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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
you.”

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
connection.”

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
sbma.net or by calling
884‑6414. The museum is located at 1130 State St.

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