This is as agreeable a small city as any in the known world.

One minute it feels like a Mediterranean resort, the next like a provincial Ivy League financial center flavored with bits of Berkeley, Bombay and Barcelona. People along State Street, the main downtown stem, seem sartorially at ease with styles ranging from revivalist Henry Higgins to Flashdance Chic and Superannuated '60s. They meander among the patios of Spanish Revivalist buildings, apparently at one with life. If there is an unwritten motto anywhere in the atmosphere, it is "Don't hurry. There is time for everything."

The town's main symbol of cultural maturity is the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. It never seems to be in a hurry, even in the midst of great rejoicing and rejuvenation. Just last weekend, it trumpeted the culmination of a big $8.5-million renovation and expansion project that increased the size of the place by 70%, bringing it up to 56,000 square feet that includes 16 galleries all fitted out with skylights, climate-control devices, adjustable lighting and all the amenities considered necessary to an up-to-date art palace.

The celebration upon completing such a stimulating and stressful task peaked last weekend, but it did not begin then. True to Santa Barbara's unhurried pace, it began 14 months back when the new part of the museum, called the Alice Keck Park Wing, was opened.

Designed by Santa Barbara architect Paul Gray of Warner & Gray, its warmed-up Minimalist style added a patio entrance facing the civic center, a slightly tongue-in-cheek ceremonial Post-Mod portal with a Palladian arch, and space mainly devoted to offices, education facilities and so forth. It seemed at the time an occasionally frustrated but generally adroit use of limited space, and it still does.

What really happened just now was reopening the renovated existing building, it having been seamlessly joined to the new part. Inaugural exhibitions include two large outdoor light sculptures by Dale Eldred. One of them, out front on State Street, creates rainbow prisms on reflective strips. The other uses banks of 80 golden mirrors to bounce water-like reflections on the museum wall. It seems a bit too much hardware for the effect, but it is finally appropriately ethereal and laid-back.

Inside resides, among other things, the first installment of a three-part exercise titled "Santa Barbara Collects." This chapter is devoted mainly to pictures, Old Masters, 19th-Century and contemporary art divided between paintings and works-on-paper.

There is no sensible way to evaluate such a mixed buffet other than to observe that there doesn't seem to be anything either provincial or self-conscious about local collectors. They run true to the established easy manner, evidently buying what they like and, according to chief curator Robert Henning Jr., living with it cozily.

"Around here," he said, "you walk into somebody's study and there is likely to be a Winslow Homer just hanging casually in a corner."

That sense of relaxed independence pervades the exhibition. Many of the works have an aura of "this is what I like and I don't give a fig what any expert thinks of it." In part, that means that if ever any of it is donated to the museum, it should be accepted only on condition it can be promptly sold.

On the up side, quite an impressive fraction represents a level of quality that must have the museum fervently spinning its prayer wheel in hope of eventual generosity. The contemporary section includes a couple of drop-dead Diebenkorn "Ocean Park" abstractions, but it does not ignore such non-aligned sensibilities as Charles Garabedian or David Ligare.

Among modern works are rare Cubist examples by Georges Braque and Diego Rivera. American art includes an offbeat John Singer Sargent portrait as fresh as an oil sketch, and among the Old Masters there's a boffo Baroque Dutch still life by Willem Claesz Heda that is hardly the fare of a timid collector.

Et cetera and so forth.

Interesting as the special exhibition is, a first visit is bound to concentrate on the feel of the space and the look of the permanent collection. There is no question that the new rooms are handsomer, fresher and more numerous than the old. If longtime visitors find the arrangement a trifle disorienting, it is not yet clear whether that is an architectural problem or an inner-ear imbalance.

It's all rather like visiting a friend who has both remodeled his house and rehung his pictures. In both instances, one is guaranteed to get giddy trying to untangle what's new from what's old.

Well, the Ludington Court that punctuates the State Street entrance is reassuringly familiar, with its plashy fountain and Greco-Roman art. But what's that ? There is an entire and rather huge marble male standing there in the altogether. Can I have overlooked him all these years? Maybe he was in storage. Turns out he is the Lansdown Hermes, a recent gift from the museum's main angel, Wright Ludington.

Go thataway and Oriental Art has an additional gallery. Old favorites like a wonderful archaic-style Indian Buddha look refreshed, and Hasegawa Tohaku's "Daruma, First Zen Patriarch" seems downright new.

Go thisaway and there seems to be an extra space for Greek vases and the splendid, formerly neglected, little Roman Glass collection. Go the other way and encounter the museum's wonderful Georgia O'Keeffe--but where did that Walt Kuhn come from? And that gallery? That wasn't there before. Or was it?

Turns out it was, and it wasn't.

Once upon a time, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art was a post office. (It became a museum at 11:43 a.m. on June 6, 1941. We know this with precision because a mystical museum backer had the museum's horoscope cast to determine the most auspicious time for its opening. Obviously he was right.)

Anyway, in its former incarnation as a post office, the museum had a bank-vault-type safe--for valuable mail, I guess. It was so solidly built that it remained a vault for years. In fact, during World War II the government used it as an ammunition dump. Founding director Donald Bear was not pleased to have high explosives in his museum.

Now, at last, it has been painstakingly dismantled and is a gallery with a colorful history. The whole place is like that, a new museum full of art and memories. Upstairs galleries housing photographs and works on paper were once offices around the old central court. One of them is devoted to Ala Story, a beloved former director. The exhibition ranges from German Expressionist graphics to a section on women artists and local heroes like William Dole and George Rickey. Properly read, it is a biography of Story's artistic devotions.

So, how does it all shake down?

Clearly, there is now enough space to both run a more active program of special exhibitions and keep the permanent collection on view. According to Hemmings, building and refining the latter has top priority, and thus the courtly collectors show.

Altogether, we have a small general history of an art museum that has never looked so impressive. There is now enough on view to activate a well-known syndrome among museum people--when you get enough on the walls to convince people that you are substantial, more donations are attracted and things that are already good get better.

I just hope they never get good enough to get dull. As it stands, the place has none of the labored quality of a museum trying to be a pop-up history text. It goes along in mildly quirky fashion, offering a Vincian "Virgin and Child With St. Anne" that turns out to be a stylistically revealing copy by a Flemish artist, then quickly balances such eccentricity with three perfectly splendid Monets.

Judging by the look of the potential donors in the collectors exhibition, the museum is in little danger of losing either its idiosyncratic ease or its aesthetic tang.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World