Artists, Then and Now: Reflecting on the Past, Present, and Future of UCSB’s MFA Program

by Cheyenne Assil and Jacqueline Schwartz, AD&A Museum Interns

2021 MFA Exhibition at MCASB. Image Courtesy of MCASB. 

The art department at the University of California, Santa Barbara offers a multidisciplinary MFA program that gives its students the opportunity to explore their studio production and expand their networks by meeting with accomplished artists and scholars. While this program fosters the development of its artists during the two years they attend the program, we wanted to explore the relationship between the artists produced by the university’s graduate program, and the larger arts community in Santa Barbara. What happens to these artists after they graduate? 

To better understand the Santa Barbara art community and both its placement in a larger artistic dialogue, as well as its relationship to UCSB,  we spoke with recent graduates of the Universities MFA program, as well as current members of the UCSB art scene. We spoke to practicing artist Megan Koth who is currently still connected to the university as an academic advisor for the Arts department, recent MFA graduate continuing at Santa Barbara as a Doctoral candidate, and independent curator Maiza Hixson, as well as  Santa Barbara based artist and lecturer Nathan Hayden. In these conversations we discussed these artists’ individual experiences before, during, and after their time in UCSB’s MFA program and found overlapping sentiments on the key issues within the Santa Barbara artistic community, and a disconnect between the university and larger community. 

Megan Koth

Megan Koth in her studio. Image Courtesy of Voyage Phoenix.

Megan Koth is a painter based in Ventura, California who graduated from UCSB’s MFA program in 2020, during the height of the pandemic. Her work features on the body and bodily themes, and approaches these subjects with a queer and feminist lense. The images she produces draw on her own experiences with chronic health issues, as well as the ways we view, analyze, and obsess about our bodies, influenced by social media and our consumerist society. Along with her artistic practice, Koth currently works as a graduate academic advisor and lecturer at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

In our interview we discussed the divergence between what the MFA program fosters in its artists, and the artistic community of Santa Barbara. Megan speaks strongly of the MFA program, and the opportunities and resources it provides, as well as the support she felt from the faculty. She feels that these experiences helped to grow and expand her practice. The program gave her space to explore new components of her practice and allowed her the possibility to be experimental in her artwork. Despite this, Megan speaks of the difficulty she sees for artists once they graduate and continue their careers, as well as a separation between the institution and the larger community.

Nathan Hayden

Nathan Hayden in his Santa Barbara studio. Image courtesy of Lum Art Zine. Photo by Debra Herrick.

Nathan Hayden, a 2009 graduate from University of California, Santa Barbara’s MFA program is a practicing artist and lecturer based in Santa Barbara. Originally from West Virginia, Hayden grew up in a log cabin surrounded by creatives who incorporated art into his life. His quintessential work features geometric shapes and repeating patterns and his practice draws from a variety of artistic influences including but not limited to folk art, Japanese wood blocks prints and Navajo weavings. 

In our conversation, we discussed the important role that the natural landscape has on Hayden’s practice, and how that shifted once he arrived at the unfamiliar landscape of Santa Barbara. Hayden looks back on his time as an MFA student with fondness, specifically in regard to the freedom of experimentation that the program provided. Nonetheless, as we discussed, carrying this same sense of experimentation after graduation becomes much more difficult when faced with the challenges of sustaining an art practice in Santa Barbara. 

Maiza Hixson

Hixson’s 2019 MFA thesis exhibition entitled “Chimera”. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Maiza Hixson is a curator, multidisciplinary artist, and Doctoral candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara. After completing her MFA in Fine arts and Performance from UCSB in 2019, she took on a role as the chief curator of Santa Barbara County Arts Commission. Her time working as an artist in Santa Barbara has influenced many of her recent performance works, which comment on the artistic climate and overall inequalities present in the community. 

Maiza’s artistic practice takes many forms, but usually incorporates a degree of performance and political commentary. 

