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LARRY FEINBERG

Noozhawk Talks: Museum of Art’s Larry Feinberg Brings Out the Life in Art

Reflecting his wide range of interests and passions, museum director takes a diverse approach to the job he loves

Larry Feinberg, director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, is juggling a number of marquee exhibitions, but he points with pride to the museum’s role as “the primary resource for visual arts in the public school system.” Through museum programs, 25,000 students had the opportunity to incorporate art into their analytical and creative thinking activities and their problem-solving exercises last year.
Larry Feinberg, director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, is juggling a number of marquee exhibitions, but he points with pride to the museum’s role as “the primary resource for visual arts in the public school system.” Through museum programs, 25,000 students had the opportunity to incorporate art into their analytical and creative thinking activities and their problem-solving exercises last year.  (Valorie Smith / Noozhawk photo)

It takes a Renaissance Man to know one, or in the case of Larry Feinberg, to write about one.

Feinberg, director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, recently published a book about the formative years and early career of Leonardo da Vinci, The Young Leonardo: Art and Life in 15th-Century Florence.

His own broad breadth of interests is part of what attracted Feinberg to the art world and to da Vinci specifically.

“The study of art and art history allows you to study and learn about so many other things, not only about history but sometimes science and literature and all sorts of things,” he said.

“Taking up Leonardo, one has to learn something about science in the Renaissance and chemistry in the Renaissance and biology in the Renaissance and the study of optics in the Renaissance and study of engineering in the Renaissance, because these are all areas that interested him,” he laughed.

“What I try to do in the book is put Leonardo in the context of his time rather than portray him, as is often the case, as this sort of supernatural being who is ahead of or removed from his time.”

Feinberg wrote the manuscript before taking his position at Santa Barbara Museum of Art in 2008.

“I would never have enough time to write the book today,” he said. “I’m too busy for such things now.”

These days Feinberg is hard at work at the museum, with multiple exhibitions on display and in the works, including Picasso and Braque: The Cubist Experiment, 1910-1912, on view until Jan. 8. Feinberg says it is “one of the most important exhibitions the museum has ever organized. It is very important, not only bringing together these important works of art, but the show and the catalog really advance the scholarship in the field. We’re very proud of that.”

Meanwhile, the Van Gogh to Munch show of European masterworks remains at the museum in a slightly altered form.

“We were able to get some loans from the Armand Hammer Foundation in Los Angeles and the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation in Houston, and both of those institutions agreed to let us borrow these works for two full years,” he said. “Although the big show is down, we still have all of the major loans here.”

The museum has opened several other exhibitions in recent weeks, including works by Henri Rivière; two contemporary shows, one of which focuses on living Santa Barbara artists; a photography show featuring work by Al Weber; and a show centered around Anish Kapoor and abstract expressionism.

Before coming to Santa Barbara, Feinberg was curator of European art at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1991 to 2008. He has also been a curator at The Frick Collection in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and at the Allen Art Museum of Oberlin (Ohio) College. Feinberg holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University, where he specialized in Italian, especially Florentine, 16th-century paintings and drawings. In addition to his specialty in Italian art, he also has expertise in 17th- to 19th-century French art.

A “diehard baseball fan,” Feinberg is originally from St. Louis, where he used to play ice hockey and root for the Cardinals, who are currently playing the Texas Rangers in the World Series.

“A lot of people don’t realize that I took some time off and did a stint at the United Nations,” he said. “I worked for a friend who was the undersecretary gneral of the United Nations and he was in charge of the Department for Children and Armed Conflict.”

Feinberg took a sabbatical from the Art Institute of Chicago to become chief of staff at the United Nations to, in his words, help his friend “work to end the use of child soldiers and use of children as sex slaves and in other terrible ways during times of conflict.”

“Before I left, we worked together and passed a very important Security Council resolution that actually put teeth into punishing those people, governments, rebel groups, individuals, who abused children in these ways,” he said.

Feinberg was at the United Nations for six very intense months but the work left a lasting impression. He and his wife, Starr Siegele, also an art museum curator, now serve on the board of Human Rights Watch.

He also serves on the board of the Santa Barbara Downtown Organization and is understandably proud of the museum’s many community partnerships.

“All in all we have about 40 community partners,” he said, including the Santa Barbara Symphony, Alzheimer’s Association, Casa Dorinda, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and UCSB.

Of particular significance is the museum’s role as “the primary resource for visual arts in the public school system,” Feinberg said.

“We are in all 75 public schools and we had 25,000 schoolchildren go through our courses last year,” he said. “We are also training the public school teachers how to use the visual arts to help them teach across the curriculum, using art to teach math and biology. Last year we trained 1,100 teachers, so that’s a really good way for us to leverage our resources. By this time next year we hope to have trained 4,000 teachers.

“We are trying to build children’s analytical thinking skills and creative thinking skills and problem-solving skills, so it’s not just teaching them dry facts,” he said. “It’s getting the children to look at works of art and interact with them, and talk about what they see and give evidence for their point of view. At the same time, it teaches them to have respect for other people’s points of views and an interest in and tolerance for other points of view and other cultures.”

Sounds like a very Renaissance approach indeed.

Noozhawk contributing writer Leslie Dinaberg can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow her on Twitter: @LeslieDinaberg.

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