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The Art of Relevance

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What do the London Science Museum, California Shakespeare Theater, and ShaNaNa have in common? They are all fighting for relevance in an often indifferent world. The Art of Relevance is your guide to mattering more to more people. You’ll find inspiring examples, rags-to-relevance case studies, research-based frameworks, and practical advice on how your work can be more vital to your community. Whether you work in museums or libraries, parks or theaters, churches or afterschool programs, relevance can work for you. Break through shallow connection. Unlock meaning for yourself and others. Find true relevance and shine.

196 pages, Paperback

First published June 14, 2016

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About the author

Nina Simon

10 books125 followers
I write stories about strong women. My first novel, MOTHER-DAUGHTER MURDER NIGHT, about an estranged family who come together to solve a murder mystery, is coming this September from William Morrow.

I've been inhaling books all my life, but writing was always a side obsession for me. In college, I was an electrical engineering student by day and a slam poet by night. After a brief stint at NASA, I started designing interactive exhibits and eventually became a museum director. I wrote two books of nonfiction about creating participatory, relevant, joyful cultural institutions. But I always thought of nonprofits as my "real" job and writing on the side.

Then, my mom got sick. I quit my job to help care for her, and I found myself turning to fiction--crime stories especially--as a way to escape and find some pleasure during a hard time. My mom and I both always loved mysteries, and I decided to try to write one myself, with a detective/hero based on my mother. Now, my mom is doing better, and I'm gratefully spending my days writing stories, reading obsessively, loving my mom, and putting books at the center of my work for the first time.

I live off-the-grid in the Santa Cruz mountains with my family and friends. You can find out more about me at https://ninaksimon.com/

I write a very occasional newsletter at https://ninaksimon.substack.com/

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5 stars
196 (34%)
4 stars
246 (42%)
3 stars
114 (19%)
2 stars
16 (2%)
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3 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 80 reviews
Profile Image for Inge.
313 reviews
August 4, 2016
I really love the way that Nina Simon writes - this book is such an easy and fun read, which makes it fantastic because now everyone in museumland can read this and DO this.. I wish. I so deeply agree with all of The Art of Relevance, but it makes me so sad that so much of this is not happening in museums and I am too small a person to make it happen. Oh, if only I were a director.. ;)

Side-note: I really missed the academic underpinnings in this book. Although now it really was an easy read, a lot of times I felt like Simon could have gone a bit deeper into the material, the theory especially, to give her arguments more depth. In the chapters on insiders/outsiders, for example, I really would have welcomed her views on Bourdieu, who seems implicitly there in her writing in this bit. In short, I would have liked a bit more references, to see where Simon is coming from as well as be able to read more in-depth about certain themes.

But all in all: definitely a must-read (and must-do!) for every museum professional.
Profile Image for Jasper Visser.
7 reviews
June 23, 2016
"Communities are people. They are not abstractions. They are not rhetoric. They are human beings."

Nina Simon has again written a smart, anecdote-filled, activist and (I have to say) relevant book for all professionals in the arts, culture and heritage who want to invite more people into their world, be more welcoming, and change the world for the better. The book is a pleasure to read. Short and snappy, its message is crystal clear, and you can get through it in one proper sit.

I'm aware the message of this book will not resonate with everybody. A lot of professionals will disregard the message as just another attempt to turn culture into a tool for social change, which they believe it's not. Although Simon provides counter arguments to people who feel they and their institutions are already relevant enough, regardless of their relevance to communities, we would be helped by strong voices who repeat the message of the book over and over. I hope Simon's Participatory Museum fame will help spread her ideas beyond the people - like me - already believing in them.

What I enjoyed most about the book are the many stories of individuals and institutions making a change by being relevant. I would have loved to read more international case studies, but I take that as a call to action.

