Highlights from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art Collection

Highlights from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art Collection


Founded in 1941, Santa Barbara Museum of Art has had more than seven decades to amass its impressive permanent collection. While not all pieces of art owned by the museum are on display around the year, the staff uses exhibitions to constantly introduce the public to exciting, previously unseen works that span a wide range of different time periods, from ancient to modern, and which represent many diverse geographic locations. The museum’s collection reflects the influence of the Santa Barbara community and the individual collectors who have donated extensively to the institution.


The marble sculptures from Ancient Rome, which comprise a major portion of ancient artworks, are a gift from Wright S. Ludington, one of the major donors to the Santa Barbara Museum. Visitors can typically see these works on display around a loutrophoros from the 4th century B.C. in the main entrance courtyard. Figural works make up much of the collection, but two notable highlights include the Hermes and Dionysus statues.

Visitors will also see some antiquities from Greece and Italy on display in the Thayer Gallery’s Art on the Human Scale exhibit, which examines the ways in which the human body is represented in antiquity. The works in this area include bronze statuettes of a flute player and Hermes, a Faiyum portrait, and a Roman sarcophagus.

Outside of its Greek and Roman pieces, the museum also has the Sumerian Head of Gudea and Kha’emwestet, Crown Prince Son of Ramses II, an Egyptian relief.

Modern and Contemporary Works

The first director of the museum, Donald Bear, influenced the creation of a strong foundation in modern and contemporary art. The collection focuses primarily on works from Europe, Latin American, and the United States, with a special focus on Californian artists.

Two major artists represented at the museum are Martin Kersels and David Alfaro Siqueiros. In 20122, Kersels installed nine hanging sculptures as part of his Charm series in the third story light well of the Park Entrance. These sculptures, which are still on view for visitors, explore the sense of danger and protection associated with a charm.

Siqueiros’ Portrait of Mexico Today, created on a garden wall of the home of filmmaker Dudley Murphy in 1932 during a brief stay in Los Angeles, miraculously escaped harm over the years and became a part of the museum’s collection in 2001.


The first part-time curator of photographs, Fred Parker spearheaded this relatively new collection. His first project was Attitudes: Photography in the 1970s, a groundbreaking look at the early works of many young photographers who later achieved significant acclaim. Many of these pictures became the foundation for the photography collection. In the 1980s, gifts from Arthur and Yolanda Steinman expanded the collection to include many vintage photos, which gave a much wider breadth to the collection.

Today, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art contains impressive numbers of works from Californian photographers and photographers living in Japan, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. The museum also features a few key photographs from respected masters, such as Robert Rauschenberg and Marion Post Wolcott.

Asian Art

The Asian art collection began the year that the museum opened its doors. That year, Mrs. Philip Stewart donated 19 Chinese robs and the Charles Henry Ludington collection loaned, and later donated, 92 pieces of stone, wood, and ceramic sculptures from various Asian countries. Ina T. Campbell continued expanding the collection with various acquisitions made throughout the 1940s. In the past two decades, the museum has received a number of jade pieces, Chinese textiles, Kiyochika prints, and Tibetan art. Altogether, the collection consists of more than 2,600 objects spanning 4,000 years of history.

Some of the most celebrated pieces in the collection are the Mandala of a Goddess from Tibet, the Indian sandstone Balarama as the Eight Avatar of Vishnu, and the collection of earthenware zodiac figures from the Sui dynasty in China.

American Art

The core of this collection was built in 1960, with the acquisition of 70 paintings from the Preston Morton Collection. Since then, gifts and purchases have expanded the collection to include more than 400 paintings and other works. The collection spans from about the middle of the 18th century to the middle of the 20th century, with examples of both still life and portraiture from every historical period. Among the most famous artists represented are George Inness, Milton Avery, John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase, and Marsden Hartley.

European Art

The Santa Barbara Museum of art focuses largely on 19th-century French painting and classical early modernism. Many of these works mirror the interests of early donors, whose personal collections form the heart of the institution’s holdings. For example, Wright S. Ludington had a passion for British Modernism. This has left the museum with a surprisingly expansive collection of work by Walter Sickert, Percy Wyndham Lewis, and Stanley Spencer. The numerous paintings and sculptures are complemented by a large collection of works on paper, with prints from many of the Old Masters and thousands of French satirical prints.

Image above courtesy Wikipedia