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Where is the art? 

Santa Maria has plenty of artists, but not many outlets where they can show their work

Plump strawberries, mouth-watering tri-tip, award-winning Pinot Noir—Santa Maria is known for many things. But stuff like public art and fine galleries? Probably not on the list.

click to enlarge BOOKS AND ART: :  Jack Buchanan is the director of the new Santa Maria Public Library, shown here under construction. It is one of the only places in the town where art is publicly displayed. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • BOOKS AND ART: : Jack Buchanan is the director of the new Santa Maria Public Library, shown here under construction. It is one of the only places in the town where art is publicly displayed.

The blue collar city in northern Santa Barbara County is surrounded by art-loving communities and breathtaking vistas that have long inspired artists, but it hasn’t fully developed a definitive artistic identity.

In fact, with the recent displacement of the Town Center Gallery, which occupied a space in the mall for three years, no dedicated commercial or city art galleries exist within city limits.

A visitor will also find no public art, save the tile murals on highway overpasses, decorating the main drag.

Sure, there are plenty of places to view art: the airport, McKeon-Phillips winery, Jerry Stinn Jewelers, and the Ann Foxworthy Gallery at Hancock College, to name a few. Head to Old Orcutt and you’ll find more.

But the question stands: Does Santa Maria have the desire but no means to develop its creative side? Or does it have the means but lack the desire?

The Town Center Gallery occupied a space in the mall for three years. Recently, with new mall owners renovating, the nonprofit gallery was forced to vacate the space, leaving it scrambling to secure another suitable location. Cathy Gregg, a photographer and a member of the Board of Directors of the gallery, said that mall management was only able to offer them a temporary location.

“I think it’s a shame not only for the artists, but also for the city,” she said.

Patricia Hilliard, mall manager, said renovations and the addition of a movie theater forced a number of the mall’s tenants to move.

“We’re having trouble finding space to accommodate my paying tenants, let alone community spaces, which we love having, but don’t have the space for right now,” she said.

She said she hopes to eventually invite the Town Center Gallery back. But for now, the gallery’s absence leaves the city without a place dedicated solely to viewing, buying, and selling art. That’s part of the reason why Gregg thought the city might have an interest in the gallery’s closure.

“You would think that the city would want to have some sort of a city-run gallery,” Gregg said, pointing out that the gallery is a nonprofit co-op. “When we were closed, we were surprised a lot of people didn’t come forward.”

The city hasn’t taken an official position on increasing its involvement in the arts, but Mayor Larry Lavagnino has supported setting aside money for public art. He’s brought it up to the City Council and, according to city officials, has recognized a need to bring more art to the city. He remains optimistic that the city will grow artistically—though he added, “Santa Maria has been a blue-collar city for a long, long time.”

Art, he said, only makes an impact if people are interested.

“This is a working person’s city. Art is—when you’re trying to make a living, art is not at the top of your list,” Lavagnino said.

Not everyone agrees, though, that an appreciation of arts depends on affluence.

Craig Shafer, president of the Santa Maria Arts Council, an organization that’s been around since 1965, said that it’s natural to appreciate art—Santa Maria just needs more accessible art. Shafer is also a former arts editor of the Santa Maria Sun.

“I don’t care if you’re blue collar, white collar, or blue blood, it’s our human nature,” he said. “Art is in us.”

That’s why he doesn’t believe that economic belt-tightening means people should abandon their involvement or enjoyment in the arts. He argued that viewing a painting or sculpture—or taking in the theater—is a great way to get lost and de-stress for a few hours.

“Santa Marians are really stingy when it comes to purchasing local art,” he said.

He cited the popularity of big-item purchases, like flat-screen TVs and home gaming systems, as evidence that people don’t necessarily give up their desire for entertainment during rough economic times.

But getting a whole community to embrace its inner artist sometimes takes the persistence and assertion of the few.

In Lompoc, widely known for its public murals, it was a small cadre that fueled the city’s celebration of the arts. It took former mayor Gene Stevens’ mural project to open the community’s eyes to the impact of public art. Stevens is credited by many as the catalyst for the city’s acceptance of public art. His mural project eventually led to what has become a city with a downtown sculpture garden, zoning for art lofts, art galleries, and a project called Art Alley.

“You have to have people committed to all this,” said Gary Keefe, Lompoc city administrator. “Ninety percent is done by local volunteers with a small percent of help from the city.”


Shelly Cone is arts editor of New Times’ sister paper, the Santa Maria Sun. She can be reached at scone@santamariasun.com.

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