Reading the book, I clearly see how much Simon has grown during her time at the Santa Cruz MAH and I am curious to learn how far her star will continue to rise.
Profile Image for Paul.
1,203 reviews192 followers
September 26, 2019
A must-read for any institution attempting to reach marginalized populations.
Profile Image for Erin.
272 reviews2 followers
March 25, 2019
I absolutely devoured this book! It is such a breath of fresh air! Full of meaningful insights, quirky witticisms, and relevant case studies, this book shows the importance of making your work relevant to your community, the current zeitgeist, and potential demographics of people!
Profile Image for Hanna.
27 reviews
January 25, 2021
Sehr interessant und bringt einen zum Nachdenken, wie man seine "Kunden" sieht... Teilweise im 3 Kapital sehr langatmig. Mit kam es so vor, als hätte die Autorin selbst Schwierigkeiten ihre Gedanken hier in Worte zu fassen. Aber der Rest holt es wieder raus und es liest sich sehr gut.
Profile Image for Elizabeth Schlatter.
507 reviews9 followers
June 11, 2018
I feel guilty not giving this book 5 stars because Simon has enabled anyone to read it for FREE, which is wonderfully generous. It's a nice companion to Simon's "Participatory Museum," which focuses on interactive strategies for all sorts of museum exhibitions, programs, collections, PR, etc., you name it. This book is more focused on how to find out what sorts of communities (plural by all definitions) could find resonance with your institution, and how to go about finding those communities, learning from them, inviting them in, and sustaining their engagement. The book is a bit repetitive, and I wish Simon would go deeper with some ideas and examples. There's an overall perspective of "this didn't work" but "this did work" - case closed. And that might be due to Simon's very accessible writing style. But a lot of the organizations that she mentioned and that I looked up hadn't been around very long so I wondered how sustainable they would be. And I would like to see some critical analysis of these organizations -- things can't always be 100% positive, right? What are some of the hiccups and/or failures that come about from changing things? And how does an organization gain a longer-term perspective on the benefits it offers its community? I was probably seeking something a bit more research based and nuanced. But that said, Simon provides some great steps on how to think about and change your museum's "relevance." So I'm glad I read it.
Profile Image for Liz Norell.
324 reviews6 followers
September 6, 2020
This isn't the kind of book I normally read, and its utility to my own work and way of being is unclear. But I picked it up -- and stuck with it -- after a recommendation by a graphic design colleague I admire and trust greatly. The key premise Nina Simon explores here is the importance of finding your mission / purpose, identifying your target communities / audience, then balancing your desire to evangelize about your unique offerings with listening to the needs of your community around your mission. It's an inevitable push and pull; I have great content (or artifacts), but I also must constantly look for new ways to make what I have relevant to -- indeed, in service to -- you. This is a book that invites stepping back from the day-to-day. I have much to mull over, although my work rarely affords me the opportunity to make the systemic choices that Simon's book nudges creatives to engage. Still, I enjoyed this different perspective from a person doing quite different work than I.
Profile Image for Elizabeth Bostelman.
140 reviews1 follower
October 20, 2017
Museum/non-profit peeps, read this book! It helped me to see relevance not as a "thing" to be chased and change but something that is always there you just need to give the public a key to what is cool about your institution! Read it!!!
Profile Image for Sian Lile-Pastore.
1,190 reviews150 followers
May 5, 2020
I liked this - a good one for musuem workers. Easy to read, accessible with lots of good stories and examples. Do think it was a little bit surfacy and the whole key/room analogy went a bit far. Also thought it probably could have done with some references. But really liked It and it has lots of valuable insights.
Profile Image for Bob Garrett.
162 reviews6 followers
April 26, 2017
Museum professional Nina Simon is big on community engagement for museums.  She loves to talk about museums "building rooms" and "building doors" and giving community people "keys" to the magnificent doors to these magnificent rooms.

"The more someone uses a key, the more it becomes a part of them.  The room changes them, and they change the room."  So sayeth Ms. Simon.

If this sounds very "hippie dippie," then, well, that's because it is.  It's not nonsense, mind you, and this book does provide some potentially valuable discussion fodder for professionals in cultural institutions.  I'm just not crazy about the presentation.  I suspect that much of what Ms. Simon says here isn't new, but she has possibly devised a new way of saying it.  If adopting her vocabulary helps some cultural institution staff engage with the public, then by all means, those people should adopt it.  For me, Ms. Simon's message has a bit of religious fervor to it that I find a little uncomfortable.  She herself makes an analogy with religious evangelism in the book's final section.  "At its heart, building relevance is about...radiating the inside out and inviting the outside in," she writes, adding that, "No one does this better than religious organizations."

