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Saint Patrick Davis

Miracle Worker of Santa Barbara’s Art World


Patrick Davis, one of the most important public figures in the history of Santa Barbara, retires from public life this week. Only a few civic leaders have been as visionary, or as successful in creating meaningful change in Santa Barbara. Pearl Chase in the 1920s, Supervisor Sam Stanwood in the ’30s. Bob Lagomarsino in the ’60s, Robert Kallman in the ’70s, Hal Conklin in the ’80s, and a few others. But certainly in the last 30 years, no one even comes close to Patrick Davis, in terms of his ability to carry out and implement his view of the kind of town Santa Barbara should be. Years ago, Pearl Chase gave us outer beauty, and so it became Patrick Davis’s job in the ’80s and ’90s, as the town’s most active arts advocate, to nurture our inner beauty. The Santa Barbara we know and love, the arts community by the sea, the place of film festivals and solstice parades and world-class entertainment all in a Mediterranean setting with an intimate small-town vibe — it’s got Patrick Davis written all over it.

Davis wasn’t a congressman, a mayor, or a supervisor. Many people in town have never even heard of him, never seen his eyes sparkle with subversive delight during a brainstorming powwow, or witnessed him swing into action if some starry-eyed artist wanted $500 to finish a project, or a fledgling dance group needed nonprofit status, or an overly zealous political activist needed a couch to crash on after getting out of the pokey. But since 1977, when he came back to town after attending college in Vermont, Patrick’s been in the trenches — working, cajoling, pushing, dreaming, scheming, making things happen. He never ran for office, preferring to operate just under the radar, and if it served him, very high above the radar, or a little to the side of the radar, and finally, if that didn’t work, he would go directly at the radar until it finally surrendered to his stubborn, and at times caustic, will.

Patrick Davis served in official ways and unofficial ways. In an official way, he was the County Arts Commission’s Executive Director since 1988. He also served on scores of boards and committees, most of them supporting arts causes and progressive issues. As such, he became our artistic and social conscience, and in that capacity, most famously, he spearheaded a drive to save the Santa Barbara Bowl from being sold off for condos in 1979, and the Lobero Theatre from being torn down for seismic problems in 1992.

If that was all he had done — save the Bowl and the Lobero — he would be an estimable civic hero. One can’t imagine Santa Barbara without those venues. But there is so much more.

It’s the End That Counts Patrick came of age in the ’60s, and never abandoned the values of his youth. He moved to Santa Barbara at age 13 after spending his early years in Orange County, and then, while attending college in Vermont, took on his first cause — delivering food to low-income residents living in remote areas. The job brought him a sense of satisfaction he had never experienced. In Vermont, he discovered his calling, but when he returned to Santa Barbara, he found his battleground.

After several years, during which time he worked with ex-offenders, youth, and low-income communities around Santa Barbara County, he landed a position with an advocacy group called the Neighborhood Arts Association, and began to actually live the credo: Think globally, act locally. He also met a woman named Nancy, who was working at a raucous young radio station named KTYD, and they fell in love. The mold was set: Nancy is in many ways more powerful, radical, and forward-thinking than Patrick; she helped fuel his passion and provide backup and inspiration, and helped him understand that you did what it took to make things happen … it was the end that counted.

Even though he eventually graduated to slacks and sport coats, this is how Patrick remembers himself at that time: “I had long hair and wore tinted glasses and huarache sandals and khaki pants and shirts from Alpha Thrift. I didn’t quite have the bandoliers, but almost.” Yep, Patrick was a hippie. But he was the rare hippie who knew how to make his flower-power idealism work in the challenging political reality of the Reagan and Bush eras, and the then-conservative halls of Santa Barbara power. The key to his success was convincing the business community the arts were good for tourism, and thus good for the economy. Patrick invented this mantra, and repeated it so many times and with so much flying spittle that officials began to nod deftly in agreement and to eventually realize it was actually true. He began to win political victories on behalf of people who had never had a voice in local politics — not just plain folk but very plain folk, like poor people, immigrants, and at-risk teenagers. He hammered on behalf of an arts community that had always been present, but existed way underground. He wanted the top of society to see the truth about the bottom, and to change that truth when called to do so.

It was Patrick Davis who, in 1983, first took out a map of downtown Santa Barbara and sketched out the Cultural Arts District, announcing it in an advertisement in the left-leaning weekly paper, the News & Review (an earlier ancestor of The Independent). He convinced the City Council to begin funneling redevelopment money into venues like the Granada and the Lobero, and his ongoing efforts helped lead to the current Downtown Organization’s penchant for marketing cultural as well as retail opportunities. The Cultural Arts District is now as synonymous with Santa Barbara as the Old Mission or Stearns Wharf, and much more vital.

When the Paseo Nuevo Mall was being planned in the late ’80s, Patrick pushed developers to include space for the Center Stage Theater and the Contemporary Arts Forum, as part of their development deal. He helped city planner Don Olsen create the idea of the Funk Zone, and then worked tirelessly to defend and preserve the artistic quality of the neighborhood. He also made it possible for the supporters of the MADD Academy at Santa Barbara High School to clear significant financial and political hurdles and open their doors in 1996. Each of the 300 kids who goes through that program every year, does so thanks to Patrick Davis. Patrick was an important supporter of the 2002 founding of the Guadalupe Arts & Education Center, which serves mostly Spanish-speaking residents of the North County. In Santa Barbara, Patrick helped pave the way for UCSB’s Arts & Lectures recent push to begin presenting shows to underserved audiences all over the county.

