Arts organizations routinely compete over the toughest consumer territory there is — the space of wonder. And here in Santa Barbara, where every bend in Mountain Drive reveals another astonishing vista, the natural environment itself is perpetually capable of producing the elusive “wow” factor that all of our cultural institutions covet. Perhaps that’s why our best arts organizations are constantly innovating — to keep pace not only with each other, but with the infinite capacity of our natural setting — to saturate everyday life with unforgettable beauty.
At the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, two recent initiatives seek to unlock the potential significance not only of the museum’s extraordinary collection, but also of the rich community in which we live:
• During Nights, the museum becomes a theater and a playground for Santa Barbara’s business and arts crowd to flirt, mix, and merge with the augmented art experiences concocted monthly by museum education staffer Kristy Thomas. • In Picture Stories, the museum’s latest version of its evolving project to re-display the permanent collection, the curators have taken the emphasis off of traditional art history as chronology, and put it onto the web of meaning that extends through imagery, subject matter, and the individual viewer’s imagination.
As different as night and day, these two programs nevertheless emerge from the same impulse, which locates meaning where culture really happens — in people.
A Journey Through Picture Stories: The Art of Europe and the Americas
by Beth Taylor-Schott
The Santa Barbara Museum of Art has been shaking things up since last September with a new hanging of its permanent collection, Picture Stories: The Art of Europe and the Americas. It’s hard not to notice the difference in the Sterling Morton West gallery, for example. If you are looking for stylistic unity, or even expecting to find just one artistic medium, the room looks like a jumble. The Northern Renaissance and Baroque masters Dürer and Rembrandt share a wall with the modern artist Frederico Cantú, their delicate engravings and etchings adjacent to another wall bearing an enormous photo-collage by the Guatemalan artist Luis Gonzàles-Palma. Elsewhere, a 19th-century French academic painting by Jules Breton confronts a monumental quasi-cubist charcoal by Alfredo Ramos Martínez. On top of all of this, the room includes a painting by Chagall, prints by Picasso, and a model of a pediment by the neoclassical sculptor John Flaxman.
If you stop looking just at the style, and instead focus on the subjects of the works, the room hangs together remarkably well. Mythic and religious figures, gestures, and objects appear and reappear as one moves from piece to piece. In one of Rembrandt’s etchings, we see Christ crucified on the cross, while across the room in the Martínez, two women pray before a figure of Christ on a crucifix. One of these women holds a taper in a gesture that is a near-mirror image of the figure in Breton’s “The Pardon,” another depiction of female piety, which it faces. Back on the other side of the room, Dürer’s St. Philip holds a cross up in front of himself as if it were a candle, and on and on. In a similar manner, centaurs and nymphs cavort throughout the gallery in prints, photographs, and wax relief, interpreted by artists of different centuries and continents. It is easy to imagine many connections between the works here: connections between one artist and another, between different cultures, and between different eras and places.
This play upon theme and subject matter continues to a greater and lesser degree in all of the galleries that feature the permanent collection. At times a roughly chronological arrangement seems in place. At other points, it is clearly turned on its head. You need to look closely in order to recognize the deviations from the usual historical narrative in the Campbell gallery, for example, where religious paintings dominate, and where one might not notice at first the historical distance between, say, the 19th-century New Mexican retablos and the 16th-century Russian icons, precisely because the two seem on first glance to share a basic visual language.
In the Preston Morton gallery, on the other hand, the visual correspondences between strikingly different depictions of the human figure are impossible to miss, and all the more entertaining for it. This gallery offers us the chance to contemplate an Edward Weston nude alongside a Degas drawing of a dancer next to a photograph of Martha Graham. It encourages us to look back and forth between the works on the walls and the sculpture on the floor, helping us see correspondences between a Maillol torso, for example, and the painted Dali figure behind it; or between a Mercié sculpture, a John Singer Sargent painting of a sculpture, and a Braque depiction of a figure so nearly monochromatic that it seems sculptural itself.
