A Resurgence: Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s renovation has people flocking to the venue
It was just three months ago that the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA) celebrated the completion of a six-year, $50 million renovation, a project addressing critical needs of the main building, which hits the century mark in 2012, including seismic retrofitting, replacement of the roof, and upgrades to the mechanical and climate control systems, among other work.
The project also incorporated new galleries for contemporary art, new media, and photography as well as a redesign of other galleries, the better to allow the museum to display more of its impressive 25,000-object permanent collection. That’s a number that represents a magnitude and quality more commonly found in cities eight times the size of Santa Barbara and encompasses arts of Asia, Europe, and the Americas and includes paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, photographs, ceramics, glass, jades, bronzes, lacquer, and textiles. SBMA’s collection includes classical antiquities rivaled in the West only by the J. Paul Getty Museum, and multiple masterpieces of French Impressionism — no West Coast museum owns more Monet paintings.
With the renovations in the rearview mirror, the Museum of Art has resumed its rightful place as a centerpiece in the Santa Barbara downtown arts district, where it sits prominently within a block of the Granada, Arlington, and Ensemble theatres, and just a little more than two blocks above the Lobero. Residents have been rejoicing in the museum’s re-emergence, which came less than two months after the relaxing of the general restrictions due to the COVID pandemic. More than 2,000 people poured through the main doors during the grand opening weekend, when they witnessed firsthand the gorgeous reimagining of the entryway that now offers an unobstructed view up to the galleries and skylights, representing an invitation befitting an area that enjoys more than 300 days of sunshine yearly.
But opening weekend was just the beginning of the museum’s resurgence, said Susan M. Bradley, the museum’s Deputy Director of External Affairs.
“Our visitor numbers have been steadily climbing as the community is discovering we are fully reopened,” she said. “It’s been really heartening.”
Indeed, she said, people were streaming through the front doors of the museum a couple of weeks ago for December’s 1st Thursday event, the monthly art and culture walk in downtown Santa Barbara.
“The exhibitions and installations in the galleries were busy, Santa Barbara Opera performed in the galleries, and SBMA Teaching Artists led activities in the Elements of Art Studio in the Museum’s Family Resource Center. It was great.”
The current mission is to get the museum’s membership numbers back up to at least where they were before the renovation project had kept the museum “essentially closed for almost six years. Membership is a priority,” Bradley said. Unlike the big capital campaign that provided for the renovations, which was largely funded by major donors, the museum now wants to appeal to people on an individual basis.
“We’re not asking for money at the moment. It’s about joining and becoming a member to be a part of a community that supports the arts and supports the museum as a hub for the arts in town.”
The annual fee is not just a donation. As the old American Express ad campaign used to go, membership has its privileges, among them free admission all year long, not just on Thursday evenings when the museum is open for free to everyone. Art lovers who become members also receive discounts on programs, lectures, and workshops as well as shopping at the museum store.
Free entry means multiple visits to view such exhibitions as “Santi Visalli at 90: Una Storia,” which opens at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art on Sunday, December 19, and features 29 photographs by the famed Sicily-born Santa Barbara resident Santi Visalli whose work appeared regularly in The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, U.S. News & World Report, Paris Match, Oggi, and Stern, among others.
The Santelli show runs through March 13, which is two weeks after the opening of the museum’s most ambitious and anticipated exhibition in memory: “Through Vincent’s Eyes: Van Gogh and His Sources,” which will immerse viewers in the visual imagination of one of the most beloved artists in the world. Twenty works by Van Gogh will hang alongside 75 others that were selected to reflect the varied art that he most admired, connecting Van Gogh to his late 19th-century context. Museum members will enjoy an entire day to exclusively view the works of wonder during special hours.
The Van Gogh exhibition will also be the anchor point for a multitude of collaborative programming with several additional arts and other organizations in town, including dance, music, and theater.
“It is wonderful to be fully open and back as an arts hub for the entire community,” Bradley said. “Through Vincent’s Eyes has given us the opportunity to partner with local businesses and nonprofits, even other museum and gallery installations, a virtual reality experience, and participative art classes.”
Classes, by the way, are a cornerstone of SBMA’s educational mission — that the museum serves as a learning center for students across the region is one of the lesser-known facts, and with the reopening, the Educational Center is once again fully functioning.
“People are amazed when I tell them we work with 25,000 students a year,” Bradley said. “It’s great to have the students back in the galleries. It’s a beautiful thing to see a group of children with a docent gathered around a piece of art. They are so happy to be in the museum and it’s a joy to watch them. It just warms my heart.”
Bradley added that, despite all of the museum’s renovations and newly dedicated galleries, she’s partial to an unofficial one: the one the kids call the Going Up Gallery — actually the spacious elevator which features artwork by the children.
“Our teaching artists do so much with them and the art the children create is incredible. It’s spectacular to get on the elevator and see what they’re showing.”
From Dutch masters to dedicated docents to kids creating artwork for the elevators — the Santa Barbara Museum of Art has got you covered.
Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s website is www.sbma.net. Contact Susan Bradley at (805) 884-6427 or www.sbma.net/support.