about. So are there people on staff who are exhibiting behaviours that are not welcoming to certain people and they’re just like whatever, that’s what happens when I’m in a white space and where there’s an opportunity but they’re not asking for it. So it’s worth both acknowledging that that distress will probably exist if you’re doing things for different people and deciding when you want to engage in it and when you don’t. Great question.
I see a lot of hands so if mikes can keep moving, that’d be great.
Female Voice: Thank you for your presentation. I think it was impressive and I think a lot of us agree. I wondered if in your strategy you distinguish between connecting people to the museum and the building and its function in the city and connecting people to the collection and the story of the museum. And if you could maybe elaborate a bit on how you used your collection and your story to connect those people.
Nina: Thanks for asking that. Let me first say that like a lot of small museums, our collection is not that great and we have this weird situation where we are a museum of contemporary art and local history. So on the local history side, we’re very strong. We hold the county historical archives. Our collection is pretty hodge podge and we don’t have a permanent collection exhibit. Our art exhibits are all temporary exhibitions so that shifts a little bit that idea of where’s the core story or collection.
However I will say, and I do a bad job of never sharing this, our curator of collections who also runs the archives, Marla Novo, she is a total inclusive rock star. We have had some of our biggest wins in the archives which is so crazy where she has been so good about identifying and invitations for people to get involved in research projects. And then she is a brilliant social matchmaker to really do bridging work to make sure that the people who are linking up on a particular project are really coming from different backgrounds which is beautiful.
So we are involving people in some of that kind of work. We’ve just redone our whole history gallery, it opens in a week and that’s a permanent gallery. That has been a huge shift. A couple of basic things I can say about that. We knew when we shifted the history gallery that we wanted … it already did a good job focusing on people and really pretty diverse people in our county. We wanted to emphasise geographic diversity, we wanted to go to fully bilingual in a permanent space. The other thing we were really focused on was this idea of empowerment. Beverley [Surell] has this statement about the big idea, this idea with an exhibition that you have a big idea. So our big idea for our history gallery is people make history. We really decided that our intent is when you leave, we care less about what you learned about history and more about whether you feel like you could make history yourself, whether you could be a civic agent.
So some very basic ways we approach that, we made a rule that every label had to have only active voice and there had to be a person doing something. In some places that’s easy to tell the story of – Dave Bothman came to California as a slave, bought his freedom, built a mill. Anyway, there are a lot of stories you can tell like that. It got a little interesting when it came to things like natural disasters or town building and it became apparent how often in museums we use these tropes that are like ‘The town grew and flourished’ or talking about floods or earthquakes, we actually made a rule because we had an earthquake that really shifted our town, that that label starts ‘We can’t control natural disasters but we can control how we respond to them.’ So that whole section is about how did people come together and take action after the earthquake. So we’ve taken a lot of, even to this granular level of how we write labels, really thinking about how is this tragedy embedded in the space.
The last thing I’ll just note is now that we are in a financially better position, one of the things that this work does is it raises all the shifts and so now we’re really looking at our archive and looking at where are the gaps in both our 2D and 3D collections in terms of the people who are represented there. We all know that the people who tend to give their stuff to museums, the stuff that museums tend to accept, tend to come from a wealthier more elite status group. So we’ve now started and are just starting some new collecting efforts that are really targeted on gap filling, trying to make sure that our archive is part of that inclusion work and that the research that’s happening is too. Great question, thank you.
Male Voice: I think you’re doing a fantastic job in this presentation but frankly, I’m just a little curious and surprised. This conversation about inclusion, about taking the museum outside the walls, about inviting different voices in and different voices out. I’ve been hearing this conversation and been part of this conversation for a decade. I’ve got about 11 years in museums and so I’m curious why it sounds so new and fresh. Is it because there’s always a turnover in museum leadership and museum management and this always is a brand new topic? Why is this feeling so like momentarily ‘aha’?
Nina: It’s a good question. My friend and mentor, Kathy McLaine often talks about how short our memories are in this field and she’s again and again … she does this thing where she pulls quotes from 50 years ago, 100 years ago and asks people when was this said and people always shock. So part of it is obviously we’re shitty at learning as a field, which is distressing. But I think it does come down to some of what I’m talking about here which is I think we don’t acknowledge that this work is political and activist and so we talk a lot about it but then we don’t do it.
I was thinking about the quote about our hiring practices, when we decided we’re going to focus on Latino inclusion, we said ok, it’s not legal for us to ask people if they’re Latino when they apply but it is legal for us to just blanket say new hires bilingual, period. Or to say we’re going to do active recruiting in these places or to say when somebody says something who’s been a long time donor who’s uncomfortable with how things are happening, to engage in that conversation. So I think we do a good job as a field talking to ourselves and trying to bolster ourselves and I’ve found the more time I spend with people who are social activists, political activists, they don’t spend that much time talking and patting each other on the back. They spend a lot of time doing and acting and fighting and then cheering for each other when we fight big fights.