In our conversation we discussed the discrepancies between those in power who want to promote a beautiful image of the town and bring in tourism and how this can be problematic for the artistic community and their critiques. Maiza, like many artists, sees affordable housing as a key issue that is hindering the Santa Barbara arts community. In both her artistic and curatorial practice Maiza uses art as both protest and a disruptor to challenge the status quo.

In Discussion: After the MFA Program

Megan Koth with her work. Image Courtesy of the  AD&A Museum. 

Question: How did your experience in UCSB’s MFA program influence your arts practice?

Megan: I came here with my work having its specific focus already; at UCSB, I took classes that I didn’t have a chance to explore while [I was] an undergrad since my program had a more disciplinary focus. The classes I took here helped to evolve my practice and it developed over time to where I am now, but the focus of my work didn’t change. It still remains about the body and bodily experience. 

Nathan: It was an incredible experience. I had been out of school for 6 years, and I’d been a working artist and had some success and that gave me the chance to really experiment with a lot of ideas that I had had but hadn’t had the time to delve into. That’s something a lot of people say- it’s a place where you can experiment. You can mess up. Not everything has to be the thing that goes out into the world and people are going to see. You can work through some stuff. Plus, the landscape was more spectacular than I could have ever imagined. I did some really cool classes with Lisa Jevbratt who took us out to the islands, and a bunch of stuff out in the Joshua Tree desert, which was my first time exploring that landscape. It is a completely unreal place. It was all that I hoped it would be and now I’ve been out in California for 15 years. 

Maiza: My committee members in my MFA program encouraged me to continue my research in my PhD in the performance of the city of Santa Barbara. The region doesn’t want to be critiqued for its displays of white supremacy. If you call it out, you can get black listed- no one wants to hear from someone who critiques the whole commercial enterprise of tourism in a tourist town, or the commercial art gallery scene in a tourist town so it disrupts the whole notion of what art is for and it makes people uncomfortable.  And that’s what the university is good at- it gives people the space to ask really good questions and take the time to think through these issues. Like, how is the local architecture complicit in neoliberalism in the globalized economy, and how are artists instrumentalized in the neoliberal corporate transformation of the world, and do they really have a voice if they’re just being used as fetish art objects for the wealthy? So those questions are what we ask as art professionals and scholars here at UCSB.

Question: As a practicing artist in Santa Barbara, do you see a sense of community here that either helps or hinders your artistic practice? 

Megan: Santa Barbara has a smaller arts community than a place like LA, but what can be beneficial is that the people in this community are more accessible. Local curators and professionals are connected to the school, so in a smaller community it can be less intimidating to reach out. For example, the MCA allowed us to have our thesis show a year later since it was delayed due to covid. The art community here could also be better. We could do more to enrich the arts. The cost of living holds us back, and we lose a lot of students after they graduate. It’s too expensive. If artists had more opportunities, more affordable housing, access to studio space, that would nurture a larger art community beyond just the students at UCSB. At UCSB, we’re sort of in our own bubble. And that’s something that is not as positive about the local Santa Barbara art community; the program is very experimental but when it comes to the gallery scene in Santa Barbara, there are not a ton of contemporary gallery spaces.  It’s more conservative and students in our program are not catering their work to this scene. I feel like the grad students who come here are not looking to cater to this scene. Nonetheless, while I was in this program, I didn’t feel limited. The faculty here encouraged students to be experimental, and didn’t focus on the commercial viability of your work. 

