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Friday, June 15, 2012

Recent Acquisitions: Cabinet of Curiosities Keeps Santa Cruz Weird

Posted By on Fri, Jun 15, 2012 at 9:30 AM

If only every museum had a bed for visitors...
  • If only every museum had a bed for visitors...
Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds each week.

Getting through the front door was easy. Getting to the next one proved difficult.

A man to my right inked prose on a wall, while the one to my left thrashed about in his plywood coffin, sides exposed. Ahead of me, nightgown-clad, nymph-like women climbed under the white sheets of an unmade bed. Momentarily distracted, they paused to observe another couple by the elevator, a young man and woman full of grace, engaged in a seemingly effortless, acrobatic dance. In a small room off to the side, a couple held eerily still amidst the surrounding commotion, hands interlocked, eyes fixed on each other. Nearby, a lanky, disheveled man shifted his weight back and forth on a black, balled up blanket, casting a purposeful stare far above my head. Another man sat at a card table, staring down at a tall stack of papers, reading aloud from what was presumably his own manuscript.
Disorientated after the almost meditative early morning drive down Highway 1 to Santa Cruz, I found curator Susan Hillhouse taking in the many performances, and stood close. A man handed us paintings on scrap paper and told me, "This is a very sad penguin." I needed Hillhouse to navigate this scene for me, since the proper museum decorum seemed unknown to everyone else in the building. It is tempting to view this glimpse of the Museum of Art and History through a cavalier lens. After all, I had knowingly entered a funky beach town whose eccentric character precedes it, where it is not uncommon to see the city's seemingly official slogan, "Keep Santa Cruz Weird," plastered on cars and walls alike. Perhaps a few years ago that sort of dismissiveness would have been tolerable, but not since Nina Simon came to town. The executive director, who Smithsonian Magazine declared "a museum visionary," arrived a year ago, well-known in the world of cultural institutions through her blog, Museum 2.0. She approaches visitor engagement by studying international research.

Curator Susan Hillhouse (far right) talks with visitors and performance artists, often one in the same.
  • Curator Susan Hillhouse (far right) talks with visitors and performance artists, often one in the same.

"Over the past year, our annual attendance has increased by almost 100 percent," Simon wrote in an e-mail. Events like the one I stumbled upon create a "thriving central gathering place for the county." On those days, attendance soars. Simon is actively experimenting with the relationship between public programs and exhibitions, pointing to strong numerical evidence that it invites a tremendous amount of traffic to the museum.

"She's incredible," gushed Hillhouse, who oversees exhibitions and collections at the McPherson Center. The entire staff seems wide-eyed and sanguine, hardly believing their good luck. It is a rare thing, indeed, to work in a cultural institution where the overseer is not an overlord. Simon is held in high esteem by her employees and her board, a group that rarely agrees on leadership. She encourages every department to act out their innovative ideas, with an eye toward radical visitor engagement.


The recently acquired door is yet another example. The late Betty Heil was not only a part of the arts community, but also an active collector of it. When she passed, her children donated around 35 pieces to the museum, including the painted door by Carol Bowie. It once served as the entrance to Heil's studio, and Hillhouse has a similarly utilitarian vision for it.

As early as July, local woodworker Michael Singer will transform the door into a kind of cabinet of curiosities. Most museums strictly prohibit visitors from touching displays, but this "Open Me" cabinet will encourage it.

"It has been a dream of mine, since 2007, to see this 'Open Me' cabinet, and Nina is making that happen," Hillhouse explained. She allowed me to enter the temperature controlled archives, pointing out the kind of items she will showcase in the cabinet. Visitors will be able to open and close the door, and pull our various drawers. The objects will include a variety of treasures from the collection, including ceramics, rare photographs, antique maps, and artifacts. It will move around the museum on its slick, skateboard casters, so that it may be incorporated in any room.

Hillhouse stands next to the door destined to become a cabinet of curiosities. The wall to her right is strewn with visitor comment cards, and the room is filled with art made on the premises during events.
  • Hillhouse stands next to the door destined to become a cabinet of curiosities. The wall to her right is strewn with visitor comment cards, and the room is filled with art made on the premises during events.

The door will debut as a part of the upcoming exhibition, "Santa Cruz Collects," which opens on August 11. A more immediate realization: Bay Area denizens should head down to this beach town for far more than just taffy on the boardwalk.

This museum is one to be experienced.

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History is located at 705 Front Street in downtown Santa Cruz. Closed Monday. Admission is free-$5.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook. Follow Alexis Coe on twitter @alexis_coe.
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Alexis Coe


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