by Jessica Walker
Festive Mexican music floats down the main street of Santa Barbara, California. Conversations drift between English and Spanish, and children hurry past with newly crafted pieces of artwork clutched proudly in their hands. The center of enthusiasm and energy is the front steps and inside galleries of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA), where tables overflow with vibrant skull portraits and miniature skeleton figurines.
The reason for such a lively celebration? Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead.
For the annual event, students from surrounding schools and partnering community organizations create altars filled with “ofrendas,” or offerings, that incorporate traditional symbols and elements of different artists represented within the museum. Far from a morbid affair, Dia de los Muertos is about thanking the dead for their contributions and celebrating the cycle of life. This concept should be the very mission of a museum, reminds the SBMA’s director of education Patsy Hicks.
“Museums are containers of stories and, for those stories to be active, visitors have to come to add their own stories,” says Hicks. “We [at the SBMA] try to give as many access points as possible.”
Each year, the SBMA provides around 40 art education programs to more than 40,000 people ranging from pre-Kindergarten to senior citizen. Opened in 1941 in a building that was a former post office, the museum now spans 60,000 square feet of galleries, interactive programming areas, and a shop and cafe.
No space goes unused, even the building’s front steps. Studio Sundays on the Front Steps are especially popular for families with youngsters. Just as the name implies, SBMA’s Teaching Artists conduct a hands-on workshop on the second Sunday of every month. Visitors of all ages can work with mediums like clay, ink, or metal and then receive free entrance to the museum.
“One of the best aspects [of the SBMA] is its location on Santa Barbara’s main street. It’s, quite literally, a metaphor about integrating art into the life of the people,” says Hicks, who has worked with the museum for around two decades. “Events like Dia de los Muertos and Studio Sunday are about the public enjoying the museum without barriers.”
The SBMA offers free admission on Thursday nights as well. During the first Thursday of every month, the Family Resource Center hosts an art project based on one of the special exhibits.
The real not-so-hidden gem of the SBMA’s programming is its school outreach. In the Young at Art program, elementary school students learn the basic elements of art such as line, color, and shape, and get an introduction to the galleries. Art Express for older students involves hands-on experimentation that links art with Common Core subjects like science and history. Fourth and fifth graders play with art, chemistry, and food in the museum’s Art Kitchen. Sixth graders practice the scientific method while exploring Greco-Roman bronze pieces, which is important since the ancient Greeks and Romans are discussed throughout various grade levels, says Hicks.
“The students look at [a statue] and make a hypothesis about who they think the piece is and why,” she says. “Then they make sculptures out of clay themselves, using correct proportions and other art concepts learned.”
Many educational programs like Art Express are held at the Ridley-Tree Education Center at McCormick House, just down the road from the museum itself. The 11,500-square-foot facility also houses the SBMA’s summer camps and after-school classes. Free busing is provided for school programs, with stipends available for those outside of the Santa Barbara school district. Teenagers can go on to become Teaching Assistants who assist Teaching Artists at educational activities, helping children turn their imaginations into creative masterpieces.
“There’s this ripple effect over time and place,” Hicks says. “The people who participated as children then come back as high school students and Teaching Assistants. Then, as visiting artists. Then, in some cases, they come back as artists in the collection.”
Hicks remembers watching one young boy take his family into the SBMA’s elevator. He excitedly pointed out the artwork inside, and the doors closed. By the time the elevator returned to that floor, the family was still inside. They weren’t lost. They were viewing the museum’s Going Up gallery, which features artwork from school and community programs.
“And you wonder why you’re waiting for the elevator for so long,” Hicks says with a laugh. “Nothing makes me happier than children coming back to show their families what they made and what they learned.”
The SBMA doesn’t leave out educating the educators either. Workshops and Educator Open Houses introduce teachers to the power of creative learning. Attendees discuss visual thinking strategies, and learn how art can serve as a basis for topics across the curriculum such as writing, history, and science.
“Someone might not think of it, but art and science have the same principles: exercising inquiry and using evidence to back up ideas,” notes Hicks. At a recent workshop, teachers hugged her as they entered. “We’ve formed these relationships over the years. They see the museum as a place of inspiration, and a place they can come together as a cohort of educators to find support and camaraderie.”
The SBMA also embodies the classic adage that you’re never too old to learn something new. Adult events range from ceramics classes to performances and lectures. Since the museum shares its rear plaza with the Santa Barbara Public Library, literacy serves as the basis for programs like Parallel Stories, which pairs writers with artists for public discussions about the artmaking process.
The museum asks for informal feedback after many programs to ensure they are responding to the community’s shifting needs. “It’s not always about growing,” says Hicks. “Sometimes it’s about deepening.”
The SBMA’s tireless efforts were recognized in 2015 when the nonprofit evaluator Charity Navigator recognized it as a “Four Star Charity.” It received the second highest rating among the country’s art museums–behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art–and ranked fourth nationwide among museums of all arts, cultural, and humanities organizations.
And the museum isn’t done growing. Renovations during 2016 will create room so that around 25 percent more art can be viewable. “When a group comes to encounter an actual work of art, they realize the connectedness of creativity over time,” says Hicks. “You can’t get quite that same feeling with a reproduction or an image on a screen. We want to always increase that connectedness moving forward.”
None of these current programs and future improvements would be possible with support from the museum’s partners, including the Audrey Hillman Fisher Foundation. The SBMA receives less than one percent of its budget from government grants, and uses about 20 percent of every dollar for educational programs.
Hicks says the museum is a “true center for ideas and community in Santa Barbara and the larger region,” and she is proud they work with organizations like the Audrey Hillman Fisher Foundation that likewise aim to strengthen the bond between people and the arts. “Audrey has not only been supportive financially, but she’s also come to classrooms and events. She’s an example of philanthropy because her support is generated out of her empathy and who she is as a person.”
“What we do matters,” Hicks continues. “Everybody’s hungry for meaning. Whatever age you are, art can help you find that, and an art museum can be the place for that. Art reminds us of our best selves.”