The Bigger Picture


Santa Barbara has been notoriously protective of its expansion patterns. For many years the city maintained a slow-growth policy with its water moratorium (lifted after state water arrived), and it has for much of this century wielded a firm hand in maintaining architectural standards. You’d think that flags and tempers would shoot up at the hint of a monopoly on real estate.

But there it is, smack-dab in the middle of downtown--an organization slowly gobbling up a large chunk of prime property. Of course, it makes a big difference that the rampant expansion is for art’s sake. Who can argue with that, especially in a town that prides itself on its cultural sophistication?

With the grand opening this Sunday of the newly expanded Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the facility has effectively consumed a large portion of the 1100 block of State Street. The effect can be a bit star tling.


Ground was broken in July 1996, but the museum has gone about its business during construction, closing only for the month of January while the new wing was integrated into the existing structure. Add $6.7 million and 11,088 square feet (making 56,623 total), and voila, the museum is reborn, and re-energized. It’s all grown up, almost overnight.

The museum, one of the oldest in Southern California, began its life as a post office, at the corner of State and Anapamu streets. In 1941 it became the ideal site for a museum in a city where wealthy, culture-minded citizens needed an of ficial forum for art.

In 1985, a major, $8.5-million expansion took place in the rear, adding new galleries, a theater and office space. But the addition of the Peck Wing is more visible in that it brings the museum down to sidewalk level on State Street. The new storefront portal makes for a friendlier interface with the public, as compared to what some saw as the formality of its earlier entrance, perched above stairs.

For the uninitiated, visiting the museum for the first time, the new wing blends in almost seamlessly with the old building. Architect John Pitman made sure to keep things in line, stylistically, designing the wing in a neo-Mediterranean style contiguous with the old building--as well as with the general architectural mandate for downtown.

But for those of us locals who have frequented the museum for years stretched into decades, touring the new space is bound to stir up disorientation. Once you walk through to the new Ridley-Tree Gallery (so named for the generous patrons who have helped spearhead new projects at the museum in recent years) in the Peck Wing, it may feel as if you’re somewhere else entirely. And, in a sense, you are.

Late last week, the dust had barely cleared and scaffolds still stood amid the artworks, but it was near enough completion to let in the media for a preview. Museum director Robert Frankel led the horde up the steps to the old museum facade, where Botero’s fleshy “Mother and Child,” on loan from the Ridley-Trees, now sits proudly, and stoutly, atop the museum steps.


He shouted above afternoon traffic, explaining that a rotating series of sculptures will grace the museum’s plaza area. “After the Botero, it will be followed by a Rodin and then by a Jim Dine, so there will be a variety of material available for you. It’s very special and we’re thrilled to be able to have it here for you.” As the head of a museum on the upward spiral, he uses “you” in the broadest sense possible.

Beyond the expanded gallery and office space, the new wing dramatically changes the face of the museum by giving it an easy walk-up entrance from State Street, a larger museum store, a children’s gallery and a cafe. In the cafe, one wall includes token remnants of the bricks and roof tiles from the building, which had to be razed to make way for the wing, a concession to the local landmark-conscious faction.

The big news, though, has to do with increased gallery footage. The new Ridley-Tree Gallery is now the largest single space in the museum, currently a home for French and English paintings from the museum’s collection. The old store has been transformed into the new Emmons Gallery, housing California watercolors. Added space frees other galleries to showcase work from the permanent collection as well as specific areas and media. The upstairs gallery is now devoted to the museum’s Asian art and artifact collection.

There will be a regular gallery for works on paper and photography, and it currently shows “Revealing the Holy Land: The Photographic Explorations of the Holy Land.” And, encouragingly, one wing is devoted to contemporary and 20th-century art, under the guidance of contemporary art curator Diana DuPont.

“We can have things in a more sensible, chronological sequence now,” explained Chief Curator Robert Henning, who has guided the museum through its growth spurt over the last 15 years. He was standing at a juncture in the middle of the museum, with newly opened sight lines into several galleries.

