Story by Rebekah Altman/Photographs by Kendall Klein
Growing up in the border town of Brownsville, Texas with artist and educator parents, Miki Garcia was immersed eyeballs-deep in art from birth. A career in the field was “inevitable,” she says, but it wasn’t until discovering art history in college that she found her vocation.
In 2004, Garcia became executive director of Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum (CAF), an alternative art space dedicated to supporting and showcasing contemporary art. She was 33 years old, and the organization had been without a full-time director for two years, but her ambition to help revitalize CAF left her undaunted. Her curatorial background gives her an edge, she says. “I won’t compromise the integrity of the work.”
It is certainly paying off: last year CAF received a $250,000 Arts Regional Initiative grant from James Irvine Foundation, allowing the organization to work on a three-year comprehensive plan toward financial sustainability, greater visibility and increased diversity. “Lots of organizations put together a strategic plan, but we’re really looking at it as a kind of catalyst to take us to the next level,” Garcia says.
CAF’s rotating exhibitions, monthly performances and educational programs all strive to be provocative to ever-more-diverse audiences. While featuring its share of high-concept artworks, Garcia explains, the programming is aimed to help visitors feel like “they can come into a contemporary art space without having to know everything. They have the tools, they just don’t know it.”
As project coordinator for Public Art Fund in New York City, Garcia was responsible for bringing temporary cutting-edge installations to the public sphere. Because of this experience, she relates, “I’ve seen how people react differently to art in their midst versus when they have to put on a certain face and they walk [up] the marble steps of the museum.” CAF’s partnership with Paseo Nuevo shopping center to place installations in public spaces reflects the idea that people can gain something from the experience even if they don’t think of themselves as art lovers—it just takes a willingness to look.
A recent collaboration with Hotel Indigo is another way CAF is reaching beyond the bounds of the gallery walls. The newly renovated boutique hotel on lower State Street now doubles as a gallery space displaying artwork and installations by 14 artists. Garcia explains how “I thought it would be so great if you walked into the space and you had an open frame of mind where you’re like, ‘Wow, this is cool’ and then you’re like, ‘Oh, this is contemporary art. Oh, I’m in an art museum?’”
Possibly CAF’s most important role is the way it serves artists. “My goal has always been…that artists in this community look to CAF as their touchstone,” says Garcia. Portfolio reviews, artist survival strategies workshops, smART Salon artist talks and meetings between regional and visiting artists provide support and networking opportunities. Being a non-collecting institution also gives CAF the freedom to support an environment that is fertile and “laboratory-like.” Says Garcia: “The main drive is to give artists, of right now, the resources to do something completely different.”
Garcia maintains contact with artists she’s known for years, keeping up with their output while constantly reviewing the work of new artists, creating an enormous and fluid index. She travels “all over, all the time” to visit with artists, serve as juror for artist awards, accompany collectors and donors, and attend the big art shows, including, just in the last year, the Istanbul Biennial, Art Basel Miami and the Havana Biennale.
How does she sift through all that work? “My filter is to look at it, and to acknowledge it.” In addition to ensuring that a spectrum of media, gender and ethnicities is represented, Garcia says she believes art “is a mirror and a reflection of the human experience on this earth. And some of it is not beautiful, and some of it is grotesque, and some of it is perverse and some of it is absurd.” Ultimately, she says, “I want the work that I bring to really stir questions in us.”
Helping artists realize their visions is incredibly satisfying work. She concludes, “I think one of the things about working in the art world that is so incredible is that you’re around people who follow their dreams—that’s amazing.”
For more information about exhibitions and programs at Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum, click here.