The new director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA), whose tenures at previous institutions were punctuated by controversy, has abruptly canceled a major upcoming exhibition over a lack of diversity among the two dozen represented artists. Director Amada Cruz also eliminated the position of the museum’s longtime chief curator, Eik Kahng.
The decisions by Cruz prompted a searing response from the affected artists, who called her actions “outrageous” and “appalling” and said they continued “Cruz’s pattern of controversial leadership.”
“We consider these recent developments not only alarming but also insulting — to us, to the Santa Barbara art community, and indeed to all artists,” eight members of the group wrote in a formal letter of protest to the museum’s Board of Directors. “What is happening at SBMA now threatens the institution’s public and scholarly missions.”
News of the cancellation and Kahng’s dismissal was first reported by Hyperallergic, an online arts magazine.
The show, Three American Painters: Then and Now, was meant to explore the legacy of art historian Michael Fried during the period of “high modernism.” Kahng had been developing it for years, securing loans for 62 pieces and organizing a catalog that was on its way to being printed when Cruz suddenly pulled the plug.
In a statement to the Independent, Cruz defended her decisions. “When I joined the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in October 2023, one of the first priorities set together with the Board and senior leadership was to review the ways in which our Museum and programming can be more inclusive and more reflective of Santa Barbara County’s diverse community,” she said.
“In reviewing the exhibition plan, the checklist of around 20 living artists and estates slated to be included in the exhibition, and the catalog essays,” Cruz continued, “it was determined that it fell short from a diversity perspective. The Santa Barbara Museum of Art, like other museums of our size, has limited resources. So, it was decided to focus our resources elsewhere.”
Cruz said she and the museum “regret the impact this may have on all of those involved, including the artists.”
Citing an anonymous board member, Hyperallergic reported there had also been concern voiced among museum leadership that a homophobic slur previously used by Fried could spark public backlash. In a private 1967 letter, Fried had referred to the “faggot sensibility” of certain Minimalist works.
“Having canceled the exhibition,” the artists said in their letter, “[Cruz] then went on to cancel its creator.”
A museum spokesperson said they could not discuss Kahng’s departure, calling it a “confidential personnel matter.” They insisted, however, that her sudden exit was “unrelated to the show itself or its featured artists.” Kahng could not be reached for comment.
Kahng joined the museum in 2009 and was behind some of its biggest and most successful exhibitions, including the recent Van Gogh showcase. She served as lead curator and deputy director under former Director Larry Feinberg, who announced his retirement last year.
The January 26 letter ― signed by Willard Boepple, Luc Delahaye, Anthony Hernandez, Joseph Marioni, Larry Poons, Stephen Shore, Jim Welling, and the Jules Olitski Foundation ― heaped praise on Kahng’s past accomplishments and lamented that Three American Painters: Then and Now would never see the light of day.
“The show was typical of Kahng’s work, in the sense that it addressed important moments in the history of modern art that were of major importance but underserved in critical literature,” they stated.
“As we see it, the latest turn of events at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, which began within weeks of [Cruz’s arrival], trivializes art” and “condescends to its audience,” they said.
Cruz declined to address the contents of the letter, which also cited public issues raised during her tenures at the Phoenix Art Museum and the Seattle Art Museum.
In 2021, The Stranger covered calls for a boycott of the Seattle museum after Cruz approved the installation of large cement bollards ― described by critics as “hostile architecture” ― to deter homeless people from camping outside the building.
The Arizona Republic reported that over a dozen employees were fired or resigned soon after Cruz’s arrival to Phoenix, with at least one former staff member referencing her “abrasive management style.” The Phoenix New Times wrote about the decline of the museum’s docent program under her watch.