On June 5, 1941, SBMA opened its doors for the first time
amidst community leaders, local schoolchildren, and SBMA founders.
January 19, 2016―The idea for a Santa Barbara city museum originally came from the local artist Colin Campbell Cooper. When he learned that the main post office building, erected in 1912 and abandoned for several years, was going to be sold, he proposed, in a letter published in the Santa Barbara News-Press in July of 1937, that the impressive Italianate structure should be transformed into a museum.
What Cooper himself described as something of a “pipedream” came to fruition just four years later, thanks to a groundswell of support from the community and the commitment of a small, passionate army of artists and civic-minded individuals. Also voicing their enthusiasm for the project was a large group of merchants, some 125 of whom petitioned the County’s Board of Supervisors to buy the property from the federal government so that it may be used as a museum. Their plea was heeded and, before long, a number of Santa Barbara residents formed an official museum committee and a number of generous citizens offered funds to remodel the building, to construct galleries, and to add new floors and lighting that would be up to museum standards.
The renovation and construction progressed well, and the museum committee decided that the building should open to the public in early June of 1941, even if not all of the work had been completed. Only after the date was set did Buell Hammett, the first President of the Board of Trustees, contact an astrologer to determine at exactly what time of the day the doors should open; he learned that the stars and planets would be best aligned at precisely 11:43 am on June 5. At that very moment, 1,500 junior high students led visitors into the Museum, a stream of people that did not abate for months—approximately 300 a day and more than 50,000 visitors in the first six months.
Left: Wright S. Ludington at the 1941 Grand Opening, SBMA Archives. Center: Ludington Court in 2015. © Bryan Toro Photographic.
Right: Albert Bierstadt, Mirror Lake, Yosemite Valley, 1864. Oil on canvas. SBMA, Gift of Mrs. Sterling Morton for the Preston Morton Collection.
Upon entering, visitors were greeted, as they have more recently, by beautiful objects from Wright Ludington’s important collection of Greek and Roman antiquities. He gave to the Museum many of those, as well as a substantial number of 19th- and 20th-century drawings and watercolors, in 1940.
From its inception, SBMA’s permanent collection has benefited from the generosity of many individual philanthropists, who have given the Museum some of its most famous works of art. From Wright Ludington’s exquisite antiquities and Ina Campbell’s gift of Chinese, Japanese, and Indian works of art early on, to the donation of one of the finest collections of American art on the West Coast by Mr. and Mrs. Sterling Morton in the early 1960s, to the Museum’s beloved Monets, three of which were donated by the McCormick family in 1968, the collection has continued to expand through a steady stream of generosity. More recent gifts and bequests include more than 500 classic photographic works from the Arthur and Yolanda Steinman Collection in 1985, more than 100 Asian works of art from former Trustee and long-time support F. Bailey Vanderhoef, Jr. in 1991, and an extensive collection of Indian terracottas given by Stephen Huyler, of which the Museum is now the country’s richest repository.
Since its opening, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art has amassed nearly 28,000 works of art in its permanent collection, including paintings, sculpture, prints, drawings, photographs, ceramics, glass, jades, bronzes, lacquer and textiles. These works represent the arts of Asia, Europe, and the Americas spanning over 5,000 years of human history. Particular strengths of the permanent collection include:
• 19th-century French art (Barbizon School, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism)
• 19th and 20th-century American art (paintings and works on paper)
• Contemporary Regional art (20th-century and 21st-century California artists to the present)
• Western Pacific Rim photography (contemporary Chinese, Japanese, Korean)
• Buddhist art (Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Indian)
Left: Installation shot from SBMA’s inaugural exhibition Painting Today and Yesterday in the United States (1941), SBMA Archives. Center: Anonymous after Felix O.C. Harley (American, 19th century), Buffalo Hunter, undated (ca. 1844). Oil on canvas. Santa Barbara Museum of Art, gift of Harriet Cowles Hammett Graham in memory of Buell Hammett.
Right: Installation shot from the first Pacific Coast Biennial (1955), SBMA Archives.
Since its inaugural presentation, SBMA has brought approximately 2,500 exhibitions to the Santa Barbara community and beyond, many featuring works by emerging artists and arrangement of works never before on view on the West Coast or nationally.
In 1941, the first Director of the Museum, Donald Jeffries Bear, ensured that the fledgling institution would receive wide community—even national—attention with the opening exhibition he mounted, entitled Painting Today and Yesterday in the United States. The show, comprised of more than 140 works, ambitiously highlighted major themes and trends in American art from colonial times to the present, and featured a who’s who of American painters that included pictures by Charles Burchfield, Winslow Homer, and Edward Hopper as well as notable examples of folk art. Among the most popular works in the exhibition was the spirited painting of the Buffalo Hunter (c. 1830), created by an anonymous American folk artist and on loan to the Museum from Buell Hammett; his widow, Harriet, later gave it the Museum in 1945 in Buell’s memory.
Still in its inaugural year, the Museum continued its ambition to present exhibitions of international importance with shows including the works of Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh, and, in 1942, provided the unprecedented opportunity to the community to view two of the most important and influential works of the 20th century―Pablo Picasso’s powerful anti-war masterpiece, Guernica, that was commissioned by the Spanish government and almost continuously on world tour since its completion in 1937; and Marcel Duchamp’s revolutionary Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912), lent with a couple of other paintings by Los Angeles art collectors Louise and Walter Arensberg.
