The Museum of Art & History at the McPherson Center

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Why We’re Building Abbott Square

Posted by on 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 abbottsquare.org

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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Spoken / Unspoken: Dec 1st 2017 – March 25 2018

Posted by on March 24, 2017

Explore what goes unspoken in our lives through audio recordings by those facing the end of life and loss.

What do you wish you had said? What do you wish you could say? From regrets to hopes, this exhibition will dive into the meaningful unspoken stories in our lives. Featuring audio recordings by individuals facing the end of their life, the gallery will also feature a recording station for visitors to record what they wish to say and perhaps never did until now. 

This exhibition is made in partnership with Hospice Santa Cruz County. Hospice of Santa Cruz County is an organization that serves those facing the end of life and loss through compassionate and expert grief support. Bilingual and bicultural staff and Hospice volunteers ensure that all members of our community have access to the highest quality transitional care and grief support services.

 

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C3 2017: How a community thinktank is building an exhibition to highlight foster youth

Posted by on March 15, 2017

 

This week the MAH blog sat down with Director of Community Engagement Stacey Marie Garcia to discuss the upcoming Lost Childhoods exhibition highlighting foster youth successes and struggles in Santa Cruz County and beyond. The exhibition is being designed by C3 (Creative Community Committee) 2017, a diverse group of community members who are connected issues facing transition-age foster youth, including transition-age foster youth, foster youth advocates, and artists. Find out more about C3 and the Lost Childhoods exhibition.

What is “C3”?

C3 stands for the Creative Community Committee. Each year we get a new group of folks together from across Santa Cruz County to creatively tackle issues in our community together. It’s a community think tank of action-oriented people who want to build a stronger, more connected Santa Cruz.

This group originated five years ago as a way for the MAH to get to know our community better. C3 helped us in designing MAH programming to address community needs, assets and interests. We realized C3 was a rich resource for what a lot of local people and organizations seek: diverse perspectives, creative ideas, networking, and new partnerships. So, we shifted C3 to be less of a MAH advisory committee and more of a community resource, an engine of empowerment and connection for everyone participating. Each year we focus on a different issue in our community and create a platform for dialogue and action around it.

Past cohorts have focused on obstacles and opportunities such as income inequality, grassroots arts spaces, transportation, and public spaces. Last year’s cohort discussed cultural bridging: where is that happening now, with whom, why and how can we deepen, expand and invite more people to participate in these opportunities. We produced an event at the end of the year to share what we learned, dreamed up and discussed.

This year, C3 members will work together on Lost Childhoods, a public art exhibition showcasing the stories, struggles and triumphs of transition-age foster youth in our county.

Can you tell us about the Lost Childhoods exhibit and why highlighting foster youth is such an important issue? 

60,000 youth are in foster care in California. Their experience, particularly foster youth transitioning out of the system, is often a hidden experience. Foster youth have overcome profound, complex and difficult challenges. They also face huge public misconceptions about who they are, what foster care is like, and what it’s like to transition out of the system. There are few opportunities for foster youth in our community to share their own individual story, challenge those public misconceptions, share what they believe is needed, and celebrate their resilience. We hope C3 will be a vessel for foster youth to share their story, in their own way.

There are also many ways for the public to individually engage in this issue and take action. We’re working with transition age foster youth, foster youth advocates, and artists in C3 to identify these opportunities and make it as easy as possible for visitors to become more engaged citizens. There are so many small and big ways the public can take action– from baking a birthday cake to becoming a CASA. Raising awareness about the issues facing foster youth is important but inspiring people to take action in a meaningful way is what creates change.

The Lost Childhoods exhibit is the MAH’s first foray into an exhibition that connects so directly with a cause. What’s behind this new direction to connect MAH exhibitions to real world issues? 

The MAH has always used art and history as tools to catalyze community action around local issues in Santa Cruz. We’ve done this through exhibits, events, and programs working with partners including homeless adults, incarcerated artists, day workers, and social justice organizations. Each year we work alongside 2,000 collaborators to create programing focused on building a stronger, more connected community together.

We’re piloting a new structure for this in exhibitions to take this work deeper and further with our C3 collaborators. Lost Childhoods is our first venture into a new issue-driven exhibitions structure.

An issue-driven exhibition is a platform for learning and dialogue on a social issue of local significance. It is a compelling call to action inviting partners and visitors to actively contribute their skills, expertise and interests to help our community grow stronger. It is completely co-created with C3 members, local partners who are absolute experts in this issue and come from diverse perspectives. C3 partners include people directly affected by the issue, service providers, local artists and community leaders. We work with partners and local artists to create original commissioned artwork that creatively addresses the specific topics that matter most to C3. Issue-driven exhibitions are co-hosted with local partners, who help to create exhibition-related events, curriculum, and activities in and outside the museum space.