Simon fills her book with anecdotes of museums having successes with her philosophy.  The problem here is that she gives none of her examples any critical scrutiny. Did all the museums in question really experience no difficulties or drawbacks in the community engagement programs that they adopted?  Did any feel that they could have done some things differently?  Did any feel that their new approach possibly shut out other potential audiences, even as it attracted new ones?  If you have these questions, you won't find answers here. We are instead left with the impression that all these programs were unqualified successes.

I want to stress again that I am not dismissing Ms. Simon's ideas.  I certainly don't disagree with her, for example, that cultural institutions should listen to the audience that they want to reach and can benefit from community collaborations.  I'm just not convinced that this book is quite the sacred text that Ms. Simon seems to think it is.  Rather, I wonder if cultural institution professionals could, perhaps, use a little more critical analysis and a little less of the "pure truth and the way."

Profile Image for Cheryl Turoczy Hart.
505 reviews2 followers
February 22, 2023
I signed up for a webinar on relevance. It didn't seem totally "relevant" to what I do--aimed at museums and other more arty institutions--but all organizations providing programs and services have something in common so I signed up. Nina Simon's TED talk was suggested as an introduction. Having a little time on my hands--it is the pandemic after all--I watched the TED talk...and I was hooked. The webinar, which was recorded but hasn't been posted yet, just sunk the hook a little deeper and her book, which is FREE online, reeled me in. Just what I needed during this very negative time. Now if we could all just get back to work...
Profile Image for Catherine.
1,571 reviews232 followers
November 14, 2016
The Art of Relevance made some interesting (and sometimes profound) points that encouraged me to turn my gaze inward and examine where I currently stand and - more importantly - where I'm willing to go, but it also felt uncomfortably at points like it was preaching to the choir. I will say that Simon's writing style is infinitely accessible to the seasoned museum professional and wider community members alike.
Profile Image for Eve Schaub.
Author 3 books91 followers
March 25, 2021
Nina Simon lives up to her billing as a museum visionary. I was utterly persuaded by her recurring metaphor of"keys and doors" to institutions that admit some communities but appear closed or invisible to others. The overarching question of The Art of Relevance is this: how does an institution become more important to more people?

Her writing style is a little perfunctory— idea- example. Idea- example— but hits every key point: what is the difference between being relevant and being fashionable? What is the difference between what people "want" and what people "need"? Is it okay to make our content "fun"?

I believe Simon's ideas are applicable to lots of different contexts- not solely institutions. If you want to find a new audience for just about anything, I think this book will help you think outside the box to make it happen.
Profile Image for Heather Hope.
11 reviews1 follower
September 1, 2018
I am a fan of Simon's work. While she writes mostly about museums, her work and thoughts apply equally across the arts and across ther nonprofit sector. This book is very conversational, filled with stories and imagery and ideas, but it's also very engrossing and grabbed me from the beginning. I recommend it to anyone who is thinking about inclusion and community and the dreaded it-word "relevance."

This book doesn't have the academic approach you might be looking for - there's no statistical analysis or census data, but what there IS is an approachable narrative style that will get you thinking and ready to implement change.
Profile Image for Antonio.
89 reviews8 followers
September 17, 2020
This book is addressed to museum professionals mostly. It discusses how organizations can matter to their targeted communities. It defines relevance and some interesting concepts (insiders-outsiders) and illustrates ideas with metaphors (key, door, etc.). The most interesting chapter for me was focused on how program activities that are relevant; I liked the shift from collections and content to program and format. It is very clear, easy to read, and the chapters are very short, and the author used many stories and concrete examples. The main weakness is perhaps that it does not offer many cues like bibliographic references to keep reading about the topic.
Profile Image for Laurel.
225 reviews1 follower
August 25, 2017
Not a book I would normally pick up, but it left an impact. In a nutshell the message is: does your work have relevance? Using case studies nationally and through her own work at the MAH Simon dives into what it means for an organization to be relevant to the community it serves. I definitely thought about this connects to the world of education, and understood how this impacted the work I did in the classroom. A good read for someone who wants to understand how to connect with their community, whatever that may be.
Profile Image for Hannah.
110 reviews1 follower
September 10, 2018
What a great book! Very accessible- Simon uses short chapters and plenty of examples to help express the idea of relevance. How to provide new keys/doorways to your institution, building trust and community, "buying in", etc. I found this incredibly useful and thought provoking in my own work. It now makes me look not just at my programs, but at my building itself, in a new light. I can see myself referring back to this book many times in my future. Highly recommended, particularly for anyone working in non-profits/educational institutes, etc.
Profile Image for Laurel.
736 reviews
June 23, 2017
Excellent, thought-provoking, and easy to digest. Quite different from the Participatory Museum which has taken me some time to get through. Many chapters are brief and, I believe, former blog posts. Some great examples from the museum field and other areas (such as her Dad who is in the band ShaNaNa, how awesome is that??) to illustrate her points. One criticism, I do wish the key/door/room theme was not so prevalent because it became hackneyed very quickly.
Profile Image for Heather G.
76 reviews
July 21, 2017
Simon's message and approach resonate beyond museum applications. This book is highly relevant (sorry!) to broader cultural studies fields -- such as my own: cultural sustainability. It's so important to engage the communities we work with as partners...

