THE CURRENT STATE OF

SANTA BARBARA COUNTY'S CULTURAL SECTOR

The stakeholder interviews uncovered 10 overarching themes that describe the current state of the cultural sector in Santa Barbara County. Eight of these themes represent challenges and barriers to continued development of the County’s cultural sector.

 

Santa Barbara County is rich in culture and beauty.

When first asked to comment on arts and cultural activities and offerings in Santa Barbara County, interviewees and focus group participants were quick to point out the wealth of offerings. There is always a lot going on, and many find the quality of activities, institutions, art and cultural experience is astounding within South Santa Barbara County and Santa Barbara City, given its size in comparison to Los Angeles. In addition, the natural beauty of the landscape provides inspiration for artists, serves as an attraction for tourists with disposable income, and welcomes retirees and others.

 

There is a sense of solidarity and support within the artist community. 

Most interviewees are hopeful about the future, bolstered by colleagues within the artist 

community. This is particularly the case for art teachers and young adults. One artist commented that if it weren’t for the robust and supportive artist community, she wouldn’t have stayed. 

 

Santa Barbara County’s prioritization of tourism diverts resources from support of local communities, artists, and organizations.

This finding offers a counterpoint to the first theme – that Santa Barbara County is rich in its offerings and natural beauty. Although tourism provides a much-needed source of income and energy to the region, some stakeholders expressed concern and frustration that the focus on attracting and supporting tourists deters and detracts from a profound need to better serve those who live and work in the County. One interviewee wondered, “If we (Santa Barbara County) are so focused on tourists and the tourism industry, are we missing out on the opportunity to keep the community alive from within?”

Access and resources are not distributed equitably.

Although the County as a whole has many assets and resources, many feel these resources are not allocated equitably, and that access to cultural activities and opportunities is limited to a privileged few. The most dramatic difference is in access to funding. One interviewee lamented how “...funds that are available are frequently only available for specific regions of the County. Frequently funding never reaches North County. Programs exist in South County  that could be brought to North County, but it never actually gets here.However, access to resources is not just a function of geography. While wealth is concentrated in the South part of the County, many communities in the South are still lack resources and opportunities, in particular low income populations and communities of color. 

Geographic and political boundaries create significant disconnects between communities and cities.

Stakeholders were quick to point out the significant divides and disparities between North and South Counties. Santa Barbara County encompasses a wide swath of land that bridges southern and central California. The geographical distance and travel time from Santa Barbara City to Santa Maria, one of the larger North County cities, is a barrier to collaboration and participation for arts organizations, artists and audiences. Although residents desire more unification and connection, they also feel a strong sense of pride in their individual communities, and voiced a strong desire to “stay local” and preserve and protect their community’s unique identity. These competing value systems – the desire for more equitable distribution of resources, and the desire to maintain unique and separate identities – will require careful negotiation to build bridges between communities, cities, and institutions, while recognizing and celebrating the unique identity of all.

The high cost of living makes it difficult for artists to stay and work.

Santa Barbara County, in particular South County, is an expensive place to live and work. Housing is an issue for everyone, from teachers to artists and skilled laborers. In particular, all the artists that participated in interviews and focus groups talked about how difficult it is for them to stay, to make a living, to do their work, and to actually support themselves through their art. Some artists simply don’t feel any support from the larger community, government or institutions. Others are moving to more affordable areas in North County, while some are leaving the area altogether. Artists and cultural practitioners are typical drivers of community organizing, change and economic growth. As the area becomes more expensive, more artists will be squeezed out, taking with them their creative energy and ideas.

 

Arts education for school children is a high priority, but not provided equitably across the districts.

Arts education was the focus of the discussion with art teachers and with seniors. Both groups commented on the unequal distribution of arts education opportunities for young people. Art teachers see first hand how art can help to solve significant problems in children’s lives and provide a much needed outlet for them to express their feelings. However, the system continues to suffer from ongoing lack of funding and attention. 

City and County regulations restrict opportunities for individual artists and groups wanting to create and foster creative communities.

A major theme stemming from nearly all interviews and focus groups was the barriers raised by restrictive government regulations. These regulations, and the underlying lack of support and apathy of government officials, is a significant source of frustration. Many described how their efforts to create new arts spaces, increase support for public art, and encourage business support of the arts were “sabotaged” by overly restrictive municipal regulations and zoning ordinances. Municipal rules and regulations affect everyone, from the artist seeking approval to paint a mural to the business owner whose wall will serve as the canvas; from the community organizer seeking to mount a free cultural event or fair, to the artisan or entrepreneur who will show and sell their work.

 

Holding on to traditional philanthropy and artistic practice may inhibit progress.

There is a significant generation gap in regards to preferences, practice and philanthropy. One young interviewee argued that, “Santa Barbara is full of older fuddy-duddy institutions with older fuddy-duddy users.”  There is a particular fear, especially amongst younger adults, around conservatism in regards to philanthropy and artistic practice. Artists fear that strongly adhering to classical expression and art forms without pushing the envelope will impede the evolution and future sustainability of the County’s cultural institutions. Other stakeholders, in particular some of the senior donors who have supported the arts and cultural institutions for some time, were concerned about the lack of attention and engagement amongst younger donors. Others would like to see a different philanthropic model that welcomes and supports the next generation of cultural practitioners, creative entrepreneurs, and cultural organizations. 

 

There is a lack of leadership and cohesion across the sector.

The fragmentation of the arts and culture sector is not only external – based on geography and cultural frame – but also internal. Many described the sector as lacking collaborative spirit, rampant with competition for money, space and audiences. As an arts administrator described it: “What I’m experiencing is that individually we don’t network enough...We are having trouble connecting.” Some of this disconnect might be a byproduct of strong competition for limited dollars and the natural instinct to protect one’s donors and audience. Regardless, the conversation around cohesion and integration within the sector ends up being one about leadership and responsibility. Who owns the larger challenge of cultural development? Who is taking responsibility for addressing the cultural sector’s problems? While some agencies are doing good work in supporting the sector, many feel that more should be done to knit organizations and communities together.

Content comes from Creative Community Phase 1 Summary Report, November 2015, WolfBrown.

For Further Reading

Above photos: A performance at the UCSB Art, Design, & Architecture Museum, and a performance photo from the Opera Santa Barbara performance of Seance on a Wet Afternoon. Photos courtesy of those institutions.

Project funded by

the Santa Barbara Foundation

© 2016 CREATIVE COMMUNITIES.