The city and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art have agreed — it’s time for a remodel. The building on the corner of State and Anapamu Streets, which withstood the earthquake of 1925 while it was still the post office from 1914-1932 and which has served more than half a century as home of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA) since 1941, is overdue for a major makeover.
The museum’s proposal went before the city’s Planning Commission on November 20 in a four-hour meeting that yielded a positive outcome for the project, despite challenges concerning certain issues, such as the manner in which a new mid-block traffic light on Anapamu will be implemented and the loss of two live oak trees. The SBMA project, which is being touted by the museum under the rubric “Imagine More,” is projected to cost $50 million, with $42 million in total construction expenses and another $8 million invested in an endowment to maintain the facility. All of the funding for the project has been or will be privately raised.
In a meeting at the museum last week, director Larry Feinberg outlined the goals and focus of the plan, which will take place in stages over the next five years and during which time at least some of the galleries will always remain open. While the building is currently safe for use, the structural issues posed by the nearly 30-foot-high, unenforced masonry walls of the museum’s McCormick Gallery extend considerably beyond those encountered in a standard seismic retrofit. In addition, the HVAC system responsible for keeping the museum’s 27,000-work collection in pristine condition is in desperate need of modernization. In all, according to Feinberg, 85 percent of the $50 million total budget will go to cover these two unavoidable expenses — structural improvements to the gallery walls and state-of-the-art climate control for the storage of the collection.
This conservative focus on fundamentals does not mean that there’s nothing for the museum’s visitors to get excited about. Under the new plan, gallery space will expand 25 percent, and the museum’s gift shop and café will receive a new treatment offering both facilities better visibility and access from State Street. The Luria Activities Center will nearly triple in size, giving the museum more space in which to conduct its large and dynamic outreach programs for area students and teachers. In a bid to diversify the museum’s revenue streams, the building’s rooftop will become a terrace designed to accommodate a variety of social gatherings, including private events such as weddings and receptions. Feinberg stated that this new public area, in addition to aligning with best practices among comparable institutions from a financial point of view, would afford the museum additional opportunities to share its prime downtown location with partner cultural organizations.
It is from the point of view of the museum’s core audience, however, that the changes proposed are likely to have the most dramatic impact. Under Feinberg’s leadership, the museum’s already strong reputation for original programming has grown by leaps and bounds. Shows such as the Charles Garabedian retrospective, the Picasso and Braque exhibition, the Delacroix show, and the Artful Recluse exhibition of Chinese art have catapulted the SBMA into the top ranks of regional art museums.
What this renovation promises is nothing less than a revolution in regard to how the museum displays its substantial permanent collection. Three entirely new galleries, each devoted to revolving displays of different aspects of that endowment, will come online as a result of this project. The Asian art collection will get a new, more focused exhibition area, and both contemporary art and photography/video art will get their first-ever designated galleries in which the museum’s considerable holdings in these areas will appear. In addition, the museum’s important collection of 19th-century American art will also receive its own permanent place in the new configuration, which was designed by architect Robert Kupiec to flow more effectively from one gallery to another and to connect the museum’s somewhat occluded park entrance both to the new galleries and through to State Street. As a result of this remodel, the SBMA will be more like a true metropolitan-type art museum than ever before, with enough gallery space to keep its most important holdings perpetually on view, even during big special exhibitions, such as the planned Mark Rothko show that will arrive sometime between now and 2018.
The small increase in overall height to the building will be most noticeable from the upper stories of the Granada building and from the top floor of the Granada garage, both of which will continue to extend above the museum when the project is complete. By putting programming and stewardship first and leaving flashy curb appeal out of the equation, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art has prevailed in our city’s always challenging system of urban planning.