Santa Barbara

On a Tilt Toward Art with new curators and new energy, Santa Barbara finds itself on target with its citywide Off-Axis show. by Kim Beil

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This cover photo of “Mentors”, an 18′ bronze fountain by Aris Demetrios, serves as the focal point of the Santa Barbara City College, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

As if Santa Barbara’s longtime reputation as a breezy, arty oasis by the sea wasn’t enough, now the U.S. Census Bureau has proven it. When the National Endowment for the Arts released its “Artists in the Workforce” study in June 2008, it came as little surprise that according to U.S. census reports, more than one-fifth of all practicing artists live in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Washington, DC, and Boston. On average, artists constitute 1.4 percent of the total workforce in the country. As could be expected, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles were all at the top of the list (L.A. ranks third, with 3.26 percent of its workforce claiming artistic professions.) Beyond these major artistic capitals, several smaller communities-such as Santa Fe, NM and Boulder, CO-also reflected higher concentrations of professional artists than other cities. Based on 2000 census data, Santa Barbara ranks ninth on the NEA’s list, boasting 4,359 artists out of a total workforce of 193,717. Artists thus represent 2.25 percent of the working population in this idyllic Southern California town nestled between the ocean and the mountains.

Even considering its proximity to Los Angeles, Santa Barbara still inspires a unique community of practicing artists and patrons of the arts. With the aim of showcasing this vibrant population of artistic producers, more than a dozen Santa Barbara organizations come together every two years for a month-long festival celebration of contemporary arts called “Off-Axis.” This year celebrating its second incarnation, the festival takes its name from Santa Barbara’s south-facing coastline. With a packed schedule that features special programming at all of the major institutions, as well as non-traditional venues and temporary artists’ spaces set up around the city, the event’s organizers hope not only to encourage visitors to think of Santa Barbara as a destination for contemporary art, but also to remind residents that there is a wealth of artistic and cultural offerings available throughout the year. Edward Cella of Edward Cella Art + Architecture says, “Santa Barbara is kind of the farthest bedroom community of Los Angeles, in my mind. It’s definitely a part of what’s going on there, and yet it’s definitely separate.” Off-Axis represents this push-pull dynamic, a result of the city’s effort to both attract a broader audience and still retain its own highly individual character.

Kathryn Kanjo, who has been Director of the University Art Museum (UAM) at the University of California, Santa Barbara for nearly two years, describes the relationship between these neighboring artistic centers as a kind of “call and response.” Kanjo elaborates, “You have a broader context happening just 90 miles away. There’s dialogue and content out there that our audience is taking advantage of and to which we are able to respond.” In this vein, later this fall the UAM will act as an off-site venue for the Orange County Museum of Art’s 2008 California Biennial, showing new work by three biennial artists, Anna Sew Hoy, Shana Lutker, and Brenna Youngblood.

Kanjo, who came to Santa Barbara after ten years as the Director of Artpace San Antonio, an ambitious residency and contemporary art exhibition program, was the first in a wave of accomplished directors and curators who have been steadily filling the gaps in the infrastructure of the city’s arts institutions over the past two years. Kanjo recently brought on Elyse Gonzales, formerly of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, to fill the UAM’s long-vacant Curator of Contemporary Art position. The Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA) has also appointed a new Director, Larry Feinberg, who was Curator in the Department of Medieval through Modern European Painting and Modern European Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago. Julie Joyce, former director of the Harriet and Charles Luckman Fine Arts Complex at California State University, Los Angeles, will join SBMA in September as Curator of Contemporary Art. Meanwhile, Westmont College’s Reynolds Gallery announced this summer that the college will start construction on a new building, the Adams Center for the Visual Arts, and the gallery space will expand by 400 percent under the supervision of yet another newly appointed director, Judy Larson, who was most recently the Director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC.

Frank Goss of Sullivan Goss: An American Gallery, effusively refers to this distinguished group of museum professionals as “the front runners of some fabulous team, like the Yankees’ Murderers’ Row!” He continues, “We’re experiencing a renaissance in Santa Barbara way beyond anybody’s anticipation.” Sullivan Goss has been in Santa Barbara for seventeen years, the longest-running gallery still existent in the city today. Jeremy Tessmer, who is curator of Sullivan Goss’s 20th century holdings, suggests that the gallery’s original objective was to be the West coast source for important American impressionists like Childe Hassam and Ashcan founder Robert Henri, helped to create a culture that encouraged patrons to expect high-quality art in Santa Barbara. Since the beginning, Sullivan Goss has claimed a large exhibition space and comprehensive holdings in 19th and 20th century American art, but they have recently almost doubled their physical footprint and expanded their scope to include works of contemporary American art.

Goss and Tessmer anticipate a resurgence of local interest in works on paper as institutions across the city become better equipped to care for and exhibit their holdings in these fragile media. The bulk of the UAM’s holdings is in its 750,000-object Architecture and Design collection and, according to Larson, the new museum at Westmont College has been promised an annual gift of prints by a Westmont alumni couple to jumpstart their growing collection. Larson says, “There’s always been a strong studio component here at Westmont. It makes sense that these young printmakers should be able to look at historic prints.” In the new Adams Center for the Visual Arts the museum space and studios for arts instruction will be united, not only by proximity, but also in purpose, as Larson aims to more fully integrate the art museum into campus life.