Patrick continually bridged the gap between often disorganized and even self-defeating artists and the resources that could help them. Year after year, Patrick spearheaded the demoralizing search for yet another temporary workshop for the Summer Solstice Celebration, cajoling property owners into hosting the Solstice heathens; and every year he was successful, despite increasingly difficult odds. This year, it was Patrick who yet again went to bat, finally finding Solstice a permanent home: in the city’s recently vacated recycling center at Garden and Ortega streets.

Davis’s political style falls somewhere between nagging wife and fang-baring pit bull. If you count the number of people who love Patrick, there would be an equal number who were seriously irked by him at one time or another. A great majority fall into both camps. Behind the bluster, though, Patrick is as canny a political operator as Santa Barbara has ever known. Nick Welsh, The Independent’s political writer, said, “Patrick is the ideal collision between the dream and the scheme. As a bureaucratic player, he’s been the tail to wag the dog more often than not, often to the dog’s great irritation. Patrick is famous for his feuding, even with his backers. But Patrick developed personal relationships with key people in positions of great power that enabled him to not be the good boy his bureaucratic superiors would have preferred, and to be extremely effective.”

Perhaps Patrick’s most far-reaching accomplishment was the creation of the city- and county-sponsored Arts Partnership Grants. The program administers a half-million dollars each year to arts organizations, off-season cultural events, and individual artists, and there isn’t an arts organization in town that hasn’t benefited. These grants support the glitz of the Film Festival, the quietude of Camerata Pacifica, and everything in between. Patrick became an arts-oriented Johnny Appleseed, and as a result, Santa Barbara County now has more than twice as many arts- and education-oriented nonprofits than any other county in Southern California.

A Friend Indeed It was the unofficial ways that Patrick worked that truly endeared him to the artists of Santa Barbara, though. Very little of Patrick’s time on the job was spent doing things that were part of his job description. If Patrick loved a good political fight, if he got a thrill out of making the establishment bend in his direction, he loved hanging out with artists even more. The stories of his generosity, his caring, and his devotion are endless. He did everything from arranging home births to cooking meals to providing shelter to lending cars, to painting signs and on and on. He and Nancy lived at the corner of Figueroa and Garden for many years, and their cozy downtown home had an open-door policy, 24/7. “We never had to turn on the television,” Patrick said. “There was always a story going on in our living room.”

Patrick had a sixth sense about being where he needed to be, for finding the artist on the brink, for swooping in at the last moment and saving the day. Like an alchemist who could somehow stick his hands into an empty cauldron and create gold, he had a magical ability to wring money from dried-up budgets and tapped-out donors. In 2001, Patrick caught wind that I was beginning a film career and arranged for donations that helped me complete my first movie. The money was of great importance, but it was Patrick’s belief in my ability that really made the difference. Artists need someone on their side, and for so very many of us in Santa Barbara, for 25 years, it was Patrick who played that role.

Along the way, Patrick and Nancy got married, and did so on a sunny summer day on the grounds of the Santa Barbara Bowl, and what could be more perfect than that? Patrick adopted Nancy’s children Jonathon and Amy, and together they had another son, Jethro. They eventually moved to a rambling ranch house in Rattlesnake Canyon, and once again, the house and outlying structures became a tapestry of foster children, grandparents, couch-crashers, and pets. “It’s sort of a crime in our family to have an extra bedroom,” Patrick explained. “To have an extra bedroom means we are not doing our part.” In 1985, Nancy and Patrick took a year off and moved the family to Maine, where they fell in love with the provincial, village-like quality of New England — much the way Santa Barbara was 30 years ago. They have made many trips back since, and now both Amy and her daughter, and Jonathon and his wife Dena, are building lives there.

Patrick has quit his job as arts commissioner, in part, he said, because the recent rapid decline in arts funding from the California Arts Council — an agency he helped create — makes his job less satisfying. But it’s also because he wants to spend more time in Maine, near his children. Jethro was killed four years ago, at age 20, and Patrick yearns for the closeness of family that no longer exists for him in Santa Barbara. He and Nancy said they want to live bi-coastally, so fortunately for us, they will still have a presence here. Of course, idleness is not in Patrick’s nature, and he’s already talking about forming a privately funded advocacy group that will bring arts experiences to underserved Latino kids. As if to symbolize and mark this new passage in Patrick life’s, just two weeks ago, Jonathon and Dena had a new baby boy, Benjamin.

Despite his political connections and paid position as a public servant, Patrick always cast himself as an outsider, a thorn in the establishment’s side, and for that reason, there may never be a park named after him, or a theater erected in his honor, or a commemorative plaque glued to a rock. But no matter how much things change in Santa Barbara in years to come, Patrick possesses something infinitely more valuable, and fitting. He’ll always be able to walk around town and stop at the Lobero, or the Center Stage, or the Bowl, or the Funk Zone, or Solstice Workshop, or the Contemporary Arts Forum, or a hundred other places, and say, “I did that.”

People often wondered how Patrick Davis could put up with being a bureaucrat, so this week, I asked him. “I really like confrontation and theater and when you stand up in town hall meetings, it’s democracy at its most basic level,” he said. “Everybody is in the room and you get up and start talking. I like the whole public arena where you say, ‘Okay, let’s all tell the truth, for once.’ Now with PowerPoint technology, it’s not as theatrical as it used to be. But it was fun to fill a room with people, particularly with poor people or kids or artists who weren’t used to being heard, and have the people on the dais vote in a way that changed their lives. That’s what allowed me to be a bureaucrat.”

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