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Santa Barbara's Chromatic Gate Restored

How did Santa Barbara, a renowned cradle of modern environmentalism due to the disastrous oil spill of 1969, wind up with a bright-colored abstract sculpture right across from the beach that was paid for by the petroleum company ARCO, and designed by the man who created their famous "spark" logo? The story of Herbert Bayer's Chromatic Gate, the rainbow-hued geometric metal rectangle that stands in ARCO Circle at the corner of Cabrillo Boulevard and Puerto Vallarta, how it faded, and how, as of this summer, it has been fully restored, reflects a range of sometimes conflicting cultural forces and involves some of the most dynamic personalities in the history of Santa Barbara art.

It's 21 feet tall, and weighs 12.5 tons, but even back in 1991, when it was erected, the Chromatic Gate had a somewhat retro feel to it. Herbert Bayer had come to Montecito to retire, with his legendary work mostly behind him, including ad campaigns and corporate logos for some of the world's biggest companies, all in his crisp, clean Bauhaus-trained idiom. In Los Angeles, Bayer created Double Ascension, the bright orange painted steel sculpture that sits atop the fountain in the City National Plaza at 5th and Flower. When it was installed in 1974, Double Ascension, which Bayer wanted to call Stairway to Nowhere, a title that ARCO rejected as at odds with their mission, was the first work of public art in the renovation of L.A.'s downtown. It was cutting-edge in its day, and Double Ascension remains one of downtown's most recognizable landmarks. But how appropriate was it as a model for public art on what is otherwise a pristine waterfront, with no skyscrapers nearby to give it a context?

Enter Paul Mills, the dynamic director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art from 1970 to 1982, and a tireless promoter of California art throughout his distinguished career. Mills befriended Bayer, and when the opportunity came to seek funding from ARCO to erect a public sculpture in Santa Barbara, Mills leapt at the chance and championed the exposed waterfront location. Soliciting funds both from the oil company and from an array of local patrons of the arts, Mills succeeded in procuring the Chromatic Gate for Santa Barbara. Without his stewardship, this sculpture, which is dedicated to the artists of Santa Barbara, would never have happened.

So, what did the artists think of it? Not all of them were pleased. Hank Pitcher, who is probably the best known living Santa Barbara artist, has been an outspoken critic, citing the work's location as disruptive of the natural beauty of the shoreline, and its jarring geometric challenge to the more sinuous contours of the ocean in front and the hills behind. When it was created, Chromatic Gate retained the Bauhaus rigor of Bayer's L.A. work Double Ascension, but added the further 70s touch of a rainbow of colors, each painted with the glossy finish of a well-waxed Detroit muscle car. That glossy look was not to last. Decades of wind and rain wore away at the Gate, leaving its bright surfaces faded and its edges tinged with rust. By the end of the 20th century, the Gate was a shadow of its former self, and the park in which it stands had become a place where the homeless gathered to lay in the sun and relax on the grass. For those who were staying at Fess Parker's plush resort hotel across the street, or visiting nearby East Beach, the Chromatic Gate was well on its way to becoming an eyesore.

Photo licensed under creative commons by Christa.

After several years of preparatory efforts, the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission, the City Arts Advisory, and Visual Art in Public Places succeeded in forming a coalition capable of restoring the Chromatic Gate. Many people and groups in the community came together to raise the more than $75,000 that the restoration cost, and to create an endowment to fund the future maintenance of the work. After an initial $10,000 donation challenge was made by David Jacoby of the Jacoby Family Fund, generous donations were made by the Robert and Mercedes Eichholz Foundation, Jon and Lillian Lovelace, Santa Barbara Beautiful, Inc., the Resnick Family Foundation, Inc., Anne and Michael Towbes, and the Santa Barbara Inn. Patty Dominic and the Arts Fund organized a "Save Our Rainbow" campaign that raised awareness and brought young people into the group as well. When the money raising phase was complete, the Arts Commission hired Patty West's South Coast Fine Arts Conservation Center to advise on the restoration, and Michael Fitzpatrick Auto Refinishing to come in and completely repaint the sculpture -- an arduous process that was frequently delayed by wind and other weather issues. Painters Taylor Smith, Ruben Mijangos, Marcello Santiago, and Fernando Silva devoted hours to sanding, resurfacing, priming, and painting the Gate until, on Monday, July 15, it was once again ready for its close up. The unveiling ceremony featured a half dozen speakers including Paul Mills' son Mike, who is a filmmaker based in Los Angeles. Mike Mills' 2010 film, "Beginners" told the story of his father's coming out after his mother died in 1999, and the sight of Mike Mills standing in front of this immense and shining metal rainbow gate, and talking about his dad certainly resonated on many levels. For Mike Mills, the rededication of the Chromatic Gate, which now not only honors the Santa Barbara fine arts tradition, but also his father's leadership of it, was an occasion to reflect on the extraordinary powers of persuasion with which Paul Mills pursued his vision.

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