Opening the Doors of Perception

Photography and Photo Galleries in Santa Barbara

by Brett Leigh Dicks

Outside of Hollywood on Academy Awards night, Santa Barbara arguably boasts the highest concentration of photographers in the country. This makes it all the more ironic that a town so connected with the medium currently has no galleries dedicated to photography. The Staton-Greenberg Gallery, one of the jewels in Santa Barbara’s artistic crown, last year packed away its prints and closed it doors. And, from the outside, it appears that a town internationally recognized as a center of photography, would once again be without a photographic gallery. But appearances can be deceptive.

There might be a different business now inhabiting Staton-Greenberg’s Anapamu Street premises, but all is far from lost when it comes to photography galleries in Santa Barbara. A group of dedicated local enthusiasts are working with New York gallery owner and Staton-Greenberg partner, Howard Greenberg, to again have a photography gallery in Santa Barbara. Staton-Greenberg created a burgeoning local photography-buying market. And, in an endeavor as financially precarious as fine art photography, it was not the gallery’s economic prospects behind the gallery closing its doors, but rather a change within its management structure.

“I wasn’t really interested in opening another gallery,” recalled Howard Greenberg. “Running one gallery is more than enough. But, for many years, a number of people in Santa Barbara were interested in having a quality photography gallery — one that was something more than just a local undertaking — established in town. I thought about it for a long time and it never quite made sense to me, unless I could find the key person who could run the gallery and embrace my program. If the right person had not come along, I would not have opened a gallery there at all.”

With the lack of a dedicated photography gallery, a significant void has developed within the local exhibition scene. And it emphasizes the importance such an establishment holds within the cultural richness of the city itself. Commercial galleries not only serve the community directly by providing art for viewing and collection as well as educating the public, they also provide a vital lifeline for the city’s public institutions and their collections. Without such an establishment stimulating collecting on a local level, our local museums could also soon be feeling the effects.

“Galleries come to know the museum’s collections, its needs, and wishes for its collection,” explained Karen Sinsheimer, curator of photography for the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. “They can be of great help in working with collectors and donors in putting us together. When one looks at collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and other museums, one sees that gallery owners have made important gifts. They see building the museum’s collection and reputation as part of their commitment to the field.”

In a commercial gallery, enthusiasm and good will ordinarily come as the result of financial success. While there might exist a natural symbiosis between private and public galleries, the fiscal realities are such that, in order for a commercial gallery to survive, it needs to sell work. And to sell work, there needs to be a viable market. The fact that Howard Greenberg and his local friends are willing to reinvent the gallery is a good indication that Santa Barbara could be on the way to sustaining a productive photography market.

“I am supportive of anything to do with photography in Santa Barbara,” affirmsedGreenberg. “That includes another gallery when the right combination of ingredients comes together. The original thinking for the gallery was a multifaceted program, and a big part of that is of course to exhibit the kind of photography that is not ordinarily seen in Santa Barbara or even on the West Coast. The photography audience is always hungry for education and the chance to see photographs or collections they wouldn’t ordinarily see. Because the West Coast is so photographically oriented, there is a very good audience for such variety out there.”

While we here in Santa Barbara are in the midst of it all, when contemplating the progression of the medium, perhaps we should be looking at a bigger artistic picture rather than addressing only photography. “The real issue is not photography as a segregated medium,” suggested photographer Richard Ross. “Photography is part of a larger world of contemporary art. With limited exhibition spaces and funds there are fewer risks being taken, and risk taking is the life-blood of contemporary art. To be honest, there are other things to celebrate in Santa Barbara. This is our two-edged sword.”

Over the years, Santa Barbara has witnessed the coming and going of more than its fair share of successful galleries. In the past year the city has welcomed several new galleries including Artamo and 19 Haley. Having a new, Greenberg-backed gallery dedicated to photography would surely be a step in the direction of further vitalizing the scene.

“It is ironic that Santa Barbara, known worldwide as a ‘photography town’, doesn’t have a gallery scene, but I still think it’s on the horizon,” said Sinsheimer. “There’s a dynamic that occurs when there’s a critical mass of galleries. It creates a buzz and excitement and ultimately the broader perception that Santa Barbara is an art-buying destination. That happened in Santa Fe early on and I believe it can happen here. Over the years, I’ve had any number of people come to me and express interest in opening a gallery, so I’m convinced it will happen.”

With photographers the caliber of Bob DeBris, Keith Fishman, Richard Ross, Santi Visalli, and Bob Werling all inhabiting our city, there is certainly no shortage of quality work. And, as Sinsheimer suggested, the rest might simply be a matter of perception.

“Perception and reality mix just as well in life as they do in art,” museed photographer Keith Fishman. “The perception outside of Santa Barbara is that our city is a center for photography. Photographers come here from all over the place. The Brooks Institute is here and the museum’s photography program is unquestionably one of its strongest assets. The reality is that photography has always been strong here, and it’s only going to get stronger. I am confident we will soon find that, when it comes to photography, Santa Barbara is a place where reality will ultimately exceed perception.”

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