Whether it’s a sold-out lecture by Anthony Bourdain at the Arlington, a thrilling classical concert featuring Yo-Yo Ma, a happening dance party with former Talking Head David Byrne, or a spellbinding evening of contemporary performance art by Laurie Anderson, every year, UCSB’s Arts & Lectures (A&L) series provides Santa Barbara with some of the world’s most exciting and inspirational performances. Each season from A&L includes an almost unbelievable range of artists and events, all united under the program’s banner of extreme quality. As A&L director Celesta Billeci put it, “The program’s strength is diversity, but raising the bar every year on the quality of what we present is what keeps it all together.” This relentless pursuit of best-in-category experiences is what has earned A&L a loyal following of intellectually adventurous audiences who are willing to take their recommendations on trust and thus encounter performers-some world-famous, others just becoming well-known-who are capable of changing lives.
The 50th anniversary season of UCSB’s powerhouse presenting program is upon us. It promises to be a year of truly outstanding and innovative offerings, and it’s also a great opportunity to look back and celebrate A&L’s roots, which are entwined with the idea of the university that informed the great building stage of the UC system under Clark Kerr in the late 1950s and 1960s. In fact, California’s still-splendid yet oft-beleaguered public universities retain few features more representative of Kerr’s sweeping vision for what he called the “multiversity” than this program, which, paradoxically, now subsists almost entirely on the basis of private giving by members of the Santa Barbara community.
In the Godkin Lectures that Kerr gave at Harvard in 1963 in the wake of California’s adoption of an ambitious Master Plan for Higher Education, and just four years after the founding of UCSB Arts & Lectures, he proposed a historical scheme for understanding the shape of culture in the California he foresaw in the coming century. John Henry Newman, upon whom Kerr modeled his talks, wrote his The Idea of a University in support of establishing a Catholic university in Dublin in 1852. To Kerr, Newman’s concept was suggestive, but in the end amounted to nothing more than “a village with its priests.” The vaunted universities of Germany, where the doctorate degree and the research university both originated, were, according to Kerr, like “a one-industry town-with its intellectual oligarchy.” But the “multiversity” that Kerr proposed for the State of California would be different, and would take a step beyond any idea of the university that had come before it. It would be “a city of infinite variety,” wrote Kerr, where “there are many separate endeavors under one rule of law.” The university would bring into existence a City of Intellect, a new form of society that would use federally subsidized research for the benefit of every citizen.
Kerr’s dream was not long in colliding with the realities of the Vietnam War, the Free Speech Movement, and the eventual waning of the military-industrial complex that underwrote so much of the development of his beloved UC campuses. But in its wake, the dream of a “city of infinite variety” lives on through the imaginative reflection that the programs like UCSB Arts & Lectures now fashion out of ongoing relationships with the world’s greatest performers, choreographers, composers, writers, and thinkers. At a moment when the UC system may seem lacking in vision, this vibrant adjunct of a program is acting more like a senior faculty member by surviving difficult budget cuts, continuing to do cutting-edge research, and raising significant funds from outside the university to offset its expenses.
In order to better understand the journey and the mission of this prominent and influential organization, I spoke with Billeci about plans for A&L’s 50th anniversary year, and the challenges the organization faces in the current economy. It’s clearly not an easy time for high-ranking UCSB administrators. Billeci was candid about the negative effects the entire county can expect as UCSB experiences the first wave of impact of the proposed furlough program that begins this fall, and she cited in particular the difficulties faced by couples who are both employed by the university, of which there are many. But as far as the program is concerned, she was uniformly upbeat. While acknowledging that certain areas have been hit-for the first time in several years, A&L will not be commissioning any new work this year-she asserted that the show would indeed go on, and go on in the now-familiar grand style to which we have become accustomed.
However, in response to the new economy, and in a pattern that’s showing up in many of the city’s arts presenting organizations, collaboration is an important component in A&L’s strategy right now. In January, the program will partner with three other presenters-Stanford Lively Arts, the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts at UC Davis, and San Francisco Performances-to produce a West Coast tour for Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company, a new contemporary ballet company that brings together choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and Executive Director Lourdes Lopez from the George Balanchine Foundation. Wheeldon is the foremost contemporary choreographer working in the classical ballet idiom, and his company’s performances, which are often accompanied by live music, are among the hottest tickets in London, Paris, and New York.
In another multiorganization collaboration, A&L will bring dance theater group DV8 to the Lobero. It’s a major commitment, with UCLA Live and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts chipping in to help bear the costs of freight, airfare, and production. The result for Santa Barbara is an unprecedented three-night run at the Lobero on the 18, 19, and 20 of November for what Billeci promises will be a “life-changing experience.”