This new way of arranging art in a museum goes against a strong tradition. In the permanent collection of most museums the art is arranged in chronological order. Duccio comes before Giotto, who comes before Botticelli. If you follow the right path through the museum, you can see the history of art unfolding in front of your eyes. A traditional museum thus tells a story about style in art, one particular story about the way that the look of paintings and sculptures changes over time.
There are a number of problems with this, and academic art history has been occupied with many of them for the last several decades. Why should a museum, which is meant to serve the whole community, tell only one story? Who gets to decide which story it is? Who is served, politically and culturally, by that story?
Even from the point of view of an average visitor walking through the museum, a straightforward chronological arrangement can be problematic. If the museum is telling just one story, and you don’t know how to read that story — either because you didn’t take that art history class, or because you’ve forgotten it, or because you faked your way through it in the first place — then you are pretty much out of luck. It’s also true that the story of how styles of art change over time is actually pretty abstract. Many people don’t relate to it very well. Most of us like a work of art because we relate to its subject matter. The style of a work — that is, the way that an artist has depicted the subject matter — can make it more or less interesting, but only a minority of museum visitors are interested first and foremost in the way something is rendered.
What to do, especially if you want to make the museum a more interesting, engaging place for more people? The answer that the Santa Barbara Museum of Art proposes is to re-hang the permanent collection — to rearrange the way that the pictures are hung — to use the museum to tell more and different stories.
For the expert on art, such an installation offers hours of interpretive fun. A certain PhD in art history from Berkeley that I know thoroughly enjoys the new hanging, and my brother-in-law, a serious museum buff, also raved about the layout after he visited the SBMA this year. After all, if you already know how the history of art unfolds in the West, then it is refreshing to see this variation on the theme. It is like watching a narrative unfold through a series of flashbacks and side stories. The way that the images are arranged makes the museum less like a lecture and more like a poem; everyone is asked to bring a strong measure of their own interpretation to the table.
The way the galleries are laid out also appeals to those who enjoy art, but who have less of an art history background. Because Picture Stories pays attention to subject matter, it is accessible to visitors who do the same. Judy Davison, a first-grade teacher from Sebastopol, California, who was visiting the galleries recently, had one semester of art history in college and has always wanted to take more classes about art. She admitted that when she is in a museum she has little idea whether things are in chronological order or not, but she very much liked being able compare a number of depictions of the same subject, as the hanging at SBMA allowed her to do. She was particularly drawn to a series of images of arched bridges in the Ridley-Tree gallery, a painting by Monet, one by Matisse, and a photograph by Kertész. Looking at them, she explained, “I like how you can see what the different artists do with the same subject.” Describing the gallery as a whole she used the adjectives “friendly, open, inviting, easy-to-look-at.” “I love art,” she said “but I don’t know much about it. I don’t know why I like the way they have things arranged, but the room seems to make sense. It’s not all cluttered. It’s easy for someone who isn’t an expert to enjoy.”
Davison’s reaction is consistent with the feedback that the museum has been getting in general. According to Diana du Pont, the curator of the show, the response of the community has been “really positive. We’ve had nothing but positive feedback.” She attributes the success of this new way of doing things to the fact that the galleries are now both surprising and recognizable. “If you compare this with other museums, it’s unexpected. But this is how the world is today. People like it because it is more like their experience. Things aren’t just divided into different boxes. They’re all mixed together, in different layers.” Although the approach of Picture Stories will continue at SBMA, as special exhibitions come and go, the hanging of the permanent collection will shift and change. The works on display — particularly the works on paper — will rotate, offering a shifting visual feast that repays return visits many times over. Du Pont sees this way of arranging art as the future, not just for SBMA, but for other museums as well. Let’s hope she is right; if she is, it will be a delight for museum goers who enjoy finding something new every time they go to a museum.
Soul and the City
Nights at the SBMA
by Charles Donelan
People in Santa Barbara generally know quite a lot about making themselves more attractive. For our skin, we have spas. For our hair, salons. For our bodies? There’s every exercise regime and clothing option imaginable available here. But what to do about our minds? Even for those already blessed with outward beauty, the mind matters, because it’s where we can all become still more attractive — not only to others but also to ourselves. An exciting convergence of these two approaches to beauty is happening at Nights, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s monthly summer event, which continues tonight with a tribute to the human form in art. In keeping with this theme, it would be safe to assume that, at Nights tonight, the human form will be on generous display. And so will the art.