Miki Garcia, Director of Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum (CAF) recalls that when she came to town three and a half years ago, there was already a strong recognition of the importance of contemporary art in the community, but that the growth since then has been “exponential.” She elaborates, “Off-Axis is really a city-wide institutional effort to promote the area at a level that’s legitimate and rigorous and scholarly.” Feinberg concurs. “People from Los Angeles may be attracted to Santa Barbara as a beautiful place to visit but we’ll be giving them another very strong reason to come here.”

Among the events planned for Off-Axis is the biannual State of the Art Gallery, a public art installation organized by the City of Santa Barbara and the County Arts Commission, a group of county-appointed advisors who consult on arts projects and policies across Santa Barbara. The State of the Art exhibition features a group of eight large-scale sculptures, selected by Dean Anes of ACME, Los Angeles, to be installed on State Street, the city’s central boulevard, which begins at the beach and reaches north, climbing the hill towards the Santa Barbara Mission. Along the way, visitors can take in a variety of the city’s restaurants, cafes and shops. Sullivan Goss, Edward Cella Art + Architecture, and SBMA are clustered at the north end of State Street, just one block south of the newly remodeled Grenada Theater and one block west of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, w
hose landmark tower offers a splendid view over the red tile roofs of the city.

Balanced at the mid-point of State Street’s shopping district, near the elegant courtyard and fountains of the historic adobe compound which houses the Santa Barbara Historical Society, are Patty Look Lewis Gallery and CAF. Patty Look Lewis, a fifth-generation Santa Barbara resident, represents the estates of notable Santa Barbara artists including the painter and muralist Channing Peake and collage-artist William Dole. A new group of galleries and shops have emerged in a former industrial district that is now fondly referred to as “The Funk Zone.” At the edge of this zone, one finds East/West Gallery, a small space with an impressive collection of modern and contemporary photography, including the estate of Horace Bristol and works by Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and Bruce Weber. Anchoring the area is The Arts Fund Gallery, a non-profit space that provides essential funding and exhibition opportunities to county artists. The Arts Fund has also recently welcomed a new Executive Director, Nina Dunbar, who was formerly a curator and project manager of public art for the San Francisco Arts Commission.

Though these changes in the city’s arts leadership are likely still too fresh to dramatically impact the programming for this year’s Off-Axis, an air of optimism has already permeated the arts community. (In recent years, SBMA has offered a wide range of exhibitions, spanning from a 2007 survey of Modernist Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo to this summer’s show on classic Hollywood photography, which runs through October 5). Feinberg’s vision for SBMA positions the institution as an emerging leader of avant-garde contemporary art exhibitions. He says, “We’ll be doing exhibitions of international importance. We’re already looking at our schedule for the coming years and considering shows on van Gogh, da Vinci, and Pollock, as well as really trying to find the important emerging artists and showcase them here in Santa Barbara.”

The Contemporary Arts Forum, located in a second floor space in the heart of State Street, lives up to its name as a vital nexus for emerging regional and national artists. Garcia describes her institution as “artist-centric.” She says, “We function as a space where we can give resources to artists not only through exhibitions, but through publications and by bringing exhibitions to town that they might not normally see so close to home.” Citing a 2006 study by the Urban Institute, Garcia describes that while a considerable percentage of Americans recognize that art is important, a “drastically lower number of people think that artists are important. This,” she says, “is a really important point that we try to address through our programming at CAF. We need to make sure that the artists who are practicing here have spaces to go, spaces to show their work, spaces in which to express themselves.” True to this goal, for Off-Axis CAF will be featuring the work of Jean-Pierre Hébert, a Santa Barbara-based artist who creates highly mathematical computer-aided drawings. In the project space, CAF will show conceptual abstractions that push the limits of mechanical reproduction by Paris-based Julien Audebert. Santa Barbara City CollegeÕs Atkinson Gallery will also present an exhibition of bold, abstract large-scale drawings by UK-born, Santa Barbara-based artist, Colin Gray, a Pollock-Krasner grant winner who has previously shown at Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Santa Monica.

Cella says, “Santa Barbara really thinks of itself as a creative place, a place where art, media, and design are part of the character, the DNA of the community. And the city is in a very special place right now. Los Angeles has become one of the great centers of art anywhere and Santa Barbara has always had this great relationship with L.A. Because Santa Barbara is on the outside we sort of have this ringside seat to those developments and meanwhile our community’s arts institutions have really matured and grown.” Cella cites his upcoming show of the Santa Barbara-based abstractionist Ann Diener and the resoundingly positive reception to Diener’s show this winter at Bank in Los Angeles. He says, “I think there’s a real opportunity for opening that dialogue and starting a conversation of sorts between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles.” Cella’s shows are also frequently in dialogue with regional institutions, such as his September exhibition of Modernist architectural renderings by Carlos Diniz-considered the premier renderer of the era-which will share programming with the UAMÕs exhibition of architectural work by Edward Killingsworth.

“Santa Barbara is a like a little Athens,” marvels Feinberg. “The potential here is just enormous. I think that one simply has to provide cultural opportunities at the same level of excellence as the quality of life.” The plethora of events and exhibitions planned for this October present an ideal opportunity to take the temperature of Santa Barbara’s changing art scene. Visitors to this extraordinarily beautiful and sophisticated city on the coast will likely find that one trip becomes just the appetizer course to a year-round feast of dynamic cultural offerings for which they will want to return.

To download a PDF of the Santa Barbara Supplement, please click here.

To download a PDF of the Off-Axis Calendar, please click here.