“I was looking for a job that created advocacy for all the different arts,” says Sarah York Rubin about her 2016 move to become executive director of the Santa Barbara County Office of Arts & Culture (SBAC), the county government’s umbrella for arts and culture programs. “I’ve worked with every art discipline, and I love advocating for them. This is a great opportunity to support every art organization.”
As Sarah sits with me, explaining her complex journey and education, she charmingly confesses, “I’m a very convoluted human being.”
After growing up near Ann Arbor, she attended the University of Michigan, where she majored in creative writing. She extended a semester abroad in Spain by enrolling with WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), which placed her on an organic farm in Zurich.
In 2004, she began studying for a master’s of fine arts in poetry at George Mason University, but soon stopped. “It was really hard to study pentameter right after George W. Bush was elected president,” she explains. Instead, she decided to work with the D.C. Indie Film Festival to cofound the Washington D.C. Indie Music Festival, which she ran successfully for two years.
She went back to graduate school, this time at Carnegie Mellon in 2006, and received a Fulbright Fellowship to teach American media in Hong Kong. “It was really hard and rewarding work,” says Sarah, who went back to Carnegie Mellon upon returning from China to pursue a PhD.
She left that program to become the executive director of the brand-new Hillman Center for Performing Arts in Pittsburgh, which she ran from 2008 to 2016. During that time, she pursued an executive certificate in nonprofit management from Georgetown University’s School of Public Policy, to which she would commute four hours from Pittsburgh. She was also hired to create a biography gallery for the permanent Warhol Museum.
Among her multifaceted accomplishments are recording cartoon voice-overs for MTV and Comedy Central, developing and hosting syndicated public radio talk shows about contemporary authors, teaching, and deejaying, which she’s also done professionally.
One of the first things she did when she took her job here was to change the name of the organization from the Santa Barbara Arts Commission to the Office of Arts and Culture. “It’s important for people to understand that the local government is supporting the arts,” says Sarah. “There are so many artists and culture participants. Our mission is to recognize their validity and for us to find a way to embrace them all.”
Sarah York Rubin answers the Proust Questionnaire.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
At a former workplace, I initiated and passed a policy that provided equal benefits for partners before it was legally mandated in the state. This is a major reason that I work in the arts, because I feel it is the most effective opportunity to help create equity.
What is your most marked characteristic?
My mom always said I was full of “piss and vinegar and joy” — so it is probably that emphatic exuberance and excitement about all of the possibilities at once.
Which talent would you most like to have?
Having several selves, like in the movie Multiplicity — or at least a few more hands. Maybe five.
What do you like most about your job?
Working with the city, county, and state at the Office of Arts & Culture, it has been incredibly gratifying to generate arts access and equity — for example, setting up a school with upcycled art supplies, or helping the music class acquire the instruments to teach mariachi band. We also love to help artists learn to advocate for themselves and watching them grow as they actualize that potential. Each of these instances is an everyday privilege of my job, and it never stops feeling incredibly significant and good.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Traveling to a different country and engaging in some sort of experience (doesn’t hurt if it involves delicious food and drink) that presents the world in a way that had never occurred to me before. That is inspiration and joy. I enjoy traveling solo but prefer to be with my husband or a dear friend, so that the experience can be revisited over the years.
What is your greatest fear?
Living in a country where the federal government disavows the critical role of arts and culture. Hurting somebody’s feelings unintentionally. Or inadvertently making them feel like I don’t value them.
Who do you most admire?
My mother. She was a public school teacher for 50 years. She taught 8th grade because those kids were at the age, in her opinion, where they most needed a supportive adult. Her class subjects were literature and writing, but it was more of a “come as you are” time for the kids; she met them where they were at, without judgment or fanfare, to help them begin the process of evolution from adolescence into adulthood. She got so many letters from former students thanking her for teaching them to love themselves and attribut[ing] their success to her that there is a desk full of them in my parents’ house in Michigan. She kept them all.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Really nice deodorant. Currently using Donna Karan’s Cashmere Mist. It is the strangest, simplest luxury. And I will only sleep on amazing sheets. The bed is a sacred space.
What is your current state of mind?
Frenetic. Like an electron. So many opportunities and so few hours.
What is the quality you most like in people?
Kindness. Compassion. Two qualities, really, but inextricable in my experience.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
Negativity. I see it as the antithesis of creativity. Pragmatism can be constructive, but abject anger, pessimism, or judgmental behavior stifle ideas, relationships, or potentially beautiful opportunities. How many classic artists would we have lost if they were only surrounded by naysayers?
What do you most value in friends?
Openness to new ideas. The ability to support others’ needs, even if they differ from their own. People who educate themselves continually and evolve with the world, and always bring new ideas and insights to the table. People who approach every day with a sense of wonder.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
From my deejay days, my hearing is a little … impacted. I would love to have the world at full volume again.
Where would you most like to live?
Santa Barbara! My husband and I moved here from Pittsburgh in March 2016. We were fortunate to be able to choose, and literally traveled the world to see where our next home should be. Without reservation, we decided that it was Santa Barbara. We feel incredibly fortunate to be here.
What is your most treasured possession?
My vintage Technics turntables, mixer, and vinyl from my former life as a deejay. They are like my children and also my personal canvas.
What makes you laugh the most?
Absurdity. Eccentricity. Brilliance.
What is your motto?
My mom printed these metal necklaces that said, “Nothing is more important than this day.” And she randomly placed them on benches wherever she traveled. I loved that.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Maybe Gertrude Stein, as I am also a Jewish feminist who perceives the world best through writ. I was also pen pals for a long time with a man named Lee Lorch. He isn’t a household name, but everybody should Google him; he was a professor and civil rights activist. I aspire to emulate him.
On what occasion do you lie?
About my age! But I think I am unusual because I round up. When I first started as an executive director a decade ago, I was 25. And this was the East Coast, where people aggressively asked how old I was, all the time. It was hard to watch exciting projects or ideas deflate after people learned my age.
So I posted all the academic degrees behind my desk, which I swore I would never do, to preempt the conversation. But I perceive age as willingness to learn and engage, and the overall density of your life. In my heart, I am 75.