Days and Nights of Wonder

Arts organizations routinely compete over the toughest consumer
territory there is — the space of wonder. And here in Santa
Barbara, where every bend in Mountain Drive reveals another
astonishing vista, the natural environment itself is perpetually
capable of producing the elusive “wow” factor that all of our
cultural institutions covet. Perhaps that’s why our best arts
organizations are constantly innovating — to keep pace not only
with each other, but with the infinite capacity of our natural
setting — to saturate everyday life with unforgettable beauty.

At the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, two recent initiatives seek
to unlock the potential significance not only of the museum’s
extraordinary collection, but also of the rich community in which
we live:

• During Nights, the museum becomes a theater and a playground
for Santa Barbara’s business and arts crowd to flirt, mix, and
merge with the augmented art experiences concocted monthly by
museum education staffer Kristy Thomas. • In Picture Stories, the
museum’s latest version of its evolving project to re-display the
permanent collection, the curators have taken the emphasis off of
traditional art history as chronology, and put it onto the web of
meaning that extends through imagery, subject matter, and the
individual viewer’s imagination.

As different as night and day, these two programs nevertheless
emerge from the same impulse, which locates meaning where culture
really happens — in people.

Hang Time

A Journey Through Picture Stories: The Art of Europe and
the Americas

by Beth Taylor-Schott

The Santa Barbara Museum of Art has been shaking things up since
last September with a new hanging of its permanent collection,
Picture Stories: The Art of Europe and the Americas. It’s hard not
to notice the difference in the Sterling Morton West gallery, for
example. If you are looking for stylistic unity, or even expecting
to find just one artistic medium, the room looks like a jumble. The
Northern Renaissance and Baroque masters Dürer and Rembrandt share
a wall with the modern artist Frederico Cantú, their delicate
engravings and etchings adjacent to another wall bearing an
enormous photo-collage by the Guatemalan artist Luis
Gonzàles-Palma. Elsewhere, a 19th-century French academic painting
by Jules Breton confronts a monumental quasi-cubist charcoal by
Alfredo Ramos Martínez. On top of all of this, the room includes a
painting by Chagall, prints by Picasso, and a model of a pediment
by the neoclassical sculptor John Flaxman.

If you stop looking just at the style, and instead focus on the
subjects of the works, the room hangs together remarkably well.
Mythic and religious figures, gestures, and objects appear and
reappear as one moves from piece to piece. In one of Rembrandt’s
etchings, we see Christ crucified on the cross, while across the
room in the Martínez, two women pray before a figure of Christ on a
crucifix. One of these women holds a taper in a gesture that is a
near-mirror image of the figure in Breton’s “The Pardon,” another
depiction of female piety, which it faces. Back on the other side
of the room, Dürer’s St. Philip holds a cross up in front of
himself as if it were a candle, and on and on. In a similar manner,
centaurs and nymphs cavort throughout the gallery in prints,
photographs, and wax relief, interpreted by artists of different
centuries and continents. It is easy to imagine many connections
between the works here: connections between one artist and another,
between different cultures, and between different eras and

This play upon theme and subject matter continues to a greater
and lesser degree in all of the galleries that feature the
permanent collection. At times a roughly chronological arrangement
seems in place. At other points, it is clearly turned on its head.
You need to look closely in order to recognize the deviations from
the usual historical narrative in the Campbell gallery, for
example, where religious paintings dominate, and where one might
not notice at first the historical distance between, say, the
19th-century New Mexican retablos and the 16th-century Russian
icons, precisely because the two seem on first glance to share a
basic visual language.

In the Preston Morton gallery, on the other hand, the visual
correspondences between strikingly different depictions of the
human figure are impossible to miss, and all the more entertaining
for it. This gallery offers us the chance to contemplate an Edward
Weston nude alongside a Degas drawing of a dancer next to a
photograph of Martha Graham. It encourages us to look back and
forth between the works on the walls and the sculpture on the
floor, helping us see correspondences between a Maillol torso, for
example, and the painted Dali figure behind it; or between a Mercié
sculpture, a John Singer Sargent painting of a sculpture, and a
Braque depiction of a figure so nearly monochromatic that it seems
sculptural itself.

