History of the MAH

Today, the MAH is a creative hub for Santa Cruz County. Learn more about our 25-year history as a center for the intersection of art, history, and civic life.

A Community Space

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH) is a thriving community gathering place that offers rotating art and history exhibitions, visual and performing artworks, public festivals, education and outreach programs, and cultural celebrations in collaboration with our many partners.

We maintain a permanent collection of regionally significant art and artifacts, a research library, historical archive, and historic sites including the Evergreen Cemetery, Octagon Building, and Davenport Jail. More than 2,000 K-12 students visit the museum annually to learn about art and history.

At the MAH, local historians join community members on volunteer committees to preserve and promote Santa Cruz County history, producing two books per year and an online journal. We collect and highlight unheard stories from the many people who made Santa Cruz—such as farmworkers and fishermen, the Amah Mutsun Tribe, and immigrants from around the world—in our History Gallery and podcast. We also offer fellowship opportunities and an annual “Distinguished Historian” award.

In other gallery spaces, the MAH features cross-disciplinary exhibitions of contemporary artwork curated around themes important to the local community. We strive for a balance between participatory, community-generated content and professionally curated exhibitions featuring work from regional, national, and world-renowned artists. We are currently hard at work on our museum without walls concept to produce a series of public events, site-specific installations, and social interventions in outdoor spaces throughout the county.

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How It All Started

From the very beginning, we understood the power of partnerships.

Way back in the mid-1980s, the Santa Cruz Historical Society (founded in 1954) and the Art Museum of Santa Cruz County (founded in 1981) joined forces to build a museum of art and history on the site of the former county jail. The new project—the McPherson Center for Art and History–was sparked by a generous donation from the McPherson family. As Bruce McPherson put it, the dream was to transform the former jail from ”a place of incarceration to a place of inspiration.” Listen to the MAH's origin story.

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Phoenix Rising

The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake devastated downtown Santa Cruz. Once the dust settled, we reframed the dream of the McPherson Center as an opportunity to turn tragedy into triumph. We decided to build a new museum next to the old jail, effectively doubling the size and potential of the site. Remarkably, the historic Octagon Building (built as the County Hall of Records in 1882), next to the former jail, made it through the quake with little damage. These three buildings, along with the adjoining Abbott Square plaza, rose out of the rubble to become the McPherson Center for Art and History.

The Octagon and ex-jail aren’t the only historic sites/structures that we operate. We oversee the beautifully-restored Evergreen Cemetery. Located in nearby Harvey West Park, it’s one of the oldest public cemeteries in California, dating back to the 1850s. While most older cemeteries are religiously-affiliated, Evergreen was the final resting place for people of all walks of life—from governors to Chinese railroad workers. Today, it is a gothic forest of art and history. Located up the coast in a former rough-and-tumble whaling village, the Davenport Jail was built in 1914—and only used twice.

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We re-opened our doors in 1992. Four years later, the marriage between the history and art museums was finalized and we officially merged as the Museum of Art & History. Chuck Hilger was the first Executive Director of the MAH from 1996 to 2003. Acknowledging our role as a community center for all across the county, we added Santa Cruz to our name in 2012. Today, we fully embrace our role as a countywide cultural center and own up to ‘the MAH’ as our nickname.

A Second Resurgence

2011 also saw the arrival of Executive Director Nina Simon. When she took the reigns, we were struggling to recover from the economic downturn. Once again, we saw a way to turn a crisis into a creative opportunity. We realized that we could do more than right the ship, but instead sail into uncharted waters and fundamentally change how we connect with and serve Santa Cruz County.

We changed our museum by changing its purpose: from being a place for art and history to a place that uses art and history to build community. Nina came to the MAH having helped hundreds of cultural organizations become more relevant and connected to their communities. Here in Santa Cruz County—a place full of creative, courageous dreamers—she knew that vision could reach its full potential.

Nina’s realization was that in order to remain relevant, a local museum needs to be a place that truly reflects the diversity of its community. It must be a place where local partners drive the creation of exhibitions and events. The MAH is now a shining example of this vision at work, and a leader around the world for our dedication to being of, by, and for our community.

Beyond the Walls

Our community-based approach was a hit. As more and more people stopped in for a visit or got involved, we quickly realized that we needed to bust out of the confines of our building. We immediately thought of Abbott Square—the underutilized outdoor plaza just outside our doors.

We saw Abbott Square as a front porch for the MAH. Community members got excited about the opportunity to build a creative place for everyone—fulfilling long-held dreams of a downtown plaza. A plan was hatched to re-energize the plaza with art, history, food, and community. We raised $5 million from enthusiastic local supporters. Then we brought local developer John McEnery IV on board to bring eats and drinks into the plaza. Open since September 2017, this creative hub includes a museum entrance, food and drink in Abbott Square Market, the main courtyard where art, history, and cultural events constantly appear, and the Secret Garden—an oasis designed for families.

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In early 2020 we were joined by Executive Director Robb Woulfe. Under his leadership, we worked to continue our strong outreach while ensuring that our programming remained relevant, responsive to, and representative of our diverse community.

Then, one month into Robb's tenure, we shut our doors in response to county and state health guidelines to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. We shifted our programming online and outdoors while navigating this time of extraordinary change to continue to serve as a resource for our community. During the extended closure, which lasted over a year, we took the time to look inward, to assess our strengths, and to plan our next steps.

Today's MAH

2021 marks the MAH's 25th Anniversary. It is hard to believe a quarter of a century has passed since two forward-thinking community organizations joined forces to promote art and history in Santa Cruz County.

In celebrating this milestone occasion, we look forward to carrying forth what our forebears started—a longstanding tradition of enriching the Santa Cruz community with a deep understanding of our shared past, an appreciation for arts and culture, and collaborations around issues that matter.

As we look forward to the bright future that awaits us, we are proud and honored to ground our efforts in the work that came before, while conceiving of new ways to advance our mission in the current era.

The MAH is a 501c3 nonprofit organization, and your donation or membership is fully tax-deductible.

The MAH’s tax ID is 94-2718861.

See our MAH financials here.

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See how you can contribute to the future of the MAH.