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MuseumNext 2018: Community in culture as global initiative seeks to spread inclusion message

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Answering two questions took us from the brink of failure to stunning success

A new initiative aimed at creating community inclusion in museums across the world is seeking members, as it aims to spread its message of being "of, by and for the community" (OFBYFOR ALL).

Achieving her dream role of working as an engineer for NASA after leaving university, Nina Simon left the role after just a few months for reasons which would lead her into the museum realm, with a new dream – to design and create institutions where anyone could feel like they belonged.

Delivering the keynote speech at last week's MuseumNext, Simon, now executive director for the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH), explained OFBYFOR ALL, which she used to turn around the failing institution when she joined in 2011.

"I've been at MAH for seven years now and today the MAH is a thriving community hub in Santa Cruz County. But when I first joined that wasn't really the case," said Simon.

"At the time there were two really big problems, the first being money. The day I came in as director we had US$16,000 (€13,700, £12,000) in the bank, US$36,000 (€31,000, £27,000) in unpaid bills, and there was no magic cheque on the horizon.

"At the same time, we had a problem of relevance. There were more people that knew our building used to be the county jail than knew that it was now a museum. It had been a museum at this point for 20 years.

"It was during this dual crisis that the board was spurred to act but they didn't know what to do. How could they get new people into museum? It was the same question I had heard in engineering from men wanting to get more women in. I realised it was the wrong question to ask. This kind of question leads to a lazy, judgemental answer."

At MAH, Simon chose to ask two new questions – what was the museum willing to change about the institution to draw new visitors in and what was the museum willing to do to help new visitors feel like they can belong?

"Answering these two questions took us from the brink of failure to stunning success," she said.

Using the mantra of operating "by and for the community", the museum underwent a remarkable turnaround.

In 2011, MAH had an annual budget of US$700,000 (€599,000, £528,000), with seven total staff members and annual visitation of 17,000 people. That figure now stands at US$3m (€2.6m, £2.3m) a year, with 32 staff members and 140,000 visitors a year.

"We are able to engage with our community because we are of, by and for our community," said Simon.

"Our staff, board and content are representative of the diversity of our community. Our programmes are co-created by our community so that we can be welcoming for the whole community."

One example of this theory placed into practice at MAH is its See Be Seen exhibition, which instead of curating a few select artists, acts as an open call for anyone in the community. Contributions selected are either a self-portrait or a portrait of a local person. A variety of artists – from 90-year-olds to emerging young artists – have contributed, with the result being an exhibition following the creed of "of, by and for" the people.

"This framework works both in the context of projects, and also from an institutional perspective," said Simon.

"When we figured out our secret, in May we launched OFBYFOR ALL, with a goal to spark a global movement of not only museums but also libraries, parks, theatres and cultural centres that want to include people in their communities."

Acting as a playbook for community transformation, OFBYFOR ALL launched in May and has raised more than US$900,000 (€770,000, £678,000) for the cause, which is now seeking new members. The organisation's goal is to engage 200 organisations serving 10 million community members by the end of 2020. In doing this, the organisation also wants to involve one million new people in culture in the next two years.

"We're going big with this," said Simon. "I believe the impact we're having locally in Santa Cruz County should not be limited within our county lines. I believe that this work is local, but that there are opportunities for all of us to do it locally, in our own contexts.

"All of our communities are different, but I believe that this framework can work in different environments. If you want to take it on, it can work for you. We came here to invite you to join this movement and to help build a more inclusive world.

"We have an opportunity to do this and we have an opportunity to do it together."

For more on OFBYFOR ALL and to take a confidential organisational self-assessment, click here.

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A new initiative aimed at creating community inclusion in museums across the world, is seeking new members as it aims to spread its message of "OFBYFOR ALL".
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