Upon entering the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) on the initial First Friday of the new year, students, families and experienced Santa Cruz locals alike discovered a lobby full of toy train choo-choos and chatter. While mingling and observing, people enjoyed beer and juice in the staircase while other participants formed groups around photographs, installation art and old relics of Santa Cruz history in the exhibition rooms.

“The idea is to bring people together from different backgrounds and break down the stereotypes of a museum as a quiet solitary experience,” said MAH executive director Nina Simon. “People will be more attracted to art as a social experience. The fact that you can drop in and out means there is not this sense of having to go to a place and commit to [a certain amount] of hours, but you can just include art into your weekend.”

Since the event is free and provides a casual and fun space, everyone from the community has the opportunity to experience MAH’s art and culture.

“First Friday makes art very accessible for anyone,” said 33-year-old Santa Cruz resident Eric Rickter. “People can be intimidated by museums. But First Friday really democratizes art. It is important in our community in particular because in Santa Cruz, self-expression is not only tolerated but encouraged.”

MAH also offers hands-on art activity at every First Friday. Past activities range from a watercolor class to printmaking to handsewn crafts. One Friday, visitors made shoebox rooms, where they constructed miniature rooms in empty shoeboxes with popsicle stick hardwood floors, scrap wood furniture and rugs of fabric swatches.

“[With] the art activity we have, people can not only view and contemplate the art on the wall but also participate in actively making art,” said MAH community programs coordinator Nora Grant, who leads First Friday.

The museum offers interactive art as well as open exhibitions with art ranging from funhouse mirrors and old photographs from the exhibit on Santa Cruz history to metal work necklaces and a life size robot from the metal arts guild exhibit.

However, a key part of First Friday is the social environment it encourages.

“Every First Friday, there is an energetic and interested crowd,” said MAH student volunteer Lorraine Affourtit. “It’s a space where people are meeting other interested parties with new initiatives. It really activates interest in trying something new and asking challenging questions.”

With toddlers dragging their parents away from discussions with student volunteers and local artists and students mingling in galleries, there are many possibilities for new social interactions.

“There are a lot of unexpected connections because of all the different people walking in and out of the door,” Grant said. “You never know who you’re going to meet and talk with.”

The next First Friday on Feb. 7 will feature several bands focusing on guitar music and the 10th annual “Fun-A-Day” group art show in which contributors made a piece of art each day for a month, in addition to the museum’s many current exhibitions.

“My dream is that we really try to see how we can take the energy of First Friday and take it throughout the month,” said MAH executive director Nina Simon. “We want to infuse the feel of First Friday into every Friday so people will consider going to check out some art [while] they’re downtown.”