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ART: Ventura County

The Bigger Picture

Santa Barbara museum adds a user-friendly entrance, gallery footage to showcase local collections.


Santa Barbara has been notoriously protective of its expansion patterns. For many years the city maintained a slow-growth policy with its water moratorium (lifted after state water arrived), and it has for much of this century wielded a firm hand in maintaining architectural standards. You'd think that flags and tempers would shoot up at the hint of a monopoly on real estate.

But there it is, smack-dab in the middle of downtown--an organization slowly gobbling up a large chunk of prime property. Of course, it makes a big difference that the rampant expansion is for art's sake. Who can argue with that, especially in a town that prides itself on its cultural sophistication?

With the grand opening this Sunday of the newly expanded Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the facility has effectively consumed a large portion of the 1100 block of State Street. The effect can be a bit star tling.

Ground was broken in July 1996, but the museum has gone about its business during construction, closing only for the month of January while the new wing was integrated into the existing structure. Add $6.7 million and 11,088 square feet (making 56,623 total), and voila, the museum is reborn, and re-energized. It's all grown up, almost overnight.

The museum, one of the oldest in Southern California, began its life as a post office, at the corner of State and Anapamu streets. In 1941 it became the ideal site for a museum in a city where wealthy, culture-minded citizens needed an of ficial forum for art.

In 1985, a major, $8.5-million expansion took place in the rear, adding new galleries, a theater and office space. But the addition of the Peck Wing is more visible in that it brings the museum down to sidewalk level on State Street. The new storefront portal makes for a friendlier interface with the public, as compared to what some saw as the formality of its earlier entrance, perched above stairs.

For the uninitiated, visiting the museum for the first time, the new wing blends in almost seamlessly with the old building. Architect John Pitman made sure to keep things in line, stylistically, designing the wing in a neo-Mediterranean style contiguous with the old building--as well as with the general architectural mandate for downtown.

But for those of us locals who have frequented the museum for years stretched into decades, touring the new space is bound to stir up disorientation. Once you walk through to the new Ridley-Tree Gallery (so named for the generous patrons who have helped spearhead new projects at the museum in recent years) in the Peck Wing, it may feel as if you're somewhere else entirely. And, in a sense, you are.

Late last week, the dust had barely cleared and scaffolds still stood amid the artworks, but it was near enough completion to let in the media for a preview. Museum director Robert Frankel led the horde up the steps to the old museum facade, where Botero's fleshy "Mother and Child," on loan from the Ridley-Trees, now sits proudly, and stoutly, atop the museum steps.

He shouted above afternoon traffic, explaining that a rotating series of sculptures will grace the museum's plaza area. "After the Botero, it will be followed by a Rodin and then by a Jim Dine, so there will be a variety of material available for you. It's very special and we're thrilled to be able to have it here for you." As the head of a museum on the upward spiral, he uses "you" in the broadest sense possible.

Beyond the expanded gallery and office space, the new wing dramatically changes the face of the museum by giving it an easy walk-up entrance from State Street, a larger museum store, a children's gallery and a cafe. In the cafe, one wall includes token remnants of the bricks and roof tiles from the building, which had to be razed to make way for the wing, a concession to the local landmark-conscious faction.

The big news, though, has to do with increased gallery footage. The new Ridley-Tree Gallery is now the largest single space in the museum, currently a home for French and English paintings from the museum's collection. The old store has been transformed into the new Emmons Gallery, housing California watercolors. Added space frees other galleries to showcase work from the permanent collection as well as specific areas and media. The upstairs gallery is now devoted to the museum's Asian art and artifact collection.

There will be a regular gallery for works on paper and photography, and it currently shows "Revealing the Holy Land: The Photographic Explorations of the Holy Land." And, encouragingly, one wing is devoted to contemporary and 20th-century art, under the guidance of contemporary art curator Diana DuPont.

"We can have things in a more sensible, chronological sequence now," explained Chief Curator Robert Henning, who has guided the museum through its growth spurt over the last 15 years. He was standing at a juncture in the middle of the museum, with newly opened sight lines into several galleries.

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