As of Monday, June 24, the great space upstairs in Paseo Nuevo with all the cool new art is no longer the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum (CAF). Before anyone gets upset, though, understand that CAF hasn’t gone away; it’s just changing — changing its name and changing its game. The organization’s new title, Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara (MCASB), is but one facet of a comprehensive reimagining and reengineering of this busy, vital alternative art space. Along with the new name, MCA Santa Barbara (as it is now known) has announced a three-year strategic plan designed to establish the organization as a museum on par with such comparable (and prestigious) museums of contemporary art as MCA San Diego and MCA Chicago.
Within the ever-vigilant Santa Barbara art community, the questions raised by this news come in clusters. In the “what do they mean by ‘museum’?” cluster, we find such perennials as “will they be collecting now?” and “will they move to a new space?” Over in the “why change?” cluster, other equally urgent concerns appear, such as “what does this mean for local artists?” “do we really need a Museum of Contemporary Art in Santa Barbara?” and even “will they start charging admission now?” Having spoken at some length with Executive Director Miki Garcia, I will try to answer these questions by taking them in reverse order.
As for the “why/how” cluster, the answers begin with “no, the MCASB will not begin charging admission.” The board not only remains committed to keeping the gallery free; its is actually using this as an opportunity to extend the hours to include every Thursday evening. Secondly, yes, there will be a new program designed specifically to make the organization more responsive to the needs of artists living in the area. Modeled in part after such historic collectives as the Art Students League, the Artists’ Society will provide a low-cost ($100 annually) membership that will allow artists to participate in democratic processes leading to exhibitions at the museum, and that will include professional development and collective decision-making components.
And finally, yes, according to the research conducted by the CAF’s Board of Trustees under a recent grant from the James Irvine Foundation, Santa Barbara does, in fact, need (or at least deserve) a Museum of Contemporary Art. Founded in 1976, CAF has outlasted many other alternative art spaces both here and elsewhere, and it has achieved the financial stability necessary to fund this new direction. In terms of where it stands in relation to other museums of contemporary art, MCASB is a little older than MOCA in Los Angeles, which was founded in 1979, and a little younger than the MCA in Chicago, which began operating in the late 1960s.
The name change will allow the organization to become part of the American Alliance of Museums, the national organization that advocates for ethics, standards, and best practices in museums of all kinds, and to present its exhibitions, programs, and publications as the products of a fully accredited museum. Several of the more ambitious CAF shows in recent years by such established artists as Sanford Biggers and Mario Ybarra Jr. featured catalogues and events that were entirely in line with the standards of a top-tier museum of contemporary art.
For now at least, the MCA Santa Barbara is not going anywhere or creating a permanent collection, but Garcia has not ruled out either of these options as potential steps following the completion of this initial three-year, $3.5 million strategic plan. Stay tuned for more on this developing story, including a description of the impact on upcoming exhibitions and overall programming goals.