The People Who Turned a Dream into 75 Years of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art
It all started with a letter to the editor.
“The way the museum began has been told so many times, it almost seems apocryphal,” says Loren Hedges, an indispensable supporter, a self-styled “reluctant board member” and passionate docent at Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA) since almost the beginning.
But the legend is true and verified by the museum’s 75th anniversary this year, says SBMA Robert and Mercedes Eichholz Director & Chief Executive Officer Larry Feinberg, who wrote the historical essay for the museum’s birthday party catalogue 75 in 25.
In 1937, Colin Campbell Cooper—a renowned architectural painter, playwright and dean of painting at the once-thriving downtown Santa Barbara Community School of Arts—hearing that the city’s Italianate post office on the corner of State and Anapamu streets was for sale, wrote to the Santa Barbara News-Press suggesting that it be bought now. “He said it would be a great place to display the great art of the community,” says Feinberg. “Then along came Wright Ludington, an art lover who had been on the grand tour and was enamored of antiquities.”
Ludington, Feinberg says, mustered help from well-heeled buddies like former senator and editor Thomas Storke, the McCormick family, Buell Hammett and Mrs. Gordon Tremaine, among others. Cosmopolitan art lovers hell-bent on improving the populace trumped the local art mart, and four years after Cooper died, SBMA opened for business.
It was never a city-run institution, although the town bought the museum from the feds and charged the board (doing business as SBMA) a dollar a year for rent along with responsibility for upkeep. Strangely enough, current museum staff who recently sent out a query couldn’t find a living soul who remembers the sunshiny grand opening on June 5, 1941, even though the first 1,500 through the doors were neighboring junior high kids, presumably mere 90-year-olds today. (Fun fact, the doors swung open precisely at 11:43 a.m., according to Feinberg, on the recommendation of an astrologer who advised Buell Hammet, the museum’s founding president.)
Some come close to remembering. “The first time I went in the museum was 1950,” says Hedges. “And it was basically the old post office.” It still occupied one building then, freshly reconfigured as a museum by Chicago architect David Adler, brought in by the museum’s most munificent early friend Katharine McCormick. Built on a Catholic cemetery, the building had deep foundations—it survived the 1925 earthquake nicely. By the time Hedges got there, it also had accumulated European drawings and paintings, Roman and Greek antiquities, an impressive collection of American art and extensive Asian masterpieces from India to Japan. And a painting Hedges loves to this day. “A Zurbarán painting of a monk—I guess it’s ‘school of Zurbarán.’” says Hedges. Maybe more impressive were the first traveling shows. In 1942, both Picasso’s Guernica and Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase were on display on the corner of State and A.
Some of that original collection was quirky, like the dolls given by the Schott family, fondly remembered by old-timers. Some of it seems impossibly fortunate—Ludington, who built his Val Verde estate in imitation of Emperor Hadrian’s villa, gave the museum statues that hailed from Hadrian’s actual villa. Some works were lent, although, thanks to audacious curators like Susan Tai, they came to be permanent habitants. She went to Ludington and asked if he would give the pieces permanently. “He asked me why,” says Tai. “And I told him, ‘so I can have a job.’”
One of the most remarkable donors, according to Feinberg, was McCormick, who gave a wing, a family house and innumerable pieces. “What’s incredible about her, as I found out doing research, is that she helped start Planned Parenthood, began the League of Women Voters and completed research that led to the invention of the birth control pill.” The list of donors and acquisitions rarely lessened. The late great curator Karen Sinsheimer made SBMA famous for its photography collections, and Marcia Dupont significantly increased the Latin American holdings.
Among those who made a difference to the museum’s size and shape were the museum directors, board members and curators. Feinberg is the 11th director in 75 years, but the first, Donald Bear, was lured here after a boast. Bear claimed out loud he could build a collection around a folk art painting called Buffalo Hunter. Harriet Hammett Graham obliged by buying it and a telegram was sent to Bear that roughly stated: “Bought Buffalo. When can you start?”
Perhaps the most famous director was Paul Mills (1970-1982), a man whose post-professional life is memorialized in the film Beginners, and who Hedges claims was lured here at a time when the board was considering relocating the museum to the Alice Keck Park garden. The board dissuaded itself from the expense, and Mills stayed on. Today, we have the flags on State Street and Summer Solstice as part of his legacy as well.
Through the years, there have been clashes between directors, presidents and boards. Sometimes, directors spent too much of the endowment—which is healthy today, according to Feinberg. Sometimes board members assumed too much power. “The boards were even determining what the exhibitions would be,” he says. One infamous president installed an assistant director who had formerly been head of catering at the Biltmore.
Those days are gone now, thinks Feinberg, who believes first and foremost in the museum’s role as educator. The museum’s strengths derive from curators who have generously succeeded over the years, serving up Van Gogh, Pissarro, Dale Chihuly, Lucian Freud, Robert Mapplethorpe and local artists from Nell Campbell to Herbert Bayer.
The dolls may be gone, but the rafters now enclose cultural treasures from all over the globe.
“I think the history of the museum is something like a protozoa,” says Hedges. “Sometimes the director is in charge, sometimes the board and other times the curators.” But Feinberg, in his eighth year, promises more curator determination. He had just signed a new photography curator (Charles Wylie) to replace the widely loved Karen Sinsheimer last spring. “It took me six months to even think about replacing her,” he says.
What began with a misinterpreted modest proposal has become a cultural anchor. “A great museum offers history, religion, politics and, best of all, an opportunity to learn about yourself,” says Hedges.
Susan Tai, whose Puja and Piety exhibit kicks off the celebration, thinks tradition can go hand-in-hand with innovation. “I’d like to see us maintain the honor and continue the legacy of the founders, although not in a slavish way,” she says. The museum, in the middle of retrofits now, moves forward. Hedges says, “I can’t see this community without this museum. But I also can’t see this museum without this community.”
This story was originally published in the Summer 2016 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.