Nina Simon’s Art of Relevance Book Tour Notes

My friend Nina Simon wrote a book called The Art of Relevance. Her book is full of inspiring case studies and practical advice on how museums can achieve relevance.

Here is Nina getting ready to give a talk on her book at Bookshop Santa Cruz. (Photo: Chip Scheuer)

I was lucky enough attend two stops on the Art of Relevance book tour: once at the Chicago Navy Pier in October 2016, and then again when my company Museum Hack hosted her New York City book launch event.

Nina provided me with a copy of her slides. I’ve added my own unedited raw notes below some of them!

  • This book as a journey to figure out how we, as institutions and people, consider relevance. To our audience and to ourselves.
  • History: Nina runs the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History.
  • It’s a success story turnaround by all accounts. She is responsible for it.

  • When she started 5 years ago, $16,000 in the bank and $33,000 in unpaid bills.
  • The board was talking about closing the doors.
  • A crisis of relevance.
  • More people knew that it used to be a jail, than that it was a museum.
  • Everyone in town wondered, “What happens in that building?”

  • Find, spark, share, and preserve ideas and stories.
  • Bonding and bridging across differences in their community. And for individuals to feel empowered to share creative and civic voices.

  • One-page theory of change, their impact statement: Our community grows stronger and more connected.

  • Reflection about who are these people, and why are they coming?
  • What’s relevant to them now?
  • What is relevance?

  • At this point, Nina asked the audience: Who here likes bacon? I raised my hand, as well as many others.
  • Then Nina said, “I am a vegetarian.” (That got some laughs.)
  • Looking at this picture of bacon really makes me want some bacon right now.

  • Nina told the story about how she tried to convince people for a long time to give up meat, but eventually stopped because it wasn’t working.
  • Until the story came out about “BACON CAUSES CANCER.”

  • Why do some people vote, and others do not vote?
  • Because voting doesn’t seem relevant to them.

  • Yosi, marketer formerly working for Toyota, joined the team of Barack Obama to help get young people of color to turn out and vote.
  • Shepard Fairey story about the HOPE campaign. “Success in giving outsiders a reason to come and vote.”

  • Outsiders aren’t ignoring not because they don’t know. They are ignoring because it doesn’t feel relevant.

  • “Some of my greatest heroes are inside/outside people.”  
  • Nina gave the example of the oldest National Park Service ranger, Betty, pictured above.
  • “When I wear my uniform on the streets, I am announcing to people of color a career path that I didn’t know was available to me until I was in my 80s.”  
  • She’s using her uniform as a kind of key to invite people in.
  • Another hero in the National Park Service: Cam, as the first community organizer. How do they transform the appearance of rangers to be more welcoming?

  • Community-first design: steam punk knitters, etc.
  • The hardest work isn’t interacting with this audience and asking them questions, the hardest work is: will we do this work?

  • ROOMS AND DOORS: “When I was writing this book, I was constantly looking for the metaphor for what this means.”
  • Some museums have big, imposing doors.
  • Other cultural organizations have doors like for hotels, with a different door for many different groups.
  • But this isn’t so bad when compared to the “fake doors.”
  • Example of Dragon Festival weekend, where Chinese families are invited one weekend, and then not welcome the next.

Check out Nina’s full slides on her LinkedIn here. The book website is

My Nina Simon Cool Videos:

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