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Vintage Museum Gets New Look

The Santa Barbara Museum of Art will open its $6.7-million renovation and expansion project next Sunday.

January 25, 1998|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

SANTA BARBARA — The Santa Barbara Museum of Art is a thoroughly predictable, conventional institution in an extraordinarily beautiful town, right?

Year after year, it sits in the same gorgeous place, greeting visitors with selections from its permanent collection and a conservative mix of temporary exhibitions. Nourished by the community's wealthy art collectors and situated on State Street--with its main entrance at the top of a grand staircase, overlooking the city's central commercial district--the museum projects an aura of patrician repose.

Having reached the ripe old age of 57, the museum is, indeed, one of Southern California's cultural grande dames, predating four of Los Angeles' major art museums--the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Norton Simon Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art--though not the 91-year-old Southwest Museum or the 79-year-old Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.

But the staid image of the Santa Barbara museum obscures the fact that it has expanded greatly over the years and repeatedly reinvented itself. With a collection that has grown from 65 objects to about 17,000, and a building that has evolved from a roughly 12,000-square-foot abandoned post office to a 56,623-square-foot complex, the present institution bears little resemblance to the original.

And now the museum is at it again--this time with a major renovation and expansion project scheduled to open next Sunday. The $6.7-million project--including a $2.4-million endowment--adds a three-story, 11,088-square-foot wing that stretches south on State Street into space formerly occupied by two businesses. The new addition contains a 3,600-square-foot gallery for 19th and early 20th century American, French and British art, a smaller gallery for California art, a children's gallery, a cafe and an expanded shop.

In the process of growing, the museum also has reconfigured existing galleries and moved offices from the dingy basement to the airy upper level of the new wing. "We ended up with a virtually new building, even in spaces that existed before," said museum director Robert H. Frankel, who assumed his position two years ago, before construction plans were finalized.

On a recent visit, a giant wood crate with the museum's reopening date printed in big black letters stood at the top of the staircase. The crate held a huge bronze sculpture of a mother and child by Colombian artist Fernando Botero. Borrowed from the collection of major museum supporters Paul and Leslie Ridley-Tree, the artwork will be uncrated and displayed for several months, kicking off a series of sculptural installations, Frankel said.

Walking through the building while workers put finishing touches on offices and galleries, he pointed out new attractions and transformations of familiar spaces. Even the landmark Ludington Court, which continues to display antiquities just inside the old State Street entrance, has a fresh look: peach-colored walls.

Among more substantial changes, the Asian collection has gained new prominence and coherence in refurbished upper-level galleries overlooking Ludington Court, in an area formerly devoted--but not well suited--to paintings. Photography and works on paper each have rooms of their own now, adjacent to galleries for temporary exhibitions of related material. And on the lower level, a new study center for works on paper will be open to scholars by appointment.

"We're always talking about what we have in our collections. Now we will be able to show people," Frankel said. Many more artworks can be displayed now, and they can be seen in a more logical progression, he said. For example, more than half of the museum's collection consists of works on paper, but that has been a fairly well-kept secret, he said. In the new gallery and study center, works on paper will be much more available.

Along with rediscovering favorite artworks in a different setting, visitors will also see new acquisitions. The prime 20th century example is Joaquin Torres-Garcia's 1932 abstract painting "Composition," a definitive example of the Constructivist style of the Uruguayan artist, an international figure who was educated in Spain and lived and worked in the United States and France, as well as his native land.

Among new additions to the museum's 19th century collection is "The Walking Man," a bronze figure by French sculptor Auguste Rodin, purchased from the estate of British sculptor Henry Moore.

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