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 or by calling 884‑6414. The museum is located at 1130 State St.

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