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A new executive director at the San Diego Museum Council hits the ground with the 30th annual museum month.
The Smithsonian, the Getty Center, the National Gallery in London – whether it be public funding or endowments, free museum admission means unbridled attendance and (perhaps!) global attention. Yes, San Diego has free options, but they are not available for everyone. “Residents Free Tuesday” at Balboa Park is during the workday on a Tuesday, exclusive to Balboa Park and exclusive to residents. Both the San Diego Public Library system and the San Diego County Library system offer two-week checkouts on family passes to select museums but, in San Diego Museum of Art’s case, you’d join 483 others on the waitlist for 74 passes. That’s neither a spontaneous option nor useful for tourists with set travel itineraries.
With arts institutions vying for limited funding and having to constantly innovate to stay relevant, where does access fall in each institution’s set of priorities? Nicole Miller-Coleman, the brand new executive director at the San Diego Museum Council, is hopeful that San Diego cultural institutions will always strive to increase access.
“Cost can be a barrier,” Miller-Coleman said. “What we mean by that is that getting into a museum – going to a museum – is not essential.” If individuals or families have to make decisions about commuting costs, food, housing and basic needs, a cultural experience is not on the list.
Now in its 30th year, the Museum Council’s annual Museum Month kicks off Feb. 1, and has expanded availability of half-price passes that will last the entire month. Over 75 libraries have the passes available, and (on the tourism front) passes are also available with stays at several dozen Hilton hotels. Hilton is a sponsor of the project.
“We really want to get people in museums, all the museums. Museum Month is really about that,” Miller-Coleman said.
Miller-Coleman is new to her role as executive director at the San Diego Museum Council, but she’s not new to museum culture in San Diego. She most recently served in a leadership role with the Model Railroad Museum, and has a significant background in nonprofit management and fundraising. The Museum Council, started in the 1920s with a small number of institutions banding together to innovate and share resources, is a membership-based organization that represents 40-plus museums in the county, aiming to help better connect those institutions with the city and one another.
Her aim at the start of the job? “We want to do what we’re doing now, well,” she said. Rather than work to add new programming or projects, Miller-Coleman wants to listen. In addition to surveying participating institutions and the public, she also wants to look outside the box.
“I want to talk to the museums that aren’t members,” she said. Membership fees for the San Diego Museum Council are on a sliding scale based on the size and scope of each organization.
In the long term, she wants to bring non-member institutions into the fold, such as the Centro Cultural de la Raza (“They’re not a member but they should be,” she said), as well as specifically take the temperature of existing membership.
Her broader goals seem more ambitious.
“We are fiscally strong now,” Miller-Coleman said. “We want to maintain that, but we want to grow so we can raise the visibility of regional museums to an international level.”
Tourism accounts for a significant portion of local museum attendance, according to the 2017 Economic Impact Report from the Commission for Arts and Culture. About 3.8 million tourists “participated in arts and culture activities” in 2017, the report states. But that’s just a portion of the 34 million visitors local hotels see each year, so there’s room for cultural growth. She wants people to think of San Diego and say, “‘They have really dynamic museums,’” and to put us on the map culture-wise.
A longtime San Diegan, Miller-Coleman has seen a shift in museum attendance and culture over the years.
When asked what has changed in museum culture in the years she’s lived here, developed a career here and raised her own family of museumgoers here, Miller-Coleman didn’t hesitate.
“I think what I’ve seen is professionalization of the nonprofit sector,” she said. She spoke animatedly about the ways nonprofits are increasingly helmed by individuals with degrees in nonprofit management. “It is exciting,” she said. And when an organization is run well, she said, “it just means a better experience, and it just means that the organization is not going to be gone 10, 20, 50 years in the future. They’ll be here for our grandkids.”
As someone who has the babysitting wherewithal for like, one movie a year, it may seem like San Diego has some sort of film-festival-of-envy every other weekend. But this weekend’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival is exclusive to just five cities: Amsterdam, London, Los Angeles, Toronto and San Diego. Don’t miss it.
With screenings at MOPA starting Thursday and running through the weekend, five documentaries cover ground ranging from the trans experience in the military to climate change to a small town Ohio football town facing a disturbing rape case.
Each screening features a post-film Q&A with filmmakers or the subjects. I recently watched “Roll Red Roll,” which was stunning and unsettling, and would totally consider seeing it again just to be there to meet Alex Goddard, the true crime-obsessed blogger who pointed national attention to this sheltered case (and was subsequently sued for defamation). Her line from the film sets the tone: “To me it wasn’t a very woman-friendly environment. So that’s when I started snooping around.”
Tickets range from $6 (MOPA members) or $10 (public) to $40 for a festival pass.