Wednesday, May 10, 2017

What's More Inclusive: Food or Art? Introducing Abbott Square, Part 10

This is the tenth in a series of posts on the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH)'s development of Abbott Square, a new creative community plaza in downtown Santa Cruz.

When we started working on the food side of the Abbott Square project, it raised some basic questions about community inclusion. How could we build a market that was as diverse as our museum? Would adding a major commercial component to the project make it more or less welcoming?

Our staff and community saw these questions differently from the start. Staff members wanted to protect the MAH’s focus on reflecting the diversity of our community. We’ve worked hard for years to make the MAH a place that includes and welcomes people of all backgrounds. Success for us looks like MAH participants reflecting the age, ethnic, and economic diversity of our county. We’re very close to hitting all these targets. We didn’t want Abbott Square to be a step back on the path to community representation.

At the same time, we heard from community members how essential food was to make Abbott Square a compelling place to visit. People were hungry for more lunch, dinner, and happy hour options downtown. And the kind of food they wanted—fresh, local, diverse cuisine—didn’t lend itself to the cheapest options possible.

When we started working with the master tenant/developer on the market, he promised the market would feature “real food for real people.” Diverse chefs would present cuisines from around the world. There would be no white tablecloths—nor any table service at all. But some of us were still wary. Were we creating a gentrifying space instead of an inclusive one?

So our whole staff went to visit another public market the developer had started: San Pedro Square Market in San Jose. The food was mid-range in price. The cuisine represented many countries and flavors. The space was loud, friendly, and packed. And the staff and clientele were more ethnically diverse than any museum in the region--including ours.

Visiting San Pedro Square Market was a humbling wakeup call for me. Here we were, feeling righteous about our inclusive work, and there they were feeding a more diverse crowd than participated at the MAH.

No matter how focused we are on inclusive work at the MAH, we’re still doing it in the frame of a museum. To many people, an art museum is a more potent symbol of exclusivity and elitism than a hipster coffeeshop or a poke bar. In some communities’ eyes, art is a bigger gentrification concern than food.

Visiting San Pedro Square Market reminded me of all the community members who got excited about Abbott Square and the MAH because of the food. There are many, many people in this world who do not feel welcome, invited, or interested in museums. All those people eat. Many of them (more and more every year) eat out. More people, and more diverse people, go to restaurants than go to museums. Many people might feel a greater sense of invitation from a West African rice bowl or custom popsicle in Abbott Square Market than from MAH exhibitions.

I don’t want to discount the potential for Abbott Square Market to be a force for gentrification. It could be. We have to be attentive to its impact on the MAH community and our downtown. But I'm not willing to give the MAH or any art institution a pass in this attentiveness. I don't assume that nonprofits are automatically more inclusive than businesses.

We have to keep working on many levels to include diverse participants—and we will keep doing so, indoors and out. In Abbott Square Market, we’re working with diverse chefs, with diverse staffs, to welcome diverse customers who like to eat out. In the plaza and the museum, we're working with diverse partners, on diverse programs, to welcome diverse visitors who like to connect through creativity and culture. We’re offering many experiences, at many price points, with many partners. It’s all part of opening up the MAH to more of our community.

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