The Museum’s avant-garde spirit and quest for excellence was continued by Ala Story, one of the first women art museum directors in the country and organizer of shows of the works of such masters as Auguste Rodin and Max Beckmann, and her successor, Tom Leavitt, who mounted, among others, exhibitions of the paintings of Piet Mondrian and Philip Guston. These directors, and those who followed, were also great champions of major California and Santa Barbara artists, giving many, including John Altoon and William Dole, their first museum exhibitions.
The Santa Barbara Museum of Art continues the tradition of organizing original and influential exhibitions to this day―many of which have taken place within the past ten years:
· Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted (2007)―first large-scale examination of the artist’s oeuvre outside of Mexico in 27 years
· Yinka Shonibare, MBE: A Flying Machine for Every Man, Woman and Child and Other Astonishing Works (2009)―first solo exhibition of the artist’s work in the western United States
· Chaotic Harmony: Contemporary Korean Photography (2010)―first major exhibition in the United States of photographs by contemporary Korean artists presently living in Korea
· Charles Garabedian: A Retrospective (2011)― the first important museum presentation in 28 years devoted to the works of the artist
· Picasso and Braque: The Cubist Experiment, 1910-12 (co-organized with the Kimbell Art Museum) (2011)― first exhibition to unite many of the paintings and nearly all of the prints created by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque during two pivotal years
· The Artful Recluse: Paintings, Poetry, and Politics in 17th-Century China (2013)― major award-winning exhibition of nearly 60 Chinese paintings that revealed the private world of the scholar-painters who lived during one of the most tumultuous periods of Chinese history
· Labour and Wait (2013)― featured 16 international artists and artist-collaboratives who bring 21st-century urgency to age-old virtues of hard work and craftsmanship
· John Divola: As Far As I Could Get (2013)― first over-arching presentation of the artist’s work and a collaborative project led by SBMA, and shown simultaneously at SBMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Pomona College Museum of Art
· Delacroix and the Matter of Finish (2013)― first presentation on the celebrated French artist in the United States in over a decade, and the first major monographic show devoted to the artist on the West coast
· The Paintings of Moholy-Nagy: The Shape of Things to Come (2015)― first exhibition to explore how the practice of painting served as the means for the artist to imagine generative relationships between art and technology
Since its inception, the Museum established itself as a cultural leader in the community in various ways. It sponsored a weekly radio broadcast to promote cultural events in the Santa Barbara area and presented public lectures. In a room in the Museum designated the “Junior Art Center,” informal art-making classes were offered to children from schools throughout the tri-county area. Weekly informal concerts were held for servicemen and women and, depending on available space, for members of the general public. In what may have been the first such collaboration in the country, the Museum, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, and the Santa Barbara State College (now the University of California, Santa Barbara) together offered classes in the humanities to college students and other. The range of educational and cultural activities that many museums in the country have adopted only in the past few decades were, in fact, part of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s identity and agenda from its very inception.
The Museum continues its tradition and dedication in the area of educational programming with more than 40 education programs that reach more than 40,000 people each year. SBMA’s school and teacher programs reach 25,000 students annually and train public school teachers how to integrate art across the curriculum. Community and family programs provide an extensive menu of afterschool classes, workshops, and events to thousands of participants of all ages, including Free Family Days, Family 1st Thursdays, Studio Sundays on the Front Steps, and activities in the Family Resource Center. Adult programs provide the community with an ongoing stream of lectures, films, concerts, performances, and docent talks throughout the year.
Left: Museum façade in the 1940s, SBMA Archives. Right: Construction of Alice Keck Park Wing in the 1980s, SBMA Archives.
Major renovations in the Museum’s history include:
· In 1942, the Stanley R. McCormick Gallery was added to the existing original post office building through the generosity of Katharine Dexter McCormick.
· Preston Morton provided funds to construct two new wings― the Preston Morton and Sterling Morton Memorial Wings, which provided 30% more gallery space, as well as classroom, meeting, and office space. The Preston Morton Wing was inaugurated in 1961 and the Sterling Morton Wing in 1962.
· The Museum’s largest renovation and expansion project to date was completed in 1985, resulting in a 67% increase in size and a doubling of the existing gallery space. Highlights included the opening of the Alice Keck Park Wing and the 157-seat Mary Craig Auditorium, along with the modernization of the original building and additional art storage space.
· In 1998, the Jean and Austin H. Peck, Jr. Wing opened with new galleries―including the Ridley-Tree Gallery―larger store, café, and children’s art gallery.
Left: Rendering of future Ludington Court. Right: Rendering of new contemporary art gallery.
Since the Museum’s founding in 1941, SBMA has played a vital role in the cultural and community life of Santa Barbara. The Museum’s founders were visionary individuals, and the current renovation project and resulting $50 million Imagine More capital campaign seeks to continue to extend the reach of the institution to, at once, make essential renovations and upgrades to an aging facility, while expanding the scope of SBMA’s exhibitions, programs, and place as a public forum for the arts in Santa Barbara and beyond.
The Santa Barbara Museum of Art is a privately funded, not-for-profit institution that presents internationally recognized collections and exhibitions and a broad array of cultural and educational activities as well as travel opportunities around the world.
Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State Street, Santa Barbara, CA.
Open Tuesday - Sunday 11 am to 5 pm, Chase Free Thursday Evenings