“You can see a cross-section of 18th century American art, move into the 19th century, the early 20th century and if you move that way, you continue into the 20th century and Modernism. If you move this way,” he glides over toward the new Ridley-Tree Gallery, “then you’re in 19th-century England and France.


“Instead of building a building and then trying to cram a collection in to fit it, the museum now more reflects the shape of the collection. Some of it is serendipitous, but we tried to make it work that way.”

Fittingly enough, as the museum unveils its new form this weekend, the art focuses on local collection power. Bragging rights are in order. Besides showing more of its permanent collection, there is also a surprisingly rich survey of French painting in the McCormick Gallery drawn from local collectors.

Is the new, expanded museum part of a larger tapestry of cultural growth in Southern California, as discussed with the much-ballyhooed recent opening of the Getty Center? “I have to judge it just from the case of Santa Barbara,” Henning offered. “I see this city transforming itself since 1981, when I came here. It’s a whole different place. If you had said to me then that I was going to a show of 70 major paintings from 14 collectors in Santa Barbara, I would have thought it wasn’t possible.”

In the Ridley-Tree Gallery, you find Rodin’s “Walking Man”--purchased from the estate of noted sculptor Henry Moore--standing sentry over a show that also includes some of the museum’s most dazzling holdings. On view here are paintings by Derain, Bonnard, Rousseau--gifts of the late Wright Ludington, a key museum patron--and Monet’s “Bordighera,” which had only a day earlier returned from the acclaimed Monet exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Henning commented that the museum’s frequent loans of its holdings help in cementing its reputation in the artworld, as well as engendering reciprocal favors from other museums. “Our loan record is unbelievable,” he said. A prize painting by the celebrated Im pressionist Berthe Morisot has been lent for exhibitions five times since Henning landed at the museum in 1981.

“In fact,” he said, “there’s a kind of unofficial moratorium on letting it go. It’s got to be here now for a while so people can see it. It’s a critical piece.”


The Preston Morton Gallery, showing examples from the museum’s works of early 20th-century American art, includes an early realist Diebenkorn painting that looks more like classic Edward Hopper than the 1932 Hopper painting it hangs next to.

Uruguayan artist Joaquin Torres-Garcia’s “Composition” hangs between galleries, as a kind of transition into the contemporary wing of the Davidson Gallery. Curator DuPont explained, “We thought that could be a tying together of the collections, because he worked in the three major geographic centers in Latin America, the United States and Europe. So, for our collection, it was perfect.”

One of the newest additions to the museum’s collection is contemporary artist Carter Potter’s 1997 work “Stormchasers,” which presents itself as a painting but uses old scraps of film leader as its material.

“The interesting, ironic point being made is that here we have a painting made with film, and, yet in the 20th century, film and photography were supposed to eclipse painting, so you have this funny dynamic going on,” said DuPont.

Downstairs, in the inner sanctum of the museum, a new center is being planned for scholars and others interested in the museum’s formidable collection of works on paper and photography. Amid the still-disorganized boxes and tables, Henning gestures where things will go, casually pulling out a Picasso print along the way.

He said the center “will be available by appointment to anybody who has a legitimate interest in prints, drawings and photographs. I think things like this also help elevate the museum as a functioning, professional organization, making important material available.”


As various aspects of the institution gain in strength, including the collection, exhibitions, research and outreach programs, the museum’s growth rate may be closer to exponential than linear.

“One thing feeds on another,” Henning said. “People like prestigious organizations that are doing wonderful things. They tend to be attracted to them.”

Does this expansion put the museum in a different ranking than it was before, a new echelon?

“To me, it does,” Henning said. “It gives us at least two more stars in the Triple A guide. Seriously, though, it makes us a fully functioning, major museum. Don’t call us a nice regional museum or a lovely little jewel. We’ve grown out of our jewel phase into something else now.”


Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State St. Opening celebration Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Regular hours: Tue.-Sat. 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Fri. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun. noon-5 p.m. Prices: $5, adults; $3, seniors; $2, ages 6-17 and students; free under 6; (805) 963-4364.