This August, the Association of Nature Center Administrators held their annual Summit in Greater Cincinnati. The keynote speaker for the conference was Nina Simon, former executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH) and current CEO of the nonprofit organization OF/BY/FOR ALL.
When Nina Simon joined the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, it was well into a long decline of attendance, relevance and budget. The institution was on the brink of closing its doors permanently. To change course, they decided to court new audiences. That's not a new strategy in itself, but the way they sought out those new audiences is where things get interesting.
Instead of crafting new programs they thought would attract new audiences, the MAH team went to new audiences and asked for their help. They invited new voices to the table and created space for those voices to be heard. With those new voices on staff, as volunteers and as community partners or advisers, the MAH developed programming and events that could draw the kind of crowds they needed to provide value for their region.
It's critical for arts organizations to represent the diversity of the communities they represent. That's true in a moral sense, but also for the survival of any organization. You can't stay afloat if you're not relevant to your audience. Americans for the Arts has documented a decline in arts participation as America younger and more diverse, largely because the arts have not adjusted as demographics have. That's why Nina Simon's story is so relevant to the arts. And that's why ArtsWave became the keynote sponsor for the Association of Nature Center Administrators Summit. To make sure Nina's message reached more ears that could benefit, ArtsWave also invited members of arts organizations all across the region to the keynote.
Nina spoke to a packed conference hall full of nature center and arts professionals. Her message resonated. "What a gift her talk was," says Sherri Prentiss, Vice President of Marketing with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. "She was very inspiring, and the lessons she shared are continuing to resonate with me as I reflect on them, and how we might continue to work toward greater impact and collaboration."
"As an organization serving a very diverse community, we are always wrestling with how we can engage more diverse residents. Nina Simon turns this question on its head: instead ask, 'How can we matter more to more people?' This is a game changer," says Ellen Muse-Lindeman, executive director of Kennedy Heights Arts Center. "I can't wait to take these learnings back to my staff and board."
The arts can bridge cultural divides, bringing different communities together to form a stronger whole. That's an essential benefit, but it requires intentional action. It requires arts organizations to think inclusively. It requires a commitment to be of, by and for all.