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Museum of Art & History Director Nina Simon. (Dan Coyro/Sentinel)

SANTA CRUZ -- At the foot of the stairs leading up from the vast atrium to the galleries at the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz, there used to be a prominent "no" sign -- as in "No Photography, No Food, No Drink, No Smoking, No Pick-Up Basketball Games, No Super Soaker' Squirt Guns, No Singing Out-of-Tune Renditions of Don't Stop Believin'," etc.

OK, so we made up the last couple of those prohibitions. But the point is that the MAH, like just about every other museum in the known universe, was content to define the museum experience as something removed from the outside world, a rarefied church-like space of refined artistic reflection.

When Nina Simon became the MAH's new executive director in May, one of her first unilateral actions was to cover up the no sign. It wasn't that Simon was throwing out the housekeeping rules of the gorgeous but often imposing downtown museum building. Instead, whether she intended it to be or not, it was a symbolic act of not only a new regime at the MAH, but a new idea of what a museum is supposed to be.

Simon is a remarkable "get" for the museum. Up until she accepted the position to remake the MAH, she was a consultant for museums all over the world, and one of the industry's most prominent outside-the-gallery thinkers. Her blog, "Museum 2.0," is one of the leading forces working to remake the museum experience. She published a book in 2010 titled "The Participatory Museum" that outlined the ideas of her blog

-- and many of the world's big-city museums brought her in to help them figure out how to shake off the fusty image of museums and embrace modern times and modern audiences.

A blank canvas

Simon's new job is her first shot at putting into action herself what she has been urging other museums to do.

"What do we have to do differently?" she said. "The first part is saying yes and being open to the community."

Her goal is nothing less than to remake the MAH as the primary cultural touchstone of the Santa Cruz community, the place that best embodies the unique cultural vibe of Santa Cruz.

"We all know Santa Cruz is such a creative place," she said. "And yet, when you look at where is that epicenter, where is that hub, it's very diffuse and unclear."

In Simon's vision, the MAH should be that epicenter, the mothership of Santa Cruz downtown culture, the first place that an out-of-towner would go on a mission to understand the city's dizzyingly diverse culture.

And yet she backs up the bromides with concrete ideas. Her mission in her blog has been to rebrand the experience of going to a museum, chasing away the old ideas of a quiet temple of tweedy art appreciation by generating new ideas of what a museum could be.

"What's the quintessential Santa Cruz welcome?" she said. "You know when you land in Hawaii and they put a lei around your neck? I keep thinking what we should be doing in the lobby is that kind of thing. We are going to be doing a lot in the lobby to increase the Santa Cruz-ness."

That doesn't entail a big, expensive redesign. Instead, she plans to bring a variety of working artists, one at a time -- "somebody painting, or shaping a surfboard, or sculpting" -- as a kind of live demonstration of art as it is being created. She also plans to better employ Abbott Square, just outside the Cooper Street entrance to the MAH. In mid-July, the museum will host "Experience Clay," weekend workshops for those interested in clay sculpture.

Simon is busy soliciting ideas from museum visitors, staffers, and the young interns that she's bringing in. Ideas include combining Santa Cruz's famous love of yoga with life-drawing classes, having models incorporate yoga poses for the sake of the would-be artists. In September, the MAH will be partner with Santa Cruz Next for "A Race Through Time," a kind of scavenger hunt incorporating places that don't exist anymore in Santa Cruz. Later this year, the museum is planning to institute a "wearable art" ball, combining the energies of the annual FashionART event, the defunct Seventh Sense wearable-art event and the once popular Good Times Halloween ball into one dynamic new event.

The focus, she said, will be more toward events. "What motivates people to come to the museum is not the idea that there's something that's open for the next three months and they can come any time. What motivates people to come is that wow event, that day where there is something they really want to be there for."

Winning the lottery

That Simon, the world-traveling consultant, finally gets a museum to call her own is something of a happy accident. She came to Santa Cruz County in 2007, not for the sake of the MAH, but because she and her husband decided to leave Washington, D.C., where she worked at the International Spy Museum.

"We painted a big map of the western U.S. on our wall, looking for a particular kind of place," she said. "We started looking around for a small city, progressive, good outdoor access, good for vegetarians."

And Santa Cruz won the lottery.

It wasn't until 2010, when MAH executive director Paul Figueroa resigned for health reasons, that the idea of the potential fit between Simon and the MAH first emerged. She had been traveling extensively, but was, she said, beginning to feel resentment for not getting to explore her newly adopted hometown and to get involved in the community.

"The reason I was interested in this job is because last fall the trustees put out a new strategic plan with a vision statement that positions the museum as a thriving central gathering place around art, history, ideas and culture," she said. "When I saw that, I thought, If they really want to do this, then I don't want to just help out casually as a volunteer. I want to make this happen.'"

Back on its feet

The first thing Simon has had to do is address a funding crisis at the MAH. She dropped one position on the museum staff -- the museum now carries eight paid staffers -- and reduced everyone's salary by 20 percent. She is working to build up the museum's operating reserve and get it back on its feet again, while maintaining that innovation and rethinking the museum's purpose are vital methods to achieve financial stability.

She is also working to bring into closer harmony the museum's dual mission: to be a repository for local history artifacts and to promote art exhibitions. Future exhibitions includes "Santa Cruz Collects," with a focus on the eccentric and intriguing collections of local people; and "Love and Spirituality," a historical perspective on spiritual movements in Santa Cruz County with ceremonial events planned to coincide with the exhibit of art works and artifacts. An upcoming woodworking exhibit will feature a fort built on the premises.

Simon is living with high expectations not only in Santa Cruz County, but in the larger museum community where observers are eager to learn what she can do on a blank canvas.

"Yes, I have big dreams, but I don't think they are hyperbole," she said. "I've seen how this works and I've made it happen in other places. I've never been in a community with more participatory enthusiasm from people, or a more beautifully situated museum.

"Lots of people now don't even know where the museum is. We have to say, it's right across from Trader Joe's. In three years, I want to hear people say, Hey, where's Trader Joe's?' Well, it's right across the street from the museum.'"