The Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz.
(Laurel Bushman / Lookout Santa Cruz)
City Life

Artistic strength in numbers: Museums and galleries band together to welcome visitors back to their spaces

From the big players to the small out-of-the-way corners of the county, art and history exhibitors across Santa Cruz County want you to know they’re back in business

Amidst the cacophony of springtime not-quite-Yellow-Tier openings — restaurants, movie theaters, ballgames, salons, flea markets and gyms — a place like the San Lorenzo Valley Museum could easily get overlooked in the mad dash back to normal.

So, the SLVM and others who fall into the “museums/gallery” designation in the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy are seeking power in numbers.

For the first time in years, the various museums and galleries across Santa Cruz County (and San Benito, too) are joining forces to amplify a message: We’re here, and we’re ready to see you.

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Sixteen organizations across the region are combining forces in a public messaging effort called “Museums Month,” to remind people that local museums and galleries — many of them having been closed for more than a year — are now back in business.

The SLVM runs its small operation out of its gallery in Boulder Creek, but it also maintains an exhibition space in the old Felton Presbyterian Church building at the former Felton Library. The museum opened briefly last fall with a traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian Institute that it had booked months before. The SLVM’s executive director, Lisa Robinson, said that she, with consultation from local officials, decided to open the exhibit to lift the spirits of the pandemic- and fire-ravaged community.

“We didn’t do huge publicity around it,” she said, “we were really just doing it for people here in the Valley, not the broader community.”

Now, however, the museum with its new space in Felton is planning on getting back in the flow of community life, and resume its mission to preserve and educate the public about the cultural and natural history of the San Lorenzo Valley. Robinson said that things will not quite look like they used to. The museum has an outside exhibit for those who can’t make it to its still-limited open hours, and plenty of Zoom events planned as well.

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“It’s been a tough time in the museum world,” she said, “because, unlike in the past when we’ve been encouraging people to get more interactive with the things that we put in our exhibitions, we’ve now had to take a step back and remove a lot of those interactive elements.”

The SLVM is only one of a variety of organizations dusting off the welcome mat for visitors. They rank from the county’s biggest players such as the Museum of Art & History in downtown Santa Cruz and the Santa Cruz Natural History Museum to art galleries such as the Radius Gallery and R. Blitzer Gallery to science centers such as Seymour Marine Discovery Center to even an online only museum, the Museo Eduardo Carillo.

“We’ve been meeting all year long, just to talk about how everybody’s doing,” said Felicia Van Stolk, the executive director of the Santa Cruz Natural History Museum, who is spearheading the Museums Month alliance. “And then when we started reopening, we just came up with this idea to support each other in our reopening.”

Van Stolk said that most museums and galleries did not open last year during the brief interval when they were allowed to, because they realized that they would be shutting down again soon. The Natural History Museum has not been open during the pandemic, until now. In that down time, many gallery and museum directors chose to grapple with the new protocols for how their audiences could interact with their materials.

“We’ve been spending our time just trying to figure out how to achieve all these safety (protocols) while still making really welcoming and interactive spaces,” she said. “It’s not like the grocery store, where people would be happy to go up one direction of the aisle and not interact with anyone else. We really want to preserve the experience of being in the museum.”

In pre-pandemic times, the Natural History Museum could accommodate well over 100 people in its space during it biggest events, like its annual Halloween party. Today, capacity is more like no more than 15 people in the building at the same time.

Get your culture on . . .

Learn more about Museums Month in Santa Cruz

For more information on each of the participating organizations aiming to lure visitors back, go the project’s website here.

These kinds of restrictions, though presumably temporary, have forced museum directors to conceive of more creative programming.

The Natural History Museum, for example, will kick off May with a maker’s market with artisans treating audiences with demos in the museum’s outdoor space near Seabright Beach. The museum will also feature things like guided walks and its annual summer camp, and will continue its trend toward Zoom and online-based events and programs. The big school-group meetings and parties, though, will have to wait for another day, at least inside the museum.

“The city has really been cooperative with allowing outdoor events to be held safely,” said Van Stolk. “So, we’re still going to have our natural-history parties, but they’ll be spreading out of our building into the neighborhood park that surrounds us as well, which will be fun.”