This new way of arranging art in a museum goes against a strong
tradition. In the permanent collection of most museums the art is
arranged in chronological order. Duccio comes before Giotto, who
comes before Botticelli. If you follow the right path through the
museum, you can see the history of art unfolding in front of your
eyes. A traditional museum thus tells a story about style in art,
one particular story about the way that the look of paintings and
sculptures changes over time.

There are a number of problems with this, and academic art
history has been occupied with many of them for the last several
decades. Why should a museum, which is meant to serve the whole
community, tell only one story? Who gets to decide which story it
is? Who is served, politically and culturally, by that story?

Even from the point of view of an average visitor walking
through the museum, a straightforward chronological arrangement can
be problematic. If the museum is telling just one story, and you
don’t know how to read that story — either because you didn’t take
that art history class, or because you’ve forgotten it, or because
you faked your way through it in the first place — then you are
pretty much out of luck. It’s also true that the story of how
styles of art change over time is actually pretty abstract. Many
people don’t relate to it very well. Most of us like a work of art
because we relate to its subject matter. The style of a work — that
is, the way that an artist has depicted the subject matter — can
make it more or less interesting, but only a minority of museum
visitors are interested first and foremost in the way something is

What to do, especially if you want to make the museum a more
interesting, engaging place for more people? The answer that the
Santa Barbara Museum of Art proposes is to re-hang the permanent
collection — to rearrange the way that the pictures are hung — to
use the museum to tell more and different stories.

For the expert on art, such an installation offers hours of
interpretive fun. A certain PhD in art history from Berkeley that I
know thoroughly enjoys the new hanging, and my brother-in-law, a
serious museum buff, also raved about the layout after he visited
the SBMA this year. After all, if you already know how the history
of art unfolds in the West, then it is refreshing to see this
variation on the theme. It is like watching a narrative unfold
through a series of flashbacks and side stories. The way that the
images are arranged makes the museum less like a lecture and more
like a poem; everyone is asked to bring a strong measure of their
own interpretation to the table.

The way the galleries are laid out also appeals to those who
enjoy art, but who have less of an art history background. Because
Picture Stories pays attention to subject matter, it is accessible
to visitors who do the same. Judy Davison, a first-grade teacher
from Sebastopol, California, who was visiting the galleries
recently, had one semester of art history in college and has always
wanted to take more classes about art. She admitted that when she
is in a museum she has little idea whether things are in
chronological order or not, but she very much liked being able
compare a number of depictions of the same subject, as the hanging
at SBMA allowed her to do. She was particularly drawn to a series
of images of arched bridges in the Ridley-Tree gallery, a painting
by Monet, one by Matisse, and a photograph by Kertész. Looking at
them, she explained, “I like how you can see what the different
artists do with the same subject.” Describing the gallery as a
whole she used the adjectives “friendly, open, inviting,
easy-to-look-at.” “I love art,” she said “but I don’t know much
about it. I don’t know why I like the way they have things
arranged, but the room seems to make sense. It’s not all cluttered.
It’s easy for someone who isn’t an expert to enjoy.”

Davison’s reaction is consistent with the feedback that the
museum has been getting in general. According to Diana du Pont, the
curator of the show, the response of the community has been “really
positive. We’ve had nothing but positive feedback.” She attributes
the success of this new way of doing things to the fact that the
galleries are now both surprising and recognizable. “If you compare
this with other museums, it’s unexpected. But this is how the world
is today. People like it because it is more like their experience.
Things aren’t just divided into different boxes. They’re all mixed
together, in different layers.” Although the approach of Picture
Stories will continue at SBMA, as special exhibitions come and go,
the hanging of the permanent collection will shift and change. The
works on display — particularly the works on paper — will rotate,
offering a shifting visual feast that repays return visits many
times over. Du Pont sees this way of arranging art as the future,
not just for SBMA, but for other museums as well. Let’s hope she is
right; if she is, it will be a delight for museum goers who enjoy
finding something new every time they go to a museum.

Soul and the City

Nights at the SBMA

by Charles Donelan

People in Santa Barbara generally know quite a lot about making
themselves more attractive. For our skin, we have spas. For our
hair, salons. For our bodies? There’s every exercise regime and
clothing option imaginable available here. But what to do about our
minds? Even for those already blessed with outward beauty, the mind
matters, because it’s where we can all become still more attractive
— not only to others but also to ourselves. An exciting convergence
of these two approaches to beauty is happening at Nights, the Santa
Barbara Museum of Art’s monthly summer event, which continues
tonight with a tribute to the human form in art. In keeping with
this theme, it would be safe to assume that, at Nights tonight, the
human form will be on generous display. And so will the art.

