Inspired by a child’s unpretentious way of viewing art, the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum’s newest exhibit transforms the gallery into a series of engaging, hands-on installations that heighten the synergy between artists and audience. The exhibit, Flights from Wonder, challenges all ages to reimagine their relationship to art.
Curator Miki Garcia explains that the exhibition explores alternate ways to experience art by posing questions like “How do children react and relate to the art of our time? How do we experience contemporary art? What new awareness can we acquire from children?”
Keeping an open mind to the creative possibilities of exploring art through a variety of themes is a hallmark of Garcia’s career, a journey that started with her childhood in Brownsville, Texas, on the Mexico border to her current position as executive director and curator of CAF, the nonprofit alternative art space located on the top floor of Paseo Nuevo.
Garcia learned how to incorporate her audience while working at the Public Art Fund, New York City’s leading presenter of artists’ projects, new commissions and exhibitions in public spaces.
“Our job there was ... to bring work that is awesome and inspiring to the world,” she said. “That eliminates a big chunk of art activity that we just don’t think could be appropriate for these conditions because people aren’t coming in and asking to be provoked.”
At CAF, “One of the things we want to do is teach visual literacy,” she explained. “It is something that is accessible if you give it a chance.”
When she came to Santa Barbara seven years ago, Garcia says it was “shocking to me that public art had such a no-no name because it was so beloved where I came from. ... We weren’t trying to be missionaries. It was just very much about the people, so that’s what I try to keep in mind.”
Those ideas have continued to permeate her work at CAF. A notable exhibition was Home Show Revisited, a wide-reaching program for which she invited 10 Los Angeles-based artists to reconsider the societal and cultural notion of “home” by creating site-specific installations in residences throughout Santa Barbara. Another was Eating Apples in Paradise, which dared 12 local artists to explore the realities and ambiguities of living in such an Eden-like location to reveal the multifaceted issues of the region.
“My job is to demystify contemporary art as a bad word or bad words,” said Garcia, a self-described “art baby” whose educator parents “shared a real love for art, particularly Latino and Latin American art.”
“Art was such a powerful tool to figure out who I was, to look at the world around me through art,” she said. “My parents, especially my father — who came from a very poor, poor town — used it as a tool for expression. For me it has all of those positive connotations.”
Garcia is fluent in both Spanish and Italian and considered becoming a Baroque and Renaissance scholar.
“But I ended up writing my thesis on Chicano art,” she laughed.
Her interest in Chicano art guided her to a position at the San Antonio Museum of Art and then to graduate school to study Latin American art at the University of Texas at Austin. She also got a job at UT’s Blanton Museum of Art.
“I love art history ... but what really kept coming back to me was the working-with-artists part,” Garcia said. “I have been doing this for about 17 years now, and I still go to an artist’s studio and am amazed that they can come up with what they come up with. That magic has never lost its flair.”
Garcia worked at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego for several years before returning to New York and the Public Art Fund, her last position prior to CAF.
“I was asked to come here because I had on-the-ground knowledge of what was happening in the art world and the ability to not only understand the museum and the institution but also what was happening outside, and to be experimental and take risks,” she said.
While she loves it now, Garcia admits that coming to Santa Barbara “was an incredible culture shock. I wasn’t prepared for the kind of lifestyle that Santa Barbara offers.” That CAF had been without an executive director for two years before she arrived added to the rocky start.
“Coming in here, there was a real desire for direction and yet a little bit of a fear of what that direction might be,” she said. “The first few years I was really just involved in making departments, organizational charts, employee handbooks, those kinds of things. It was really a lot of work.”
The next phase was programming shows and getting funding. Under Garcia’s direction, CAF has received National Endowment for the Arts grants, as well as funds from the the Andrea Lang Fund, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Ann Jackson Family Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation and the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission, among others.
“Now ... we’re really comfortable with the work that we’re doing,” she said. “It’s very exciting. We’re focusing on visibility, diversifying our audience, expanding the audience and educating the audience.
“In the seven years I have been here we have always supported and given publications to local artists,” Garcia said. “We have a call for entries exhibition that used to be in a small adjacent gallery, which I thought was just ghettoized ... When I got here, I said this is an important project that we’re doing, so now it’s a group show and not a solo show, and it gets publication and we get jurors from around the country who are looking at our artists for the first time in that way and talking about our artists.
“Whenever I have exhibitions of other artists, we’ll include local artists. We’re really trying to empower local artists to not just be artists here but to use this as a launching pad.”
But there is a real level of rigor applied to all artists who exhibit their work at CAF, Garcia says.
“You have to be a local artist who is working just as hard as any other artist who deserves to be shown in a museum quality space,” she said.
Of course, money is always tight for nonprofits. CAF’s annual million-dollar home raffle is under way right now and is an important source of funds.
“Obviously, we need to feed our community and we need to house our community,” she said. “But when I look at history, when I think about going to a Beethoven concert or looking at a work of art that is so edifying, it really defines the human condition.
“If you look at any house in any city, even the most poverty-stricken cities, in somebody’s house they will have little collections of things. There is this desire for aesthetics because objects have memory and a sense of feeling. And I really think that it’s our duty as citizens to really protect that,” she said.
“Sometimes I will say to people we are creating the Picassos of tomorrow and somehow they get that a little bit more,” she added. “Because I don’t want ours to be known as the era that just looked back. I would like to say that we’re an era that’s also creating our own Masters.”
As for life in Santa Barbara now, Garcia loves it.
“I love what I do for a living and I feel really fortunate to have continued on that path,” she said. “It is an amazing, extraordinary job in an incredibly beautiful place. ... I could have ended up anywhere. I didn’t choose to go to any one place, it was just the job that came up. So I really count myself lucky.”
Flights from Wonder will be on exhibit from Feb. 26 to April 22 at the Contemporary Arts Forum, 651 Paseo Nuevo, with an opening reception from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Feb. 25. In addition, the CAF Satellite @ Hotel Indigo, 121 State St., is now open, featuring the work of Alejandro Diaz, Ann Diener, Stephanie Dotson, Rob Fischer, Francesca Gabbiani, Saul Gray-Hildenbrand, Nathan Hayden, Cyndee Howard, Jennifer Nocon, Zacarias Paul, Luke Stettner, Kirsten Stoltmann, Sandra Torres and James Van Arsdale.