Our first issue-driven exhibition is Lost Childhoods, it will focus on how our community can come together to make a difference in the lives of youth transitioning out of the foster care system. Right now we’re working alongside the Foster Youth Museum, 80 C3 members, and 3 lead artists to create the exhibition that will run July 7th through December 31st 2017. This creative collaboration empowers youth to share the often hidden experiences transitioning out of the foster care system and uses art as a tool to tell stories that inspire community awareness, social action and individual engagement.

Another unusual thing about this exhibition is that it’s being driven not by the MAH but by the the Foster Youth Museum in Oakland and the C3 members themselves. What’s the thought process here? 

Simply put, this project absolutely could not happen without the Foster Youth Museum and C3. They have the experience, passion and expertise needed to tell their own story. They are the experts in identifying their own strengths and needs, specifying the ways they feel our community can create the social action and individual engagement needed.

C3 and the Foster Youth Museum are driving the big ideas, content and art in this exhibition. They are bringing their ideas, objects, stories, creativity, and calls to action. The MAH is the platform facilitating this co-created process. We bring our storytelling, collaboration and exhibition skills to the table but all the content is derived from C3.

We spent our first C3 meeting building consensus around what were the big ideas C3 wanted visitors to walk away with after experiencing this exhibition. Five hours of story sharing, brainstorming, idea building and dialogue led us to identify 3 core ideas for this exhibition.

The first big idea will be created by the Foster Youth Museum, our key partner in creating this exhibition. They have the largest collection of art, artifacts and video portraits about the youth experience in foster care. Their work will take over half of the exhibition space inviting visitors to understand the authentic experience of foster care from a youth’s perspective.

The next big idea is for visitors to feel empowered to take action and know how to do so. Melody Overstreet is the lead artist working with C3 to create this art project.

The other idea is centered around visitors having a visceral, emotional experience that sparks empathy. Elliott Talyor and Bridget Henry are both working on two separate projects with C3 to create this experience.

This exhibition process relies on intensive and thoughtful collaboration. We started with the big ideas, we’re now building on the content and stories, then we’ll work on making the physical project. We always work with collaborators in creating exhibitions here but this process with C3 is much more thorough in tackling every part of the exhibition together from the ground up. We’re so excited to see the relationships that form, the actions that take place and how creative collaboration can become a catalyst for change in our community.

 

 

 

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Introducing Abbott Square: A Multi-Part Series on the MAH’s Expansion into Creative Public Space

Posted by on March 10, 2017

This post is the first part of an ongoing series by MAH Executive Director Nina Simon for her blog Museum 2.0 on the MAH’s project to build a creative town square for Downtown Santa Cruz at Abbott Square. Follow along at abbottsquare.org.

I love the sound of jackhammers in the morning.

My organization, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH), is in the home stretch of a major expansion project. Over the next two months, as we head towards opening, I want to share some of the stories of this project and the process behind it.

This is not your typical museum expansion. When the construction is complete, we will have added zero square feet of gallery space. No new classrooms. Not an ounce of storage space, office space, nor exhibit prep space.

Instead, we’re spending five million dollars to take our museum outside. We’re transforming an underutilized downtown plaza next to the MAH, Abbott Square, into a creative town square. We’re gutting an adjacent office building to host a new public market with five mini-restaurants and two bars. We’re planting gardens, painting murals, chalking out performance stages, and hanging market lights. The goal is for Abbott Square to become a new creative heart of our county, a town square that brings together art, history, food, play, and community.

I’ve spent about half my work-time on Abbott Square over the past four years. It has been an incredible learning experience. I’ve immersed myself in the politics of public space, the idiosyncrasies of public-private partnerships, the opportunistic mindset of real estate development, the thrills of capital campaigns, the complications of merging current and future operations, and the creative possibilities of community co-design. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. There were lots of sleepless nights. I look forward to sharing some of these stories with you.

I’m a project junkie. Every time a big project approaches completion, I feel pride, excitement–and a tinge of loss. I love the uncertain energy that pulses through unfinished work. The tough decisions. The creative debates. I love the sound of jackhammers in the morning.

With the concrete flying and opening day fast approaching, I’m taking a step back to capture this project in writing. I don’t want Abbott Square to be under construction forever. But I do want to keep the conversation open by sharing and discussing its story with you.

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Mayor Cynthia Chase on ‘What’s Next’ for Santa Cruz

Posted by on February 15, 2017

This week the MAH blog sat down with Santa Cruz Mayor Cynthia Chase to get a sneak preview of her upcoming talk at Lightning Talks: What’s Next Santa Cruz

Hi Cynthia, thanks for taking the time to chat with the MAH blog. The theme of the upcoming night of Lightning Talks is ‘What’s Next Santa Cruz?’ so let’s start with that. What’s next for Santa Cruz?