In a little over two years, Nights, held on the third Thursday
of the month from May through September, has become the most
successful and talked-about arts promotion in Santa Barbara. Every
month, a well-dressed, fun-loving crowd jams the place for almost
three hours of tightly choreographed indulgence. Tonight there will
be specialty drinks (“Dorian Gray Sauza margaritas”) and passed
hors d’oeuvres (this time from Roy), but that is only the
beginning. There will also be interactive art-making activities
such as “chakra charms” and “lovers tattoo cubes.” These arts and
crafts stations are more popular than you might imagine, and have
the added benefit of introducing dozens of newly body-decorated
revelers to the fray over the course of the evening. The usual
eclectic array of live music (tonight it’s the Coral Sea), and hip
DJs provided by KCRW (Raul Campos, who hosts Nocturna) will be
there, but most of all there will be lots and lots of glorious,
clamorous, glamorous people, which is a good thing, because they
are what make the event such a hit.

Kristy Thomas has been the creative mind behind Nights from the
beginning, and she remains the one who, month in and month out,
makes it all happen. “In the first place, it’s about rapture,” said
Thomas. “That is the key to any great event — the moment when you
are just transported.” Eric Vanderwold of Cox Media, one of the
event’s sponsors, agrees. He remembers his first experience with
Nights well. “I did not know what to expect when I showed up at the
museum, but I was immediately blown away by the energy. It was like
an after-work get together that somehow spiraled out of control
into a full-blown party. The art, the activities, the live music,
the drinks, and most of all the hundreds of people created an
atmosphere so intense that you could feel the electricity around

That kind of electricity only comes on when the museum is full.
As with other great public spaces (think Grand Central Station or
Dodger Stadium), the experience changes radically when the building
reaches capacity. People feel as Vanderwold did, that something big
has just happened, or — maybe even better — is just about to
happen. For many visitors to Nights this is literally true, as they
have seen old friends, met new ones, and, as often as not, formed
impromptu plans for the remainder of Thursday evening. The
atmosphere downtown, already festive, gets charged up another notch
whenever this event lets out.

But, as Thomas is quick to point out, this is not just another
excuse for a party. She says that “no matter how dressed up they
are and how good they look, all those people are still spending the
evening in the presence of art. Nights is always also about
cultivating the self. Art makes you feel good about yourself in a
special way; it develops the soul and lends quality and enchantment
to the time we spend by ourselves.” In an era when individuals
often flee the sober pleasures of solitary contemplation, it’s good
to know that you can have loads of fun and learn something too.

When asked about the way people network at Nights, Thomas
connects their need for social contact to their search for meaning.
“That’s why the museum makes such a great venue right now. People
need to network, but at the same time they crave significant
experiences. Nights is a party, but it’s a party with a heart and
soul. The sense of life that makes Nights so much fun is rooted in
the art, and the event leads people back to the work.”

However far away this description may seem from the
see-and-be-seen singles action at Nights, rest assured that if you
were to observe the creative effort that goes into programming
these events, you would see that it’s not in the least implausible.
Thomas is passionate about this aspect of what she does. “Every
little piece of what we have on hand comes from art and art
history. Sure, the drink names are silly, but I love them, because
the concepts are not. I get great pleasure when someone recognizes
a reference I’ve made. It’s all about how you approach art. Nights
augments people’s experience of the museum’s collection and space,
opening it up to the joy and buzz and clatter of human

Reflecting on the intimacy that occurs between the high-spirited
crowd and the masterpieces on the walls, Thomas says that,
“speaking for myself, I couldn’t do it without the connection to
the art. I even tried planning weddings, and it just didn’t work
for me. I like planning events, but I am employed by the museum’s
education department, and really what I am always thinking about
is, how to get this art deeper into people’s minds, and eventually
their hearts. It’s the art that gives this event its life.”

4•1•1 Nights continues tonight (June 15) from
5:30-8 p.m. at the SBMA, and resumes at the same time on July 20,
August 17, and September 21. Tickets are available in advance at or by calling
884‑6414. The museum is located at 1130 State St.


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