If anybody in here is fighting a big fight, I want to support you and I want everybody else in this room to support you. I think that acknowledgement and that mind shift hasn’t really happened because at the end of the day we think of ourselves as educators, we think of ourselves as creatives. We don’t think of ourselves as political agents and especially with this work, we have to if we’re going to actually do it.
Female Voice: Thank you for your presentation. I wanted to touch on the point that you mentioned towards the end about starting within institutionally and also draw a connection between that and a point that [Monica] Montgomery and I made yesterday in our presentation about labour practices in museums and some of the challenges we face around that including wage disparities between entry level folks and leadership, lack of opportunities for people of colour and people from working class backgrounds. I’m wondering as an activist director and someone who came in at a time when your museum was facing substantial funding crises, have you been able to address that at your museum and/or have you seen examples of practices around this country that you feel do walk the talk between what we say on the outside and what we do internally?
Nina: Yeah, thank you for asking that. I would say yes and no and maybe this is a cop out but partly we feel like some of those issues we’ve strategically decided are not our fight. On the one hand, yes when it comes to pay scales we’ve done a lot of things to shift how that works in our institution and really thinking also about what does it mean to honour and to create leadership opportunities for people in different ways. I’m really proud of a lot of what we’re doing in that regard. But I’ll just say openly we don’t pay interns and we really talked about that deeply inside and we decided that for us, we would rather spend that money on our collaborators and our community than on interns. We decided we’re going to make space in this particular way, we’re psyched about it and we’re going to own it. That’s a fight we would encourage others to fight and that we’re going to choose not to. So I think it’s also about that honesty around some of that stuff.
I will say one of the simplest things we do that I feel proud of in terms of how we encourage and support our staff is how we approach professional development funding. Like a lot of small institutions in particular we don’t have a lot of money for that but we try and make it as useful to people as possible. Basically everybody gets the same amount and you can use it however you want in the year as long as you can make a reasonable … and reasonable can be a one sentence in an email claim that it’s a good use, we just give you money. Why decide this person gets to go to this conference, that drives me crazy. So that’s just one really simple thing.
We’ve also really focused on the hiring side and I know this is something that’s controversial in our field but we always have the minimum possible academic requirement background to engage. I think it is so lazy and lousy that so many museums require you to have a Masters degree to have an entry level job. It’s controversial in the field because it means there are a whole lot of young people in our field who are like ‘What are you saying, now I have this Masters and you’re saying you don’t even care about that?’ No, I don’t care about that, I care about the skills that you bring in, I care about the experiences you bring in and I don’t care whether you learned them in school or somewhere else.
And our ability to hire really diverse thinkers and people from different kinds of backgrounds, a lot of that comes from the fact that we look at our hiring in a very rigorous way but not in a way where we’re going to create some lazy barriers that mean that somebody with great skills can’t do a job. So many young people who are trying to get into museums contact me and they’re like ‘What should I do? Should I go to graduate school?’ I’m like this is how we hire and I really believe in this but yeah, you’re right, you’re seeing the writing on the wall that we are professionalising the field in a way that’s making it more exclusive. How screwed up is that? Anyway, I feel very strongly about that!
Female Voice: Thank you for connecting to political agency. I think that the question of diversity and inclusion in our field that has been going on so long as the gentleman brought up really has a lot to do with fear on the part of us as museums and how our finances are coming in. Can you speak to what kind of advocacy you’re doing because I also find that we’re very quick to say I’m sorry, museums are and apologise for who and what we are like diapers and formula are always more important? Can you speak to what you’re doing in that regard?
Nina: Sure. A couple of things and it could be that this is just like my deficiency. This is the first time I’ve had a fundraising job so I always say it’s like raised by wolves around that kind of stuff. I know how to raise money for things that I’m excited about and the things that I’m excited about are these things that help us build a stronger community. It is so much easier for me to put a mission statement in front of a potential funder that talks about building a stronger community than one that talks about exhibitions and education programs. So I think first of all, moving in this direction is a bigger tent for where funding and support can come from.
I’ve also found, and I think this is part of that whole shift, again we did this because we were struggling. We read all the time about how museums are closing. They’re not closing because they did too much inclusion work, they’re closing because their supporters for the traditional things they were doing were getting too old or too few. So I cannot for the life of me, and I would love to learn how, sell an exhibition sponsorship. That’s just not something I know how to do. I’m proud of our exhibitions. Nobody wants to buy that product from me but what people do want to buy is support for programs that empower youth as leaders to make social change through the Arts, that bring people together across our community to make social change, that use art and history as catalysts for building a stronger community. I find a lot of buyers for that.