What is clear that is next for Santa Cruz is housing. We are fully aligned in this community—I don’t think there’s any disagreement from any sector, any population, any group of people that we have a housing crisis. Frankly, it’s not just in Santa Cruz, it’s everywhere, but we are impacted in a way that’s very different than other communities because of the cost of living here, because of the impact from Silicon Valley with the amount of money that exists there versus what exists here in terms of jobs and things like that. We have cash buyers coming in, and we’re also very impacted by being a vacation destination and having short term rentals. And, frankly, also by our geography, by how we’ve decided to plan ourselves as a community—we can’t grow out anymore.

I’m bringing forward an initiative for this coming year that’s expanding off of City Hall To You, which is a series of specifically housing related forums, outreach fairs, study sessions, every kind of way that we can engage with the public to get ideas, hear about concerns, get solutions, and also provide some information and education, because a lot of times we get tons and tons of emails of ‘Oh, Salt Lake City solved their homeless problem,’ which is awesome, and there are some very key things about Salt Lake City that are very different than here. It’s not to say it’s a bad idea, it’s just that there are some things that literally won’t work. They have geography, they have land—we don’t have that—also the cost of building is significantly different than it is here. So it’s about saying to people, we love those ideas, and figuring out what’s realistic in terms of what we can actually do in this community. It’s not just a conversation about the housing crisis and homelessness and the impacts of that, which certainly involves workforce housing and student housing, but it’s also what are the ideas and what are the solutions we like and funneling it down to what will work here.

Any solutions that you’re excited about that could be a good fit for Santa Cruz?

I think generally there are things that I’m excited about and the thing that actually excites me a lot about this process is engaging with the community around solutions that they have. There is sort of a double-edged sword. We tend to be quite creative here, but that creativity might have some sincere fiscal constraints. But I want to encourage that process, for people to feel like they’re bringing those ideas to the table then we truly vet what will and won’t work. And one of the things that I don’t think we can do on this issue because it isn’t just a city issue, it’s a regional issue, it’s a national issue, but for us to address this locally it has to be collaborative. So anything that we’re doing is going to be in partnership with the surrounding municipalities in the county, but also like I said with that broad spectrum of folks that are bringing different ideas and different needs to the table. If it’s workforce housing, if it’s vulnerable populations, if this is mixed used spaces—obviously things that are transit oriented, developments that are talking about how do you bike, walk and how do you use transit better in this development, that’s a key component. That has to be how we’re thinking about things from the sustainability standpoint, from an environmental standpoint, from the fact that that’s kind of the quality of life people have. They want to be able to engage with their community in those ways that don’t require sitting in your car for two hours. That’s not where we are anymore.

A lot of people locally are feeling disenfranchised with national politics and want to get involved more at the local level. What can they do to make their voices heard?

If there is any benefit at all from what’s happening at the national level it’s getting people activated here locally. You really can contact us and engage around a particular issue and then watch it happen. So two examples that stand out to me immediately, and there are many others, are the Broadway neighbors. It was like a highway—people used it instead of going on Soquel, people used it instead of the highway, people were moving pretty quickly through there and there weren’t a lot of crosswalks. There were pets getting hit and killed, there were collisions with bicycles, there were really dangerous situations with pedestrians, there were parents with strollers crossing the street who had to jump out of the way, so they did, just this neighborhood, this real grassroots effort to get the city’s attention around making that safer. And they were successful. That meant that we had to make some decisions to relocate dollars, but we really did shift our priorities to this neighborhood for what was a sincere and legitimate issues, and that was them just coming to us and saying ‘Hey, help us out here.’

Another one is when Shakespeare Santa Cruz was moving to Delaveaga, the neighbors were like ‘Wait a second, that’s a lot of traffic. We love Shakespeare and we really need to talk about the fact that we live here and you’re bringing hundreds of people through our neighborhoods.’ And that process almost brings tears to my eyes, because it started out as potentially quite contentious, and both sides really worked together through this process, engaged with the city around what would work, and came up with a plan, a mutually agreed upon plan with gives and takes on both sides, and came up with a product that is safer transportation through that neighborhood, signage, lighting, all the things that truly support what is a community asset.

So those are two examples of of how you actually can engage and you can actually see results, and that to me is government at work.

How can people get started down that path to making their voice heard over the issues they care about?

My job this year is how do I, as the chair of the council, communicate to people and invite them in in whatever way works for them. And more and more, it’s becoming electronic, and community events that aren’t on the second and fourth Tuesday of the month. You shouldn’t have to come to city council meetings. You should be able to call us, email us, meet with us, check out our website—which is being redone and should be done in July. I don’t want people to think ‘I can’t access government if I can’t go to a meeting.’ Yes you can. Don’t wait until you’re outraged—ask us, and we’ll get you to the right person. What is the way that I can help you feel like you’re invited in, that you can connect with us, that isn’t perhaps what your idea of government is.

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