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Blog posts by Nina

Abbott Square: Coming Soon to a Plaza Near You

Posted May 24, 2017

This post is by MAH Executive Director Nina Simon. Dive deeper into the decision to move the Abbott Square opening with a new post on Nina’s blog Museum 2.0. 

For years, we’ve been working with the community to develop a vision for a new creative community plaza in Abbott Square. For months, we’ve been under heavy construction to expand the plaza, plant a secret garden, and transform an office building into six restaurants and two bars. For weeks, we’ve been planning a big grand opening week of festivities to celebrate Abbott Square with you.

You can read more about Abbott Square in the Good Times cover story this week. It’s an epic community project to expand the MAH’s mission and impact.

We can’t wait to share Abbott Square with you… but we’re not quite ready yet.

From the beginning, our community has told us that food and drink are a huge part of what will make Abbott Square a fantastic community plaza. The food and drink are not ready. Abbott Square Market construction is taking longer than anticipated. We’ve decided to postpone the opening celebration until the whole project is complete and ready to open.

Here’s what you can expect:

  • June 2, join us for a special First Friday in the MAH and Cooper Street that includes a sneak preview of Abbott Square.
  • Throughout June, enjoy new, free community programs in Abbott Square, including Friday night concerts, Crafternoons, and family-friendly activities.
  • When the Abbott Square Market is ready to open, we’ll schedule a series of fun, diverse opening events to invite our whole community into this new community plaza.

Abbott Square is a huge community project, and we want to do right by our community. We look forward to sharing it with you, in its full glory, soon.

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Why We’re Building Abbott Square

Posted April 19, 2017


This post is the second in an ongoing series of posts by Executive Director Nina Simon for her blog Museum 2.0. Abbott Square opens in June—find out more at

The MAH fundamentally has two jobs: we bring art and history out into our community, and we invite our community in.

Over the past six years, we’ve done a great job bringing the community into the MAH. Our audience has quadrupled in size, and the people walking through our doors increasingly reflect the age, income, and ethnic diversity of our County. We’re proud that the MAH is a thriving museum AND community center for Santa Cruz County, a place for people of all walks of life to connect around our shared creativity and culture.

Visitors tell us how much they love the MAH, saying things like, “I love that the MAH holds very welcoming, accessible, open-minded and open-hearted space where people from every walk of life can gather and (re)create community.” Or “I love the MAH because it is a truly participatory space where diverse groups can enjoy, express themselves, and learn from/about/with others.” Or “The MAH is a living invitation of out-of-the box, beyond-perceived-walls thinking.”

There’s a lot of love inside the MAH these days. But in the spirit of that last visitor comment, we feel it is our responsibility and our glorious opportunity to spread that love beyond our walls. If we only build community inside the building, we’re trapping ourselves and our visitors in a bubble. We want to break out. We want the MAH’s inclusive creative energy to ripple across our county. Our vision is to build a stronger, more connected community through art and history. If we really want to achieve that vision, we’ve got to get to work in all the places where people live, work, and play.

We’ve experimented with beyond-the-building engagement through projects like the Pop Up Museum, Evergreen Cemetery restoration work, and partner-led festivals. I’ve seen again and again how outdoor programming has impact beyond what can happen inside the museum. Some casual passers-by jump in to participate, and even when they don’t, they get a bit of a contact high from the fact that art is happening as part of their urban experience. The engagement may be less intimate and focused, but the opportunity for ripple effects is greatly increased. The impact outdoors is wider and wilder than anything that happens inside the walls of an institution.

So we’re going big by expanding into Abbott Square, the under-utilized plaza on the MAH’s front doorstep. The “why” behind Abbott Square evolved over time, with four main reasons at the core:

  1. marketing and audience development
  2. meeting community needs
  3. achieving our mission / strategic alignment
  4. strengthening our business model

When we started the project four years ago, the primary reason to expand into the plaza was about marketing and audience development. Abbott Square physically connects the MAH to the main drag of downtown Santa Cruz. Four years ago, we were in the early stages of expanding and diversifying MAH programming, and we saw Abbott Square as a key physical connection between the growing museum and the vibrant creative life of downtown. Furthermore, we learned from a Latinx-focused ethnographic study that outdoor programming was particularly appealing to local Latinx families. We wanted to reach more people, and more diverse people, and we saw Abbott Square as a great place to do it.

Once we started community conversations about the potential for Abbott Square, the “why” shifted to community desire for a town square. While locals were interested in the MAH, they were MUCH more interested in having a downtown gathering place. We don’t have a town square in Santa Cruz, and people feel the acute lack of creative public space. What started as being about the MAH became more about the community. Community members’ expressed needs and desires drove the planning of Abbott Square and led to major decisions we would not have made if this project was “just” a MAH extension (more on community involvement in next week’s post). While this was exciting, it was also a bit disconcerting. At times, it felt like we were taking on a new sister project to the MAH in Abbott Square, as opposed to an expansion of our existing work.

