Opening the Doors of Perception

Photography and Photo Galleries in Santa Barbara

by Brett Leigh Dicks

Outside of Hollywood on Academy Awards night, Santa Barbara
arguably boasts the highest concentration of photographers in the
country. This makes it all the more ironic that a town so connected
with the medium currently has no galleries dedicated to
photography. The Staton-Greenberg Gallery, one of the jewels in
Santa Barbara’s artistic crown, last year packed away its prints
and closed it doors. And, from the outside, it appears that a town
internationally recognized as a center of photography, would once
again be without a photographic gallery. But appearances can be
deceptive.

There might be a different business now inhabiting
Staton-Greenberg’s Anapamu Street premises, but all is far from
lost when it comes to photography galleries in Santa Barbara. A
group of dedicated local enthusiasts are working with New York
gallery owner and Staton-Greenberg partner, Howard Greenberg, to
again have a photography gallery in Santa Barbara. Staton-Greenberg
created a burgeoning local photography-buying market. And, in an
endeavor as financially precarious as fine art photography, it was
not the gallery’s economic prospects behind the gallery closing its
doors, but rather a change within its management structure.

“I wasn’t really interested in opening another gallery,”
recalled Howard Greenberg. “Running one gallery is more than
enough. But, for many years, a number of people in Santa Barbara
were interested in having a quality photography gallery — one that
was something more than just a local undertaking — established in
town. I thought about it for a long time and it never quite made
sense to me, unless I could find the key person who could run the
gallery and embrace my program. If the right person had not come
along, I would not have opened a gallery there at all.”

With the lack of a dedicated photography gallery, a significant
void has developed within the local exhibition scene. And it
emphasizes the importance such an establishment holds within the
cultural richness of the city itself. Commercial galleries not only
serve the community directly by providing art for viewing and
collection as well as educating the public, they also provide a
vital lifeline for the city’s public institutions and their
collections. Without such an establishment stimulating collecting
on a local level, our local museums could also soon be feeling the
effects.

“Galleries come to know the museum’s collections, its needs, and
wishes for its collection,” explained Karen Sinsheimer, curator of
photography for the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. “They can be of
great help in working with collectors and donors in putting us
together. When one looks at collections at the Metropolitan Museum
of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and other museums,
one sees that gallery owners have made important gifts. They see
building the museum’s collection and reputation as part of their
commitment to the field.”

In a commercial gallery, enthusiasm and good will ordinarily
come as the result of financial success. While there might exist a
natural symbiosis between private and public galleries, the fiscal
realities are such that, in order for a commercial gallery to
survive, it needs to sell work. And to sell work, there needs to be
a viable market. The fact that Howard Greenberg and his local
friends are willing to reinvent the gallery is a good indication
that Santa Barbara could be on the way to sustaining a productive
photography market.

“I am supportive of anything to do with photography in Santa
Barbara,” affirmsedGreenberg. “That includes another gallery when
the right combination of ingredients comes together. The original
thinking for the gallery was a multifaceted program, and a big part
of that is of course to exhibit the kind of photography that is not
ordinarily seen in Santa Barbara or even on the West Coast. The
photography audience is always hungry for education and the chance
to see photographs or collections they wouldn’t ordinarily see.
Because the West Coast is so photographically oriented, there is a
very good audience for such variety out there.”

While we here in Santa Barbara are in the midst of it all, when
contemplating the progression of the medium, perhaps we should be
looking at a bigger artistic picture rather than addressing only
photography. “The real issue is not photography as a segregated
medium,” suggested photographer Richard Ross. “Photography is part
of a larger world of contemporary art. With limited exhibition
spaces and funds there are fewer risks being taken, and risk taking
is the life-blood of contemporary art. To be honest, there are
other things to celebrate in Santa Barbara. This is our two-edged
sword.”

Over the years, Santa Barbara has witnessed the coming and going
of more than its fair share of successful galleries. In the past
year the city has welcomed several new galleries including Artamo
and 19 Haley. Having a new, Greenberg-backed gallery dedicated to
photography would surely be a step in the direction of further
vitalizing the scene.

“It is ironic that Santa Barbara, known worldwide as a
‘photography town’, doesn’t have a gallery scene, but I still think
it’s on the horizon,” said Sinsheimer. “There’s a dynamic that
occurs when there’s a critical mass of galleries. It creates a buzz
and excitement and ultimately the broader perception that Santa
Barbara is an art-buying destination. That happened in Santa Fe
early on and I believe it can happen here. Over the years, I’ve had
any number of people come to me and express interest in opening a
gallery, so I’m convinced it will happen.”

With photographers the caliber of Bob DeBris, Keith Fishman,
Richard Ross, Santi Visalli, and Bob Werling all inhabiting our
city, there is certainly no shortage of quality work. And, as
Sinsheimer suggested, the rest might simply be a matter of
perception.

“Perception and reality mix just as well in life as they do in
art,” museed photographer Keith Fishman. “The perception outside of
Santa Barbara is that our city is a center for photography.
Photographers come here from all over the place. The Brooks
Institute is here and the museum’s photography program is
unquestionably one of its strongest assets. The reality is that
photography has always been strong here, and it’s only going to get
stronger. I am confident we will soon find that, when it comes to
photography, Santa Barbara is a place where reality will ultimately
exceed perception.”

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