In fact, because so few museums are doing it, heck, it’s a seller’s market. If you are a foundation or a funder who cares about this stuff, you don’t have enough museums knocking down your door. In California, if any of you are from California, the Irvine Foundation has been a huge activist for funding inclusion work and they can’t get enough good applications. So there is a lot of money out there, yes from activist organisations and foundations but also from individuals who really care about their communities and for whom a museum is not a relevant place.
I also say politically, I was making my annual presentation to county supervisors, like here’s what’s going on at the museum and I was really struck when a supervisor really keyed in on the stat that I shared that 92% of our visitors live in the county. It made me think about the fact that so many museums, when you talk about apologising, are focused on this like global or tourist group and especially if you’re looking for public support. Those people don’t vote, those people are not the people who they want to be giving their tax service dollars to, if you’re getting some amount of public money. So it made me also think about why do we presume that the approach we’ve been taking and the support we were getting was better than the approach we could take and the support we could get.
I’m a Reconstructionist Jew and Reconstructionists are people who say let’s reconstruct a lot of these practices. We had a great Rabbi in DC who always said ‘Look, the tradition gets a vote but not a veto.’ I think that so often we say the tradition is the cannon and we can’t invade that, instead of saying the tradition is one of the things that’s coming in here and here are some other things, here are some other pieces of data, here are some other relevant opportunities coming in as well.
I think that the funding and the support is out there and I think it takes being unapologetically psyched to say we’re going to make a difference in our community. Just to that diapers element, I’ll also note that when I first came, I really remember feeling and saying and talking with our board about the fact that I wanted our organisation to be one of the core non profits that people associated with and felt pride about around being from Santa Cruz. And when I looked around, it was like the biggest use in our community … ocean health, environment, homelessness, hunger and there was nothing in the Arts education kind of thing. And yeah, we should step to that table and say yes, this is as important as those other things, it’s as important to our identity as an institution and as a community.
So I think that we could again, instead of apologising, boy, fill that gap, take that opportunity but don’t say we’re going to be the best Arts organisation in this community. Say we’re going to be one of the organisations that best serves and best supports and best empowers this community. And if you can legitimately do that, there’s a ton of money for that.
I think we have time for one more question and I see there are several but it’s ok, I’ll be here all day but can the mike come to one of these ladies over here? Maybe they could arm wrestle!
Female Voice: I had a question about the idea of this politically active museum that creates space for everyone in the community to come and use it how they would like. I love this idea but I wonder how much or what role the museum itself plays in not only just creating a space for dialogue and for social change but actually encouraging people to make those types of differences. How much is it just the community comes and it’s already in their interests to have these dialogues or how much is it your responsibility to engage them forward?
Nina: Great question and it’s absolutely our responsibility and not just our responsibility but a design opportunity. People coming and doing their thing is not something that people really get psyched about because that’s … you need a design container, you need that scaffolding. So actually we are not, I would say, an anything goes kind of place in terms of how people come in. If you want to do your thing in the museum, awesome, rent the museum and we actually think of rental as an engagement strategy and an inclusion strategy for a bunch of reasons. But when people come to us with an idea, we always try and say here are some ways we could work together to manifest that. If you want to stick with your vision, cool, you can rent the museum and use it for that but let’s figure out how something can work within a program format that we find really successful at hitting some of your goals around reaching more people or engaging people deeply with this topic or things like that.
One of the things I love most about our job which has been so beautiful to see is that people will come up to me, there’s this non profit called the Homeless Garden project, they have a little store. I walked in recently and they had set up this little talk back area and the person who was working there was like ‘Look, we did this because of [unintelligible 00:59:22]’ and there was this whole element of people who have worked with us who have gotten to work in our frame, to some extent. We’re always super clear with people about here’s what collaboration in this project looks like, here are your opportunities, here’s what we’re responsible for. If this doesn’t work for you, here are some other ways you could approach this or we could just not make this happen.
But yeah, it is really not anything goes. One of our biggest challenges, in the beginning we just threw it open, it was like bring it in, come on in whatever you want to do so that we could see where the interest was. But that was very hard for us to manage and the biggest challenge we had in year one and two was creating some program formats that enabled collaboration without locking down and then ossifying, ok now here is the way that this works. So we’ve done a lot of work around how do you create exhibition formats, event formats that still make a lot of space while being something we can consistently manage and that we feel pretty confident is going to be successful. So that’s been a huge part of the work, for sure.
Nina Simon, Executive Director of Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History spoke at our first North American conference, MuseumNext Indianapolis in September 2015. Nina shared her experience of building inclusive practice into the museum that she leads.