Like other reviewers here, I would have appreciated more in terms of theory or citations for publications that informed Simon's thinking. That said, the book is highly accessible and lays important groundwork that will inspire.
Profile Image for brittney.
4 reviews
January 3, 2020
This is an interesting read about how to improve museums in regards to their cultural significance, and Nina Simon is a great speaker and authority on what these changes look like. I enjoyed her use of non-museum examples, though I feel like those working front-line staff at museums will just silently nod in agreement about how much has to change.

The biggest thing about texts like these is that the people who need to read them don’t, and the people who do read them already agree.
Profile Image for Haley Chambers.
41 reviews2 followers
February 25, 2022
I was assigned to read this book for class and went into it with the homework mindset—just get it done. I was pleasantly surprised, however. This book is essentially one quick case study after case study with very insightful commentary throughout. It is a helpful book for reframing how we relate to others and the world around us. I recommend reading this book if you are in a profession that requires bringing people into your space or business.
Profile Image for Amber Nagy.
43 reviews1 follower
May 18, 2017
Pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed this book as much as I did. Only started reading it for a book club at work, and enjoyed the short vignettes on relevance in the public sector. Each section is pretty short and includes an example of an actual museum or program, so the book flows really well. Definitely recommend.
Profile Image for Alissa.
2,196 reviews33 followers
September 7, 2018
I heard the author speak at our state library conference and I'm finally reading the book. This is something I can dip into again and again as I think about what step to take next at the library. Filled with interesting examples and thought provoking questions I can't wait to discuss this with someone! I especially appreciated her analogy of doors and keys.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
363 reviews9 followers
September 24, 2019
I saw Nina Simon speak at the ILA 2016 Conference in Rosemont. She was a fantastic speaker and energizing in how libraries can move into space for the people, rather than we own the space and the people just use it. Her book was interesting and a recap of her ideas she talked about, but a little too case specific.
45 reviews
January 31, 2021
This book is revolutionary in it’s simplicity. Almost every insight in this book is so fundamental to community engagement that when reading it, all of the points feel obvious. I found myself saying “of course” throughout. But the genius of this book is naming those truths, and stating them in an easy to understand, easy to *take action* on way. If I was still working in the arts/community engagement I would buy this book and read it many times. I’ll be honest, though, it made me feel very relieved that I’ve left the field. The reason I gave this 4 stars instead of 5 is because I was a bit disappointed in the ending. I had hoped the thesis would crescendo in some way, but instead it was a bit repetitive throughout. Everything that was repeated was well worth repeating, though, so I would wholeheartedly recommend this.
Profile Image for Julia.
395 reviews
August 11, 2022
This book could have used some editing: probably would have worked as a 20 page version, but what is that even called/how do you publish that? Literally the same sentence repeated twice.

The content was good, the metaphor helpful, but I would have liked more organization to the book, which would have helped communicate the content better.
Profile Image for Hannah Hethmon.
Author 2 books9 followers
September 22, 2018
This isn't just for museum people. Simon distills what it takes to be relevant down to its core, and leaves you with something that can be applied to any endeavor. If you are working in the public interest, this is a must-read.
Want to read
June 5, 2020
I saw a community (people) falling because they lake what art and it's relevance is. I give plus to those whom they are sleepless to see that art give life to communities. As water covered the sea so as art covered our lives.
38 reviews
December 3, 2021
This book contains valuable lessons for anyone striving to make their personal mission, group, or institution relevant to others. Simon writes (and reads her book) in easily relatable prose to which we can all relate.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 80 reviews

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