To my grateful surprise, that sense of separation resolved itself as the MAH’s strategy evolved in alignment with the project. While we were designing Abbott Square with community members, we were also strengthening the MAH’s overall commitment to community-driven programs. Three years ago, we wrote a new MAH theory of change with an impact statement to build a stronger, more connected community. We knew this impact could only happen if we expanded our work further beyond our walls.

Through the lens of our new theory of change, suddenly Abbott Square was core to our overall institutional strategy. Just as we have opened the MAH up to more diverse people, perspectives, art forms, and historical narratives over the past few years, now we are physically opening our facility with new offerings that are accessible and appealing to a much wider audience—including thousands of people who might not ever set foot in a museum. The people who enjoy Abbott Square’s whimsical Secret Garden, locally-rooted public market, and free outdoor performances will all experience the MAH—whether they also visit exhibition galleries or not. This intersection is not entirely a coincidence—the MAH and the Abbott Square project grew up together—but it was reassuring to realize that the community’s interest in Abbott Square was in our strategic best interest, too.

And finally, a fourth “why” was key throughout planning: Abbott Square was designed to generate revenue and maximize use of our real estate assets. The MAH has an unusual business model in that part of our revenue comes from managing Abbott Square plaza and an adjacent commercial office building. By incorporating a food market in the ground floor of that building (something community members urged us to do as part of the project), we are hopefully building a sustainable revenue source into Abbott Square. At the same time, we’re transforming a “high income, low mission impact” asset into a “higher income, high mission impact” asset. Hopefully.

I firmly believe that more creative institutions should be in the public space business. If we care about building community, we can’t just do it within our walls. We live in a time—especially in the United States—when people are more divided than ever. Space is contested, privatized, and segregated. Working on this project has opened me up to the incredible opportunities we have to claim public space for our communities and for the values that underlie our work.

Many people call this work “creative placemaking.” The idea is that creativity—not just sculptures or murals but events, art-making, art-sharing, commerce—can help turn an intersection or a riverfront or a concrete wedge into a place with a story and an identity. Creativity and culture connect us to place and to each other.

Yes, art is place making. But art is also future making. Art rejects the limitations of what we are and what we have been. It inspires us to imagine what we will be.

I want to imagine a future of downtown Santa Cruz in which creativity, commerce, and community are all welcome. I want to imagine a future in which the spirit of welcome and inclusivity that permeates the MAH spreads throughout our whole town.

We’re trying to build a slice of that future in Abbott Square. What future do you want to build in your community?

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Sharing the AfterGLOW

Posted October 21, 2013


Photo by Justin William, MAH intern

It’s Monday morning and my ears are no longer ringing. What an AMAZING weekend of GLOW. Over 100 artists and about 4,000 community members came together over two nights to celebrate the unique creativity of Santa Cruz County–cutting-edge innovation with a healthy dose of propane.

We hope that GLOW will continue to grow as an annual event for the MAH and downtown, and I wanted to open up this post as a forum for your ideas and suggestions to make it even better next year.

Here are a few of the questions and comments we’ve already received (with my responses below):

Why aren’t the exhibition galleries open during the festival? 

It would be terrific to introduce GLOW participants to our wonderful exhibitions, but we just don’t feel like it’s entirely safe during such a wild event. We have every one of our staff members and volunteers outside managing the safety around the fire sculptures, and we don’t feel like we have the capacity to spare anyone to ensure the safety of exhibitions at the same time.

Why isn’t there a kids’ price for GLOW?

We priced the tickets for GLOW this year based on concerns about safety and capacity. Last year, tickets were cheaper, and we had to shut down admissions a few times to wait for the crowd to die down. This year, while it was packed, we never went over capacity or had to turn people away. We will think about this for next year, but we’re still going to put safety first when thinking about pricing and capacity.

The dancers on Friday night were not family-friendly (or, as a brave nine year old put it on our comment wall: “Don’t hire dancers for their willingness to dance around in bikinis!”).

I agree that hyper-sexualized attire and moves don’t belong at a museum event. Because we co-produce all our events with so many partners, it’s hard to know what they will bring to the table exactly (and what they will wear doing it). While some artists do work with sexuality, the art should come first. I promise that we will be more attentive to this in the future and more willing to ask the probing questions to ensure that our programmatic partners’ values are in alignment with our mission. We won’t always be perfect–but with input from smart members and participants, we’ll keep striving for better.


What questions or ideas do you have for the future of GLOW? Snap any good photos or video? Share them all here.