Student Artists and Museum Interns Help Make "Carefree California" a Rousing Success

As visitors to the newly-reopened Art, Design & Architecture Museum entered the building to view the exhibitions, “Carefree California: Cliff May and the Romance of the Ranch House” and “Catherine Opie Photographs Cliff May,” they passed a series of original art installations that were inspired by and complemented the shows inside. These works, based on elements taken from Cliff May’s ranch house designs, were conceived and designed by art students. Their work, and that of student interns who curated small exhibitions that ran in tandem with the May and Opie shows, are the result of a renewed focus by the museum on student participation and learning.

During the museum’s 18-month closure for seismic retrofitting, Bruce Robertson, Acting Director and professor of art history, convened a group of university colleagues and community stakeholders to reevaluate its mission and to plan for the future.

The results included a new name and graphic identity for the former University Art Museum,  the launch of a gallery space in downtown Santa Barbara, a schedule of exhibitions for the next year, and a revitalized and expanded student intern program. It is the student programs that are perhaps closest to Robertson’s heart, because they link the museum’s artistic programs with the university’s educational mission. Robertson has great  ambitions for the future of “museum studies” at UC Santa Barbara. “Through the internship program, we hope to interest a diverse group of undergraduates in museum careers,” he says.

When Robertson became Acting Director of the museum in July 2010, planning for the Cliff May and Catherine Opie shows was well underway. The exhibitions are part of Pacific Standard Time, the collaboration, initiated by The Getty, that brought together more than 60 cultural institutions from across Southern California to tell the story of the birth of the L.A. art scene. The Getty made an initial grant for “Carefree California” in 2008, which was preceded by another grant to digitize the museum’s Architecture and Design Collection in 2007.

Student art installations

Wanting to involve students in the exhibitions, Robertson worked with the Department of Art to hire architect Kris Miller Fisher to teach a two-quarter studio course in which students would design and build art installations inspired by the designs of Cliff May. A total of 13 students took the course for one or both quarters during summer and fall 2011, with several working well into the winter quarter to complete and install their projects. Miller Fisher’s course included basic architectural drawing, guest lectures, a trip to a lumber yard to evaluate building materials, and consulting with a structural engineer to determine the feasibility of their projects. Working in groups, the students proposed a number of projects to their client – the museum – which then evaluated them in terms of feasibility and cost.  During the process, the students learned how design operates in the “real world” as they had to translate their concepts into finished products, often making radical changes along the way.

The projects were originally conceived to be temporary, light-weight and easily fabricated, but Robertson decided that several of them had the potential to be permanent installations.  Two of the finished works ­ ­– a vertical billboard (left) and a hand-crafted picnic table ­– will remain after the shows close. The remaining two ­ ­–  a rendering of the word “CAREFREE” in bright orange letters and a grape stake trellis ­– are temporary but nonetheless help to connect the plaza outside the museum and the lobby space with the exhibitions inside.

Dean Song designed a mural constructed from grape stake (photo at right), a rustic fencing material frequently used by Cliff May in his homes, that is in the museum’s lobby. Dean, a senior art major, originally planned to build a 40’ by 90 ‘ portico that would cover the museum entrance, mirroring May’s ceilings covered in the same material. The design was changed radically because of safety concerns raised by the structural engineer and costs, but Dean is happy with the outcome. “I am primarily a painter, so it was exciting to work on a structure that I conceived and built in collaboration with a client.”

The orange “CAREFREE” sign (photo, top right) over the museum’s entrance, designed by Jake Kelly-Campbell,  borrows the typeface used by Cliff May in his publicity materials. Jake’s original concept was to spell  “Carefree California” on the museum’s façade, but this too was modified after  concerns were raised about the scale of the letters and about attaching the letters to the building’s structure. A local sign company was able to fabricate the letters and devise a way of attaching them temporarily to the museum’s portico, with their bright orange color contrasting with the museum banners behind them.

A vertical billboard designed by Jon Sandberg is a permanent addition to the museum’s façade. It was inspired by the towers which were features of many early ranch complexes in California, which were the inspiration for Cliff May’s ranch house designs. The sign, which was fabricated  by Jeff Haight, the manager of the Physics Department machine shop,  is constructed of structural steel and is visible from across the campus. It displays the museum’s new logo, along with banners for the current exhibitions, which will change as new shows open. “We wanted to make the museum building more visible, and Jon’s billboard does so beautifully,” says Robertson.