In a little over two years, Nights, held on the third Thursday of the month from May through September, has become the most successful and talked-about arts promotion in Santa Barbara. Every month, a well-dressed, fun-loving crowd jams the place for almost three hours of tightly choreographed indulgence. Tonight there will be specialty drinks (“Dorian Gray Sauza margaritas”) and passed hors d’oeuvres (this time from Roy), but that is only the beginning. There will also be interactive art-making activities such as “chakra charms” and “lovers tattoo cubes.” These arts and crafts stations are more popular than you might imagine, and have the added benefit of introducing dozens of newly body-decorated revelers to the fray over the course of the evening. The usual eclectic array of live music (tonight it’s the Coral Sea), and hip DJs provided by KCRW (Raul Campos, who hosts Nocturna) will be there, but most of all there will be lots and lots of glorious, clamorous, glamorous people, which is a good thing, because they are what make the event such a hit.
Kristy Thomas has been the creative mind behind Nights from the beginning, and she remains the one who, month in and month out, makes it all happen. “In the first place, it’s about rapture,” said Thomas. “That is the key to any great event — the moment when you are just transported.” Eric Vanderwold of Cox Media, one of the event’s sponsors, agrees. He remembers his first experience with Nights well. “I did not know what to expect when I showed up at the museum, but I was immediately blown away by the energy. It was like an after-work get together that somehow spiraled out of control into a full-blown party. The art, the activities, the live music, the drinks, and most of all the hundreds of people created an atmosphere so intense that you could feel the electricity around you.”
That kind of electricity only comes on when the museum is full. As with other great public spaces (think Grand Central Station or Dodger Stadium), the experience changes radically when the building reaches capacity. People feel as Vanderwold did, that something big has just happened, or — maybe even better — is just about to happen. For many visitors to Nights this is literally true, as they have seen old friends, met new ones, and, as often as not, formed impromptu plans for the remainder of Thursday evening. The atmosphere downtown, already festive, gets charged up another notch whenever this event lets out.
But, as Thomas is quick to point out, this is not just another excuse for a party. She says that “no matter how dressed up they are and how good they look, all those people are still spending the evening in the presence of art. Nights is always also about cultivating the self. Art makes you feel good about yourself in a special way; it develops the soul and lends quality and enchantment to the time we spend by ourselves.” In an era when individuals often flee the sober pleasures of solitary contemplation, it’s good to know that you can have loads of fun and learn something too.
When asked about the way people network at Nights, Thomas connects their need for social contact to their search for meaning. “That’s why the museum makes such a great venue right now. People need to network, but at the same time they crave significant experiences. Nights is a party, but it’s a party with a heart and soul. The sense of life that makes Nights so much fun is rooted in the art, and the event leads people back to the work.”
However far away this description may seem from the see-and-be-seen singles action at Nights, rest assured that if you were to observe the creative effort that goes into programming these events, you would see that it’s not in the least implausible. Thomas is passionate about this aspect of what she does. “Every little piece of what we have on hand comes from art and art history. Sure, the drink names are silly, but I love them, because the concepts are not. I get great pleasure when someone recognizes a reference I’ve made. It’s all about how you approach art. Nights augments people’s experience of the museum’s collection and space, opening it up to the joy and buzz and clatter of human connection.”
Reflecting on the intimacy that occurs between the high-spirited crowd and the masterpieces on the walls, Thomas says that, “speaking for myself, I couldn’t do it without the connection to the art. I even tried planning weddings, and it just didn’t work for me. I like planning events, but I am employed by the museum’s education department, and really what I am always thinking about is, how to get this art deeper into people’s minds, and eventually their hearts. It’s the art that gives this event its life.”
4•1•1 Nights continues tonight (June 15) from 5:30-8 p.m. at the SBMA, and resumes at the same time on July 20, August 17, and September 21. Tickets are available in advance at sbma.net or by calling 884‑6414. The museum is located at 1130 State St.