Empty chairs and empty tables lined La Cumbre Plaza on Thursday afternoon.
A quiet hung in the air, interrupted by occasional customers wandering the mall.
Over the past few years, La Cumbre has seen more and more storefronts close their doors. With further closures on the way, local business owner Mike Cregan saw a way to bring life back to the plaza – 7,000 square feet of artist studios and galleries.
This November, three art galleries will join the mall as the La Cumbre Center for Creative Arts. Providing studio space and exposure for 25 artists, this project is aimed at generating a communal experience for creators and restoring La Cumbre to what it once was.
The idea came to Mr. Cregan just after visiting New York City.
“I was thinking about my trip, and the fact that I had not seen any empty storefronts in midtown Manhattan,” said Mr. Cregan. “I wondered why, and I thought about all the art museums and art galleries there.”
A week later, Mr. Cregan was walking through La Cumbre when he noticed it had become “a bit of a ghost town.”
“That gave me the idea to talk to the people at La Cumbre on adding galleries to bring energy and life back to the plaza.”
The Center will integrate such art forms as drama, music and writing.
“I want it to be more than studios,” said Mr. Cregan. “I want it to be a destination.”
Initially, Mr. Cregan faced a number of reasons why the project couldn’t be done. While La Cumbre’s manager at the time showed interest in the Center, Mr. Cregan knew only a few artists in the area. When asked if he could get the project done, Mr. Cregan was unsure, but decided to take a chance. And gradually, his plan became reality.
After months of work, three different galleries now populate the plaza. Each gallery showcases eight unique artists, where anything from photography to sculpture can be found in one place. For six of the eight artists, their gallery will double as a studio, giving visitors a glimpse into how inspiration becomes art.
When the project was first coming together, many of the artists were skeptical. Although supportive, they wondered if it was going to happen. Since then, the Center has evolved into something they couldn’t have imagined.
“(The artists) told me getting to know each other and work together was something that they didn’t expect,” said Mr. Cregan. “There’s really been a building excitement among them to be able to put this on as a group.”
For many of the artists, this experience has brought much more than a place to show their art.
“The eight people in our studio have become family,” said Irene Estrin, an artist at the Center.
With her space, Ms. Estrin will be displaying her work in clay, which she describes as a “journey through life with creative change.” In this way, her art reflects adventure and incorporates nature. Using sticks, stones, and leaves from places she’s visited, Ms. Estrin imprints texture into her clay, so the piece is a reminder of where she’s been.
Before this opportunity came about, Ms. Estrin wanted to quit her job and run away from Santa Barbara. Having grown up in small towns her whole life, Ms. Estrin thought Santa Barbara had too many streetlights and too much going on.
“They have built so much housing projects,” said Ms. Estrin. “I grew up in the woods.”
Struggling to adjust, she found the Center.
“Now I feel like a 5-year-old,” she said. “The variety of talented people that are coming together have given me a new energy.”
Ms. Estrin feels the Center can bring that new energy to La Cumbre.
“There are already stores saying they’ll renew their leases,” said Ms. Estrin. “Maybe art supply stores or other storefronts will pop up. If there’s a reason for people to come, La Cumbre could reignite.”
Like Ms. Estrin, mixed-media artist Karen Haub used the Center as a new start.
“When this project came up it was like the stars aligned,” said Ms. Haub. “I got a little place to call my own, do my work and meet other artists in a place full of creative energy.”
Ms. Haub uses oil and wax to create semi-abstract landscape paintings. She owned a studio in San Diego for three years until moving to Santa Barbara 14 months ago. After losing her studio Ms. Haub felt claustrophobic in her work, but the Center gave her a place to be creative again.
“Being around such a variety of artwork inspired me to be more unique,” said Ms. Haub. “It was the best move I could have ever imagined.”
Some have warned Ms. Haub the project is too risky but she thinks the Center will increase traffic in the mall, providing something for everyone.
“There’s only one way to find out if we can enhance the community in the way we want,” she said. “And that’s by doing it.”
The Center will include photographer Michael Mead, mixed-media artist Sol Hill and painter Jesse Avila, who works at UCSB’s Multicultural Center. Some may recognize the work of Pali Szilvassy, which appears in Santa Barbara’s Summer Solstice Parade each year.
To be in the space, each of the artists pay nominal rent, which Mr. Cregan believes is likely less than most of them spend on coffee each month. But for Mr. Cregan, this project isn’t about the money.
“I’m not getting a percentage of art sold or anything from the mall,” said Mr. Cregan. “I had the idea, and I really wanted to make it happen. My reward is watching the artists get excited.”
Late next week a soft opening will allow artists to open their galleries for the first time, with a grand opening planned for early November. Mr. Cregan hopes to coordinate the grand opening with La Cumbre as a whole, bringing hundreds of people to the plaza.
“My whole life has been a preparation for this,” said Mr. Cregan. “I’m happy to see it’s actually happening.”