The final installation is a custom-built redwood picnic table and benches in the plaza outside the museum (photo, left). Jamie Stoneman had the idea after seeing that Cliff May often included rustic picnic tables in his designs, although he left no plans or scale drawings. Using redwood recycled from discarded campus bike racks, Jamie worked with Ken Yokota, a  staff member in the Department of Art, who built the table according to Jamie’s design.  

Other students taking part in Miller Fisher’s class were Jesse Carpenter, August Edwards, Kiley Hechler, Catherine Li, Andrew Munoz, Jay Scalise, Ana Simonovic, Dane Smith, and Kevin Tan.

Graduate students also contributed to “Carefree California”. Laura di Zerega, a Ph.D. student in art history, conceived and organized three video installations showing clips from films that portrayed ranch houses during the 1950s and 1960s, Cliff May’s home movies, a lecture by May, and photos and other memorabilia. Anis Haron and Dallas Mercer, students of George Legrady in the Media Arts and Technology Program, made the videos to di Zerega’s specifications.

“These art students have produced absolutely professional, first-quality work,” Robertson said in  an interview with the Daily Nexus. “It’s like publishing research into a major journal, except in this case, the students are creating substantial work that they can put into their portfolios.”

Museum Interns

Art museum student interns at gala.


Bruce Robertson, center, with members of the museum's internship program at the gala celebrating the re-opening of the Art, Design & Architecture Museum, Feb. 25. Photo by Nell Campbell.

Revitalizing the museum’s internship program was another of Robertson’s goals. A renowned curator in his own right, he teaches a course on museum practices, primarily for art history majors. “I wanted to involve students from other majors and disciplines in the museum’s activities and encourage them explore the possibility of  museum careers,” he said. “I also knew that with their passion and creativity, students could be a great resource for the museum and help us reach out to the wider student body."

Using savings from a vacant position, Robertson engaged one of his Ph.D. students, Julianne Gavino, as a graduate curatorial fellow. Gavino leads a weekly seminar course for the interns in which they discuss readings, take field trips and present their research projects. She also supervises their individual internships. In 2012, the program expanded from a small number of art history majors to more than 20 students with majors in anthropology, art, philosophy, history, theater, psychology, communications, and mathematics. Gavino developed three tracks for the interns, curatorial, education, and architecture, and may add a fourth for communications and social media.

Interns on the education track, several of them bilingual, are working with the Santa Barbara Museum of Art Education Department; after receiving formal training, they are deployed in schools and in after-school programs. Other interns have been placed with Santa Barbara Partners in Education, using $500 in grant money from the California Arts Project to defray the costs of transportation and supplies. The interns on the curatorial and architecture tracks are working under the supervision of the two curators at the Art, Design, and Architecture Museum, Elyse Gonzales and Jocelyn Gibbs, and the museum registrar, Susan Locke.

The interns have been heavily involved in the gallery space in downtown Santa Barbara which the museum operates in the Jane Deering Gallery between June and December each year. They have organized performances by student art groups for “First Thursdays” in Santa Barbara, and managed catering, photographers and staffing in the space, all skills needed for managing art galleries. Many of the interns volunteered at the gala which marked the museum’s re-opening on February 25 and the public opening the next day. The interns arranged performances by student dancers and performance artists that showcased the range of artistic talent on campus. In addition, the internship program has developed a relationship with the MultiCultural Center and the Educational Opportunity Program. Each quarter, the museum and EOP plan to co-sponsor a "Cup of Culture" movie night at the MCC. “We are developing the networks to place our students in different communities and to provide them with real-world experience and skills, and to reach beyond the usual confines of the museum and Art History Department,” says Robertson.

The program has also overseen the expansion of a program of student-curated exhibitions through which the interns are developing their leadership abilities and curatorial skills. Two of the interns, Athena Do and Ana Simonovic, organized a small preview of “Carefree California” in an exhibition space in Cheadle Hall. Do and Jamie Stillman curated “Seeing the Museum,” which documents the history of design concepts for the museum’s exterior. It inaugurates the new Student-Initiated Projects Galley, an exhibition space in the museum that will be dedicated to work by and/or shows curated by students. In future, the interns will be responsible for the IV Art Box, an underutilized space run by the IV Arts project, and a space in Elings Hall.

Robertson plans to continue developing the internship program as the museum moves ahead. The students are forming a Museum Club to attract greater interest, and are setting up the requisite Facebook page and other outreach initiatives. “The interns have done amazing work, both as curators and in learning the skills needed for museum and gallery administration,” he says. “Because we are a great public university with a diverse student body, we hope to interest a diverse group of undergraduates, who reflect the state of California, in museum careers. We have the opportunity to become a prime feeder for museums throughout the western United States.”

News Date: 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012