Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara Announces August Closure

Leadership Says Venue Had Been Under Financial Strain for Many Years

MCASB's recent exhibition, This Basic Asymmetry | Credit: Courtesy

The Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara (MCASB), which for the better part of five decades has served as the city’s premier contemporary art-focused venue, announced it is closing August 28. The organization had faced financial strain for a number of years now, said Board President Laura Macker Johnston in a statement, and the COVID pandemic was the final nail in the coffin. 

“Despite our best efforts to expand our donor base within the region, we have been unable to reach the fundraising goals necessary to maintain operations, and it is the board’s intention to act responsibly at this time to honor the institution’s legacy,” Johnston said. While MCASB will soon shut its doors, she explained, the museum is in talks with community partners about potentially continuing their popular Emerging Leaders in the Arts and Teen Arts Collective programs.

Founded in 1976 as a roving space and originally called the Contemporary Arts Forum (CAF), the museum moved into its first permanent home in 1980 in the historic Balboa Building owned by Bob Klausner, whose wife, Betty, was one of the CAF’s first organizers. It then moved in 1990 to its current location at the Paseo Nuevo Shopping Center. 

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In fact, one of the city’s conditions for approving the mall at the time was that it include a black box theater (Center Stage Theater currently fills that role) and visual arts venue. With MCASB’s imminent departure, Paseo Nuevo must now find a new museum tenant, said Jason Harris, the city’s economic development manager.

While other regional venues, including the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and UCSB’s Art, Design, & Architecture Museum, feature contemporary works in their schedules, it often appears peripheral to their main shows. MCASB, meanwhile, was known for bringing big-name contemporary artists from all over the world to Santa Barbara ― including John Baldessari, Ed and Nancy Kienholz, and Wayne Thiebaud, among others ― and highlighting local talent.

“It is a huge loss,” said Nathan Vonk, owner of the Sullivan Goss gallery. “Having a Museum of Contemporary Art in Santa Barbara was a point of pride for everyone involved in the city’s arts ecosystem. Hopefully, this sad news will remind the community how fragile some of our most beloved arts institutions are without more public and private financial support.”

MCASB’s revenue took a major hit when, in 2018, it canceled its annual Dream Home Raffle fundraiser amid allegations of impropriety against the event’s contracted operator. The raffle was the museum’s main source of income for many years, generating $1.1 million in 2017 alone. But the consultant, which ran raffles for numerous nonprofits and charities across the country, has since come under fire for rarely awarding the homes it and its clients aggressively advertised.

Even with the raffle revenue, however, MCASB was in serious financial trouble, tax records show. In 2017, the organization reported a loss of approximately $504,000. The year before that, it was just more than $712,000. In 2019, the museum lost more than $1.2 million, and in 2020 it dropped another $1.7 million.

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