Participate at the Santa Cruz MAH

On April 10, 2013 by rarw

featured comrades header2Interview and article by Andrea Steedman

Participation. Andrea_SCMAH9Whereas performance art is passé, and conceptual art is ancient news, participatory art is still going strong. No more watching, the users of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest want to be part of the art. Museums numbers are dwindling, and the art institutions are struggling, but participation could be the answer. On the first Friday of April, I braved the rush hour traffic to see what my beachy neighbor to the south had to offer. At the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH) I caught up with a woman making waves in the realm of participation with her “Museum 2.0” strategies.

Nina Simon started from unusual roots: she has a background in electrical engineering and math, but decided before she had gotten far into this field that where she really wanted to be was museums. With her background, science museums were a natural choice. Simon was reading, studying and thinking about museums a lot, and she started her blog Museum 2.0 to discuss these issues. This led to her consulting with a number of museums, and suggesting areas where they could include more participatory elements, because she believes that is where museums are falling down right now. As Simon says in her book, The Participatory Museum, “How can cultural institutions reconnect with the public and demonstrate their value and relevance in contemporary life? I believe they can do this by inviting people to actively engage as cultural participants, not passive consumers.”

It is undeniable that Simon has hit the nail on the head here: museums are just not the places people want to go. The hush of the museum, although loved by academics and some art enthusiasts, is intiAndrea_SCMAH2midating to most. People who were not raised going to museums find them scary and stuck-up. Museums have noticed the popularity of participation, and almost every large museum you go into now has a visitor participation element—carefully contained in the lobby, where it won’t contaminate the art. Nina Simon isn’t buying this. She says she wants to cultivate an “ethos of AND:” it does not detract from the Cindy Sherman photograph to put across from it photos by a mother and daughter where the daughter has downs syndrome and likes to dress up. And it does not detract from the art to have an area in the exhibit where visitors can draw their own self-portrait and pin it on the wall across from self-portrait photographs by artists both local and well-known. Both of these things happen at Photo ID, the show currently occupying two stories of the Santa Cruz MAH. This exhibit not only shows Simon’s innovative participatory strategies, it also showcases some really amazing art. She must be doing something right, since Simon took the helm of the SC MAH attendance numbers have skyrocketed and Santa Cruz’s First Friday events have taken off, with the MAH at the center.

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The main part of Photo ID on the second floor has beautiful and unexpected self-portraits by photographers from across the country. Even more surprising and fascinating to me though, was the third floor section, behind a sign that warned parents this area might be disturbing for children. In this room were pieces such as the series by the woman who stated in her wall text that she had been abused. She now photographs male volunteers in situations that remind the viewer of a traditional female nude. On the opposite wall was a frank and revealing portait series where we have the opportunity to see the process a transgender person goes through. From a sexually ambiguous portait in the first photograph, through chest surgery and hormones, in the last photo we see a fully realized man who finally feels his body matches what he has always felt to be his gender.

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Seeing as participatory art is hot right now, I asked Nina Simon how this related to her strategies, and she explained her experiences with artists. She said she had oftentimes worked with artists who wanted her expertise in participation, but found themselves uncomfortable with these elements. People in the art world are used to a sort of distance, and for this reason oftentimes even so-called “participatory art” involves keeping a healthy distance between art and participation. Simon found when she put a participation element right next to the art, artists often balked.

Yet I think the idea of “artist” lies at the basis of the problem—and so does Simon. When did we decide these people are the ones that create art, and we are the ones who just get the honor of looking at their pieces? When did we stop creating? Simon pointed out creativity and creation are on the upswing, and cited such examples as Etsy’s booming success, or Stitch n’ Bitch groups. People want to be the artists, not just the viewers, and Simon acknowledges this in her museum. She wants to target these areas at adults, also, because as she says, kids will want to do them still, but if you say they’re for kids, adults won’t touch themAndrea_SCMAH. This is another way that big museums often “ghetto-ize” participatory elements—put them in the lobby, and make them just for kids. If this idea is going to work, Simon is on the right track: it has to be for everyone.

For the future of the Santa Cruz MAH, Nina Simon wants to see the museum positioned as a community entity. In everything they do, she wants to think about how they can empower social cohesion and active shared experieces with culture. Some of the ideas she has for places art can help are mental health facilities, homeless shelters: Simon wants art and the MAH to follow what’s important to the community. A place for making the community a better place. This includes ideas like the performing artist in residence, a program where the MAH will team up with local performing artists to fund projects for them that will enrich the museum and the community. Another project currently taking place is improvement to Abbott Square outside the museum, she would like this to be a community space for creation and public engagement. As the slogan for the museum goes, “This is your MAH.”

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