SBMA Paintings

In December when I brought a curator from Minneapolis to see the paintings galleries at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art I realized, to my surprise, that there was little I was proud to show him. And yet, I’ve always been impressed with SBMA’s collection. What happened?

First, the Preston Morton Gallery was filled with Eik’s show of American art, primarily 19th-century landscapes.  The examples were almost uniformly lackluster and lacklusterly uniform, with the notable exception of the Chase portrait and still lifes by Heade and Annie Snyder on the baffle. The purpose of the exhibition seemed to be to give air to paintings that hadn’t seen the light of day in years. A purported theme was “works donated by women.” Really? Several of the works were even too dark to make out.

Okay, we moved to the Ridley-Tree Gallery, the normal site for permanent display of our masterpieces. And here, the main wall was full of mostly mediocre works by famous names, in the belief that Impressionism is gold, and it’s worth hanging if the label says “Degas,” “Renoir,” “Cassatt” or “Pissarro.” Of course, the big offenders (my term) were all loans from the Hammer Foundation. I have high hopes that these works, including their Corot, will shortly return to the Hammer, making way for, among other things, the far more interesting paintings from Lady Leslie Ridley-Tree’s bequest, such as the Caillebotte, Sisley, Signac and Daubigny.

The Monets may be our crown jewels, but hanging two such similarly paletted pieces on top of each other diminishes their visual impact. The Delacroix’s are dreary, loved only, I’ll bet, by Eik. Out of the whole gallery, there are only three paintings that excite me: the Bastien-Lepage, Morisot and Th. Rousseau.

Then there’s a corner gallery that contains what must be the most lugubrious works we have, anchored by a joyless Braque. There’s even a dull Matisse! (I’ll concede the Pechstein.) For some reason, the nice cut-out print gallery has been removed to make room for more unimpressive oils.

Where are the SBMA signature works? If you look at the two catalogues we’ve published – Selected Works in 1991 and 75 in 25 in 2016 – there are a lot of beautiful paintings. But good luck finding any of them hanging on the walls! I used to always admire the Wilfredo Lam and the Hans Hoffman and less often, but frequently, the Viera Da Silva. I can think of other “regulars” that have somehow disappeared, apparently as Eik tried to create new groupings that brought more obscure works into play. I agree it’s important to rotate and offer new examples from our large collection; but I would argue it’s more important to keep a core of our most significant or interesting paintings always on display, both to impress the out-of-town or first-time visitor and to establish a core identity for the museum. And to let me keep in touch with old friends when I visit.

As much as I like to see new rotations, wouldn’t it be better to maintain one gallery where prime examples of all the schools of art we collect could be routinely found? Then we could always have available a handful of Latin works – Tamayo, Torres-Garcia, Gunther Gerzso as well as Lam – and American treasures – the Inness, Harnett, de Forest, Bellows as well as Hassam – not to mention highlights of modern art in addition to the Hoffmann, works that have disappeared as Contemporary Curator James Glisson exhibits, in his big new gallery, a small number of large works that are of the moment.

That would give SBMA an identity it could brag about and perhaps even, for the public, an identity.

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