Story by D.J. Palladino
Photos by Miguel Folch
Catherine Gee not only runs The Arts Fund for Santa Barbara, but you might say she’s a client, too. Gee, whose name is pronounced like the expression of wonder, came here less than five years ago as an arts consultant working for Morris Squire’s Rumble Art Show, with interests so diverse that they put the word “eclectic” to shame. The daughter of a professional artist who emigrated from Mainland China, Gee studied Spanish, violin, fine arts, art history and writing at Sewanee (University of the South). While later working for Squire and Summerland Winery—since she wasn’t busy enough—she heard about the Individual Artists Award program—which The Arts Fund gave each year from a different art form or genre—applied and won honorable mention.
“The funny thing is we don’t do that anymore,” she says.
In fact, the aspect of The Arts Fund that most benefited Gee herself was axed during her tenure, and yet it would be false to say that The Arts Fund has shrunk under her aegis. In actuality, the fund may be poised to take on its whole neighborhood, but that’s the next story.
Some confusion about The Arts Fund’s identity exists, fueled in part because the group doesn’t actually fund artists the way other straightforward granting organizations do. In fact, Gee readily acknowledges that her organization is gratefully dependent on more traditional foundations like Change Happens, Santa Barbara Foundation and big donors such as Michael Towbes. The organization’s name accurately reflects its origins: three decades ago, it began as a subcommittee of County Arts Commission, dedicated to finding money for that organization in its heyday. “In 1989 the group peeled off,” says Gee, “and began its life as an autonomous organization.”
The name stuck and, hence, some of the confusion.
Back then, its first order of work was the Individual Artists Awards. By the year 2000, however, the fund had evolved in two different but related spheres. First, it acquired a gallery, which doubled as a permanent office, on Montecito Street, in what was then an emerging neighborhood now dubbed the Funk Zone. The gallery began showing artists selected not for profit, but for local significance. In the meantime, a number of fund-related activities began to focus on art in schools, where much of the public funding had disappeared.
After some fairly complicated schemes, the group also developed the Arts Mentorship program, which matches gifted students with working artists such as Michael Irwin, Nell Campbell and Nevin Littlejohn, among others. At the end of each mentorship session—there are now two a year—the young artists’ work is displayed in the fund’s gallery. Income from art sold is split between the artist and the fund. The next big opening of young artists, always a party, is May 24.
But the fund isn’t just for kids. The gallery soon will change its exhibition policy to be more responsive to a wider variety of artists. It also has a summer Salon series in which different topics such as outsider art, millennium generation trends and ins and outs of collecting art are held at varying venues.
Perhaps the biggest change in focus is on its new look within the Funk Zone, where the fund lives and hosted or sponsored big events in the last year including a charette (a kind of fantasy-plan for the area’s future), a fashion show with Carr Winery and a late fall show of prominent artists living in the zone. Gee believes there is much more that can be done to promote this area of town that has the potential to be a cultural nexus. “There are at least 12 art spaces in the neighborhood,” says Gee, gesturing around as we sit at Metropulos Fine Foods Merchant. “We are right in the epicenter.”
Meanwhile, The Arts Fund keeps evolving. “What’s interesting is that my organization is going through a rebirth. I’m so grateful that the founding members support us through these changes. What is big for me is education,” Gee says, citing her pride at the now-expanding mentorship programs. But she’s clearly excited about the possibility of bringing it all into the future as well. “I’m proud of what we’re doing. It’s not really a struggle, but you do have to be a fighter.”
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This story was originally published in the Spring issue of Santa Barbara SEASONS Magazine.