Nathan: Tough, tough, tough question. I think that SB has incredible potential for an art scene. There have been really really cool things in art and music in the times that I’ve been here, but it is a really difficult place to sustain a scene for a long time. It’s terribly expensive to live here, and it’s really close to LA, which is also expensive, but it is seen as having a lot more opportunity. There’s a perception that you can’t get that here. So a lot of the interesting people here have moved to LA, which makes Santa Barbara really kind of transitory. This makes it kind of hard to have a scene, or at least a sustained scene. Then the other component of it is that in general, smaller places that are not Los Angeles or New York tend to maybe develop a little bit of an inferiority complex because they are inherently seen as provincial but they don’t have to be. But then also because of that complex there is  a real desire where, if you’re trying to do something in Santa Barbara, it is also accompanied by what you have to do in LA. what you do in LA qualifies you as someone who is worth looking at, or worth visibility. This is a good thing and a bad thing. What’s going on in LA is really exciting, but when it becomes too based on what’s happening there it’s hard for Santa Barbara to have its own voice. There’s not a ton of people who have a strong voice, and many of those that do teach at UCSB. Those who don’t really struggle because there’s not a huge audience here. If you’re talking about being in the art market, a lot of the people here have the money to buy art, but if they’re going to buy art it’s going to be from LA or New York or London or Dubai or Miami or whatever. So the art market is not here. And then if you’re going to show and be thought of as somebody that’s part of the contemporary art conversation, if you’re just showing here, you’re maybe not thought of as somebody who’s actually talking to the outside world. So there are some things that really can inhibit what the scene can be. And those things do make it very difficult to sustain the scene here. People are so busy trying to make ends meet while making the thing that they’re trying to make that time becomes a serious consideration.

Maiza: The Santa Barbara artist community is, I think, a mixture of very talented, committed artists. It has a wide range of types of artists with people operating in certain parts of the country. We have Porfirio Gutierrez, who is an Oaxacan weaver.  He makes these beautiful weaving out of traditional materials and natural dyes, and his family is in the process of production for all of the materials he uses. So even though he’s in a different city, he shows in Santa Barbara and is part of the Santa Barbara art scene. I also think of the artwork of Maria Rendon. She’s an abstract painter, and her work is very influenced by the natural landscape of Santa Barbara, the flora and fauna. But her artwork is very sensual. Then I think of someone like Michael Matheson, who is an illustrator. He borrows from tattoo art and vintage style and commercial advertising and hand painted signs. I think of just so many artists! I mean, we have Richard Ross who is a former UCSB art department faculty who photographed juveniles in the California justice system and elsewhere. His photographic documentation of people and incarcerated youth was incredibly influential. And there’s Nell Campbell, who documents everything from New Orleans Carnival to protests in downtown Santa Barbara.  So those are the artists I think of- it’s hard to summarize.

Question: In your experience, what are the limitations of Santa Barbara as an art scene? 

Megan: I think that’s another unfortunate natural consequence of the cost of living being so high, and also us being remote and detached from more diverse areas. I think stuff like more affordable housing initiatives, making it more affordable to live here and build a career here. I feel like a lot of these problems come down to housing. You cannot have a thriving artistic community if people cannot afford to live in the area. The quality of what you see is not going to be as experimental or risk taking as a place like LA that comparatively has more opportunities available for artists to live and form long term practices. 

Nathan: It’s hard to be critical here. People get really weird about criticality in places where everybody knows everybody. They see critically as meaning that they’re bad, or doing something wrong. Sometimes you just have to open up to the fact that maybe you’re doing something wrong! (laughs). And sometimes the only way to know that is if someone makes art that is critical.

Maiza: There’s a kind of unwillingness to hold up the mirror to the arts institutions here because there’s so little gallery space to show one’s work, which creates a kind of fear of biting the hand that feeds. Some of the people who run the show, the city arts agencies, for example, that curate public art downtown have to appeal to the tourist economy so they’re under a lot of pressure to make State Street beautiful. So there’s this impetus to, above all else, beautify. But beauty is subjective– beauty can be in the form of critique. I’m more concerned about what is lost when people don’t have a voice and when people who are artists don’t use their voices to call out structures of white supremacy in the arts, the lack of affordable studio spaces, housing, for students, people all over the place. The arts scene in Santa Barbara– well, is it connected to the University in Goleta? I think there is a somewhat of a disconnect, which some people are trying to ameliorate by building connections between the university arts and civil arts programs. 

