The Once and Future Museum

Posted online: October 2016

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Detail of David Alfaro Siqueiros, Portrait of Mexico Today, 1932, fresco on cement, 99 x 384 x 100 11/16 in., SBMA, anonymous gift; William Dole, Tower of Babel, 1962, watercolor and collage on board, 35 x 23 in., SBMA, gift of Dean Valentine and Amy Adelson, Los Angeles.

By Joan Tapper

It was an astonishing act of recycling, an incredibly imaginative solution to what was basically a civic bureaucratic issue. In 1937, when Santa Barbara’s abandoned post office building was about to be sold, artist Colin Campbell Cooper proposed instead that the glorious Italianate structure, built in 1912, be turned into a museum. It took four years for his suggestion to become reality, but on June 5, 1941, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art opened its doors. This year, SBMA celebrates its 75th anniversary, and once again, it is seizing the opportunity to restore the building and envision the future.   

From the very first exhibition of 140-plus works—“Painting Today and Yesterday in the United States,” which included pieces by Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper, as well as the popular Buffalo Hunter—the institution’s ambitions were obvious. “The founders were worldly, sophisticated, passionate about art, and well traveled,” says Larry Feinberg, SBMA’s Robert and Mercedes Eichholz Director and CEO. “They took it on themselves to create a museum with an international perspective. They were not out to build a regional museum or to focus on California art.”

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Top to bottom: Donald Bear, 1940s, SBMA archives; Ala Story, mid-1950s, SBMA archives; installation photograph of “Painting Today and Yesterday,” 1941, the first exhibition at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, SBMA archives.

Early on, patrons such as Wright Ludington and Katharine Dexter McCormick, among others, donated works that formed the core of a wide-ranging collection—Greek and Roman antiquities; ancient Chinese, Thai, and Cambodian sculptures; drawings and prints by moder
n European and American masters like Edgar Degas, Pablo Picasso, Marsden Hartley, and Joseph Stella; and a number of important Impressionist paintings, including several by Claude Monet. McCormick also contributed the funds for a new gallery named for her husband, the first of several wings to be added to the original building over the decades. These gifts were later joined by outstanding collections of American art, photography, and works from Asia and India.

Equally important were the museum’s visionary directors, beginning with Donald Bear, who set a high bar, notes Feinberg. Bear was followed by Ala Story—“one of the first women directors, who also brought great knowledge of the international art world.” In the 1960s, Tom Leavitt, who came from the Pasadena Museum of Art, further enhanced SBMA’s reputation. Says Feinberg, “It’s very fortunate for a museum in a city of this size to attract people of that stature and intellectual curiosity. It separates Santa Barbara from other beach towns of the West Coast. This is an extremely vibrant cultural community.”

Over the years, the museum expanded several times, adding the Preston Morton and Sterling Morton wings in 1961 and 1962, the Alice Keck Park Wing in 1985, and the Jean and Austin Peck Wing in 1998. Each addition had been designed independently, however, and a survey a couple of years ago of the roofing and mechanical systems revealed problems. The museum board took the opportunity to address the issues of the aging facility by initiating widespread structural and seismic renovations that would improve both the building and the experience for the visitor. A $50 million capital campaign is under way, and phase one of the renovation has already begun while the museum remains open and accessible.

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John Singer Sargent, Perseus at Night, ca. 1907, oil on canvas, 50 3/4 x 36 1/8 in., SBMA, gift of Mrs. Sterling Morton to the Preston Morton Collection

“We’re solving some age-old problems,” says project manager Gregg Wilson. “This is the first time we’ve been able to treat the building as a single structure.” The initial phase, scheduled to take 18 to 22 months, involves the McCormick wing and the lower level of the museum, which, though out of sight of visitors, is crucial for the ability to receive, store, and transport art. “There are some 28,000 works in the collection,” he adds. “Better storage equals quicker access. We’ll be able to rotate works more easily and frequently.” The museum will also be able to show some larger pieces of contemporary art. 

Mechanical systems—temperature, humidity, lighting—will all be brought up to state-of-the-art quality, and in keeping with an emphasis on sustainability, the project is aiming at a high LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating.

“It’s skillfully crafted to keep within the El Pueblo Viejo guidelines,” says Wilson, noting that from the outside, hardly any changes will be visible. The overall footprint of the museum will remain the same, yet about 14,000 square feet will be added, including new galleries for contemporary art and photography, and expanded space for the growing Asian collection.

Phase two will focus on the original post office building, encompassing familiar Ludington Court and a new circulation pattern that will make it easier for visitors to go from gallery to gallery. The finished project will include a new park entrance, inviting staircases to upper levels, and a rooftop pavilion as well as an expanded education center.

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Edgar Degas, Ballet Dancer Resting, c. 1900-1905, charcoal on surfaced cardboard, 19 5/8 x 12 1/4 in., SBMA, gift of Wright S. Ludington.

“We emphasize that this is not about expansion,” says Feinberg. “Eighty-five percent of the costs are on unglamorous but absolutely necessary things. But as long as we’re going to all that trouble…what can we do to make it a better museum for the community? Finally the public will get to see the full range of the collection.” He points to works that will be on view permanently—including a contemporary sculpture by Anish Kapoor and important pieces of Latin American and 19th and 20th-century American art. “It’s important to have gallery space for growth areas,” he adds, as well as the ability to stage larger exhibitions like Vincent van Gogh and Mark Rothko shows that are being considered for the future.

In the meantime, the museum has been celebrating its 75th anniversary since the spring and is holding a fundraising gala at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse with proceeds to go primarily to the education program. Says Feinberg, “It will be elegant…but fun!”

[FALL 2016]

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