The Museum of Ventura County will start off 2017 by throwing open its doors to the public for the first time since August. One and all are invited to the opening ceremony on Sunday, Jan. 8, with entertainment, historic interpreters (in costume), crafts for kids and more. It’s also a chance for the community to see its “new” museum in all its glory.
The grand reopening takes place more than four months after MVC shut down in September — ostensibly for remodeling, but also in the face of financial woes. The 2010 move to its current location, coupled with the opening of the Agriculture Museum in Santa Paula and several executive directors coming and going over the last four years, have all taken their toll. “We closed because we were in a precarious financial position,” Elena Brokaw, MVC’s interim executive director, explains. “We had to change the way we did business.” The temporary shutdown was more than just a chance to change up the exhibits. It was also a time for MVC staff to reflect . . . and find ways to improve.
To that end, the museum hosted a number of community outreach meetings — in Ventura, Oxnard and Camarillo — to solicit ideas and generate a dialogue. “The museum is at a crossroads,” Brokaw announced at the Ventura meeting, held in October. “We want to ask our supporters, patrons and artists to help us chart a course for the next century.”
In January, the public will have a chance to see some of what came out of those conversations. While it hasn’t been feasible to address every item on these community “wish lists,” a number of changes have taken place with that public feedback in mind.
“One of the core issues is that there isn’t enough museum here,” Brokaw says. So exhibit space has been reclaimed wherever possible. The gift shop has a smaller footprint, the lobby is being used more effectively, and artwork has been added to the pavilion area. A space has also been created for new and emerging artists while another area is designated for Masterworks of the Museum, the most notable artists and works in the museum’s vast collection.
The courtyard has been transformed into an immersive experience with artwork, music, vegetation and more to give visitors a sense that they are “on a walk through history.” Furniture makes the space more inviting, and improved signage will help with flow.
A new mural designed and installed by Ryan Carr also decorates the courtyard. Based on the idea of “history through the trees,” Carr mixed images of different tree species with people and motifs that represent moments in the county’s history. Lemon and orange trees exemplify the citrus industry, the mission era is denoted with olive trees, and so on. The mural, which moves backward through time, concludes with Chumash people collecting acorns from coast live oaks.
Carr will be the museum’s first artist in residence, a new program developed to connect the museum with the local art community. “We’ve been talking about having more of a young artists’ collective here,” he says. “It’s going to bring in more contemporary art. And I think it will be good for the museum, and for young artists to have more opportunity to come in.”
“Local artists felt they could never show their work here,” adds Anna Bermudez, curator of exhibits and collections. “We want to change that.” Bringing in people like Carr is one way of demonstrating the museum’s commitment to inclusiveness, the philosophy driving many of the changes. More local artists — including Kevin Carman, Paul Lindhard and Andrea Vargas — are featured throughout the museum than ever before, while plans are being made for juried shows, the artists’ collective and a proposed photography group.
This inclusiveness extends to the community at large as well. Bermudez explains that in many ways, the public has “always felt that it’s a pioneer museum. It was for and about the old families here. But it’s not just for the well-to-do — it’s for everyone. . . . We’re using art from artists from across the county, and artifacts from all cultures and demographics of the county.”
“The Changing Face of Ventura County” will feature portraits of locals along with their stories. This will change monthly, and anyone can submit a headshot and story for inclusion on the museum’s newly redesigned website. “It’s another way to bring the community in,” Bermudez says. “We’re trying to bring in that feeling that this is a gathering place. You need to give people permission to come here.”
Much of MVC’s redesign has been carried out by Exhibits Designer Eric Howes. His work is particularly impressive in the revamped Chumash Gallery, where warm earth tones replace the sterile white walls, and the whole space comes alive with maps, interactive exhibits, photographs, pictographs and the Chumash myth of the creation of the stars. “It was designed as a unified space,” Howes says.
Under Howes’ direction, the George Stuart Historical Figures® Gallery (for which Howes serves as curator) got a facelift, too. Patrons can see his handiwork in Really Awful People, the latest exhibit featuring the most notorious villains in Stuart’s one-quarter life-size figure collection. Suitably, he’s brought a touch of drama to the exhibit. “I’ve done it very theatrically,” Howes says, adding that a brand-new, never-before-seen figure will be unveiled at the grand opening.
More changes are in store at the museum over the upcoming months and years: digital installations, a community gallery, a historical exhibit, even a video series starring “Chief Curiosity Correspondent” Charles Johnson, director of the Research Library. “It’s not just the physical space,” says Brokaw. “We’re committed to doing a program series.”
One thing is certain: This is not the same place that went on hiatus in September. This is a new museum, with a different look and a new plan for community engagement going into the future. “And once we get done with this . . . we’ll get started on the Agriculture Museum in Santa Paula,” Bermudez says.
The year 2017 will truly be a landmark year for one of the county’s most important institutions.
The Museum of Ventura County will host a “Splendors of the Season” fundraising gala on Saturday, Jan. 7, at 6 p.m. The grand opening celebration will be on Sunday, Jan. 8, from noon to 5 p.m. For more information, call 653-0323 or visit https://venturamuseum.org.