2020 Prompts New Vision of Santa Barbara Arts Community

By Ted Mills   |   August 5, 2021

Performing arts and the arts nonprofit sector of Santa Barbara took a huge hit in 2020, as COVID performed a scorched earth campaign across an already tenuous industry. Santa Barbara loves its art and its artists, but it has often suffered from the silo’ing of audiences and funding. 

Philanthropists love having their names on new buildings — not so much the annual grind of the capital campaign. During the lockdown, the arts attempted in various ways to join the Zoom revolution happening in offices everywhere, though how enthusiastic audiences were for logging back on after a day at the office remains to be seen. We in Santa Barbara coped, and we watched some places disappear, and we thought of a day sometime in the future where the sound of a candy wrapper would be the worst thing to happen during a packed audience somewhere.

The Sentinel asked a selection of nonprofits their thoughts on the plague year that we can’t seem to shake, and what the new normal might be.

First off, we wondered whether 2020 had led to a rethink of a nonprofits’ core mission. For the most part, nonprofits chose to stay the same, as mission statements are usually very open, very flexible things. Dacia Harwood, deputy director at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, said they had altered their statement. It now reads to “inspire meaningful connections to Santa Barbara history,” which it turns out they did with increased online access to materials and lectures.

“We had over 5,000 participants,” Harwood said.

Jamie Dufek at the Arts Fund Santa Barbara added: “We made the determination that the mission of the Arts Fund was needed now more than ever; as individuals had to isolate, kids were kept home with limited educational and creative resources, and other community art outlets were forced to close.”

Again, this meant moving their mentorships online — but they were already doing so. Unrelated to COVID woes, the Arts Fund’s Funk Zone gallery closed months before the pandemic. It was good timing. And now they have just opened a new gallery location in the heart of downtown, in the former site of Sur la Table. (The retail outlet, like many along State, closed due to COVID.) There is now more foot traffic than ever, according to Dufek.

But the issue on all nonprofit minds is money. While some rely on ticket sales, others rely on fundraising events and grants. Those gala productions were once a mainstay of the social scene — overnight they were cancelled and vanished. Most nonprofits inevitably lost money over the 15 months: The Museum of Natural History lost $1.1 million, its sister Sea Center lost $350,000; the Historical Museum lost $300,000 in events revenue; MOXI did not specify an amount but said, “In a typical year we earn over $1 million from general admissions and memberships”; the Santa Barbara Bowl Foundation gave no amount, but noted for the first time they had to fundraise just for operating expenses; the Arts Fund declined to say. The only nonprofit that came out on top was the Santa Barbara Arts Collaborative: “Amazingly we kind of broke even,” Casey Caldwell said. Its advantage was in the virtually free rent donated by the city, their flexibility in remaining open somewhat, and Caldwell taking a pay cut to three-quarters of his salary. (He is their only paid employee.)

In fact, those locked into and based around a singular venue (the SB Bowl; museums) found lockdown painful. Caldwell’s Community Arts Workshop — essentially a remodeled collection of warehouse/industrial space — was able to adapt, with its high ceilings and the ability to open to the fresh air. The various arts groups that use the space adapted readily. The Santa Barbara Centre for Aerial Dance simply dropped class capacity numbers and were able to keep teaching. Several photographers used the space as large studios. And The Lights Up Theatre Company painted one wall of the workshop as a greenscreen and filmed a performance of Man of La Mancha in the open air. Others, like the Arts Fund, transitioned to online mentorship programs, which allowed young adults to attend county-wide. For parents with teens, location often dictated what a child could attend. Not so online.

The lockdown also gave nonprofits a chance to turn to projects that had been on the back burner. Long overdue maintenance and repairs were finished. The SB Bowl was able to reinforce a retaining wall and add a new plaza-type area, expand solar panel arrays, and invest in several local youth performing arts organizations, according to the Bowl’s Executive Director Rick Boller

Harwood at the Historical Museum replied, “We actually had a capital project funded and scheduled in the spring of 2020, the installation of compact storage in two of our Vault areas. We also added HVAC in the same wing of our underground space. Both were to further protect the Museum’s collection of historic clothing and textiles along with thousands of artifacts in our Decorative Arts collection. The time allowed us to focus on real organization and documentation of the objects. Additionally, we really focused on making as much of our history available online — we greatly improved access to our archive, publications, etc.”

Local authorities up through federal all received high marks from the nonprofits in this article. There were lots of webinars and Zoom meetings, and changing information was just part of the ever-evolving situation. The Natural History Museum did call some of the information “confusing” so decided to just keep a conservative approach to a number of re-openings. The Arts Fund noted, “The one area that we believe the city could have been stronger was in the area of economic relief for more industries that were deeply impacted by the city’s restrictions, such as the arts industry.”

Now all eyes are on the future, and all fingers are crossed. Can we will normality into existence or will the Delta variant mean another lockdown? The SB Bowl has posted several upcoming concerts for the summer and fall but has had to cancel some already. Currently, Chelsea Handler’s stand-up gig is still set for August 21. Ensemble Theatre Company is set to reopen in October. For large spaces, a high vaccination rate has made things feel a bit normal. 

But what is the Santa Barbara that we’ll be returning to?

“Santa Barbara is an incredibly resilient community following fires, floods, droughts, and now the pandemic,” said Harwood. “I’m proud of how creative the community (and especially businessowners) have been in order to survive. (However) we’ve seen an influx of new residents from Southern and Northern California now that people can more easily work remotely, so housing is even more scarce and expensive than it was before.”

“I think Santa Barbara and its residents are emerging with a renewed gratitude for the little things and, most importantly, for being able to share moments with others,” said MOXI’s Martha Swanson

Harwood’s Historical Museum has already hosted a “History Happy Hour” talk in the courtyard. “The small crowd was so wonderful and enthusiastic to be back out enjoying a beautiful night, gorgeous weather, and just a little more space around them.”

The Arts Fund’s Dufek said it’s still too early to tell how Santa Barbara has changed.

“But what we are certain of is that the arts are more important and needed as ever and we are really excited for us to re-emerge ‘in-person’ in the community.”


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