Question: What do you think UCSB can do as an institution to better support its students both undergraduate and MFA?

Megan: Fostering more connections downtown. It’s so hard when you graduate and then all of a sudden you’re cut off from all the resources you have as a student, and you’re left to figure out how to keep your artistic practice going. Having more resources from the University for recent grads to be able to continue to have access to facilities and resources, and providing post-grad job opportunities. The limitations of the Santa Barbara community, there are not a ton of resources or specialized facilities for an artist to be encouraged to keep creating. We could do more to reach out to other institutions and form those connections. We already do a visiting artist series, the grads have studio visits with visitors and the opportunity to introduce their work to them. It’s definitely a challenge, Satna Barbara is a weirdly remote location. It can be hard to get people to come from LA to visit Glass Box openings. Maybe looking into satellite spaces. Oftentimes the grads organize a secondary thesis show somewhere in LA, and we have connections to some spaces in LA. 

Nathan: I think that the idea of the scene is part of it. I think people have to be excited about doing it together. Criticality is a really important component. We should be more excited about being critical and receiving criticism. I think that the perception is part of the problem. If we could somehow break the perception that criticality is a bad thing and instead criticality could be an exciting thing. If we could all talk about how things could be really different. Maybe we would be able to really do some of those things together. 

Maiza: I think it’s important for artists to work site-specifically. For example, during my MFA program, I looked at archives and realized the architect who codified the Spanish colonial style in downtown Santa Barbara was David Gebhard who was an architecture professor and the first director of the AD&A Museum. Basically my entire MFA project centered around doing archival research and looking at the way that this idea of Spanish colonial revival style started and how it is a form of white supremacy. I used my position as an artist to talk about how the university is complicit in the performance of white supremacy through the architecture which white washes and erases indigeneity. There is no architecture that amplifies Indigenous people or Chicano people. It’s unconscionable. What do I want from UCSB? More of an acknowledgement of the decolonization of the symbolic visual culture of Santa Barbara. The whole country is taking down confederate statues– what did Santa Barbara do to rectify white supremacist culture? What did the actual city agents do? What did UCSB do on its own campus? So that’s what I mean. We must look at where we are and what’s around us.

Part 3: Conclusion 

Speaking with each artist, personal experiences and reflections on UCSB’s program came to light. Although each artist has a different viewpoint on the institution, the Santa Barbara arts community, and the interaction between the two, we found several commonalities. MFA students are provided the space, facilities, support and mentorship required to expand an artistic practice. The program is not traditional, giving artists the opportunity to develop an  experimental practice. Despite this, there is a dissonance between the institution and the larger community it is situated in that stems from both its geographic location and the desired image of those leading the community. The shared sentiments among many MFA students include discrepancies between the institutional program and the artistic scene surrounding them. Santa Barbara, a mostly white, tourist town, has not been a location to foster the same creative and boundary-pushing output like San Francisco and Los Angeles, the cities it is situated between. It appears to be a vicious cycle of high rent and inaccessibility to art making facilities, paired with pushback from institutional leaders creating an environment inhospitable to young boundary-pushing artists. 

To better foster a stronger arts scene here in Santa Barbara, we must evaluate the existing environment and make the appropriate changes. This starts with listening to the artists themselves and the concerns they voice. To better support our artists, the University should remain a resource following graduation, this can include providing access to proper facilities and supplies needed to support an artistic practice. Past this, larger social issues such as affordable housing must be addressed, which would result in a greater diversity of voices. Creating a hospitable environment for creative minds will help grow a community more accepting of critique and allow for the support and display of more voices. 

This blog post was written by Art, Design & Architecture Museum Interns Cheyenne Assil and Jacqueline Schwartz, who interned with the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the AD&A Museum Registrar Department, respectively. Click to learn more about the AD&A Museum Internship Program:

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