After decades of changes and challenges — a 6.9 magnitude earthquake in 1989 to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 — the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) continues to bring the Santa Cruz community together through pop-up art shows and virtual exhibitions.  

Since its inception, the MAH has grown as a creative hub for Santa Cruz. Despite the pandemic, they welcomed over 95,000 guests in-person and virtually last year, nearly matching their previous year totals. This upcoming year, the MAH has new exhibitions planned in celebration of its 25th anniversary, including a collection of artworks and objects from their permanent collection titled “Twenty-Five.”

“During the past 25 years, history is just as much a part of us as the art is,” said Robb Woulfe, executive director of the MAH. “But [the “Twenty-Five” exhibition] will be a mashup, it’ll be very eclectic, and hopefully reflects how this community comes together.” 

Becoming a part of the Santa Cruz community

In the late 1970s, the Santa Cruz Public Library offered LA artist Chuck Hilger and other creatives a six-year space for their gallery, sowing the seeds of the MAH collection. After their time at the Public Library, artists displayed their collections at various places, including the former residence of the Pacific Bell Telephone Company, and eventually a space in downtown Santa Cruz.

In the mid-1980s, the Art Museum of Santa Cruz County and Santa Cruz Historical Society came together to build the McPherson Center for Art and History with funding from one of the MAH founders and current Santa Cruz County Supervisor Brucer McPherson. 

With donations and federal grant money, the McPherson Center was able to recover after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, which took down the building the museum planned to relocate to, and expanded to the Octagon Building and the Abbott Square Plaza. The Art Museum of Santa Cruz County and Santa Cruz Historical Society combined in 1996 as the MAH we know today.

Upcoming events 

In February 2020, Robb Woulfe walked into a new job as the Executive Director of the MAH. Three weeks later, the doors to the museum closed, and Woulfe and his team were put to the task of finding new ways to give the Santa Cruz community locally made installations and art exhibitions.

The collection, “Twenty-Five,” will be on display this summer virtually, and potentially in-person, from May 21 to July 25. The MAH will display a celebratory collection of artworks and objects from their permanent collection that include pieces from the past 25 years. 

“[‘Twenty-Five’] was this idea that we, as an organization, as an institution…wrestle with our relevance and what we mean, and what we are as institutions going forward,” Woulfe said. “And for us, part of the plan and part of what the MAH has always been so good about, is getting out of our four walls.”

The exhibition “At the Present Moment” is a collaboration between the MAH and UC Santa Cruz’s student-run Sesnon Underground gallery. It’s a virtual gallery that focuses on creative projects produced over the past nine months. It will feature select pieces from UCSC students and various media on the Sesnon Underground website and social media. 

According to UCSC alumni and current MAH Outreach Coordinator Helen Aldana, the museum is a bridge between students and Santa Cruz, highlighting creativity that sustains bonds in the community.

Curator and student gallery manager for the Sesnon Gallery on campus, Edie Trautwein, has been working with the MAH on the collaboration. She is excited for UCSC students to connect with other creatives and be able to show their work on a large scale with this new exhibition.

“I certainly think that there’s a lot of potential to have a lasting relationship between both spaces,” Trautwein said. “Because the gallery and the museum both serve the same purpose culturally for Santa Cruz to offer a space for art and to offer space for community.”

Closed last March, the MAH hopes to re-open with limited capacity once Santa Cruz County reduces COVID restrictions. Students can submit here to the showcase for the MAH and the Sesnon Underground’s student exhibition, until Feb. 2.