A Colorful Debate
By Jessica Hilo
Across the street from Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort rests a sallow, geometric monument to disregard. The steel, once rainbow-colored sculpture, Herbert Bayer’s Chromatic Gate, stands 21 feet high and weighs a hefty 12.5 tons.
With Santa Barbara’s continuous flow of collegiate and sun-lusty tourists, it’s easy to forget that this town has remarkable and passionate history. While the city is very much a modern work in progress, the graying beast of Bayer’s Gate is an ever-present reminder that our legacy, at times, is left in the shadows.
The Chromatic Gate represents a modern and abstract period for its famed creator, Herbert Bayer. Bayer was an industrial, environmental, and graphic designer who dabbled in architecture, painting, sculpting, and photography. He, however, is best known as the last surviving master of Germany’s renowned Bauhaus school. There, Bayer studied mural painting and typography under the likes of legendary artists, like Wassily Kandinsky and László Moholy-Nagy.
Bayer eventually taught advertising layout and typography at Bauhaus. He is responsible for much of the school’s iconic pieces of text—later to influence the creation the Helvetica font. In 1928, Bayer left Bauhaus to become the Art Director of Vogue magazine’s Berlin office.
A decade later, motivated by the war, Bayer immigrated to the United States where he worked in Aspen, Colorado. He eventually moved to Montecito in 1975 to live out the remaining years of his life.
Bayer’s work steeped with a utopian vision. He embraced interdisciplinary art, gathering inspiration from an assortment of sources—even furniture or stage design. He believed art should be stripped to its barest essentials, but that it needed to enrich the modern world by daring to push aesthetics.
History of the Gate
Bayer’s Chromatic Gate was brought to Santa Barbara’s East Beach in 1991. It was constructed as a memorial to both Bayer and his wife Joella, by Paul Mills, the longest-serving Art Director at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
“There was a certain amount of frustration when Paul Mills and I went before city council to get approval for the installation of the sculpture,” said Paul Hobson, the technical coordinator and curatorial assistant of the sculpture at the time of installation. “Mayor Lodge made the statement that there was no need for public art in Santa Barbara…that the art is in the gardens and red tile roofs.”
The monument was funded privately, the largest portion of money donated from the ARCO company, for whom Bayer had worked as a design consultant in the 1960s. The area in which the monument stands is dubbed ‘the Arco Circle.’
To many residents, the Gate was an aesthetic failure. The city and county fielded complaints that its colors ran too bright. “I used to joke that you had to put a red tile roof on top of a sculpture to get something accepted in Santa Barbara,” joked Rita Ferri, Visual Arts Coordinator and Curator of Collections at the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding about it,” said Ginny Brush, Executive Director at the County Arts Commission. “I’ve heard everything from, ‘it’s a Chumash rainbow,’ to ‘it’s a gay symbol,’ to I don’t know what all.”
Regardless of its aesthetic appeal, the Chromatic Gate has suffered from extreme exposure to its marine environment. The salt air and bright sun of its ocean-side view has oxidized its metal and blanched its color. Restoration requires much work. “Paint chips were kept in a vault inside the museum,” Brush explained. “Because there was a standard to be matched [in restoration]; which, now, doesn’t meet environmental standards.”
“I would say the challenges are the same as any other piece of public art,” said Ferri. “Anything that’s out in the public, whatever material, starts decomposing the moment you put it up. That is a big issue: all public art requires maintenance.”
At the time of its construction, the Chromatic Gate set aside money for maintenance and restoration, which was used for over a decade. “This is a nationwide problem,” said Brush. “The people who put public art [together] never thought about sustainability or on how to maintain it over the long haul. There’s [no] funding vehicle in place to do that.”
The County Arts Commission is working in conjunction with the city’s Committee for Visual Art in Public Places to find resources for restoration on all its public art.
“I think we, like everyone else, are looking more to the private sector,” said Brush.
“I’m raising private funds,” said Ferri. “I’m having to go to Los Angeles or Colorado—going to art dealers—and I have been appealing to all those people to come up with funds.”
“There really is very little public money out there that saves public art,” Ferri continued. “We rely on passionate individuals who [want to] try to protect and save art.”
Beyond relying on private foundations and the generosity of individuals, the county and city are working together on institutionalizing procedures regarding public art.
The County Arts Commission is working with the City Arts Advisory Committee on a cultural arts advancement plan that will designate how to make public art self-sustaining and how to develop funds for its maintenance.
In the last several years, there has been a concentrated effort on developing maintenance manuals and schedules for every piece of public art displayed.
Regardless of innovative modes in collaboration, public art, and especially the Chromatic Gate, fields its share of public criticism.
At a recent meeting of the city’s Parks & Recreation Commission, the Gate saw pushback in conjunction with redevelopment to its neighboring Cabrillo Ball Field.
“I would like to…add something [of] a little more historical value to actually encourage tourism,” suggested Matt La Vine, general manager at Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort. “Maybe something that reflects the old Santa Barbara, so we get some more value out of that than just some rainbow arch that really no one understands… I’m all about art but let’s get something out there.”
“Take out the rainbow Chromatic Gate and relocate it somewhere else,” said Theresa Pena. “I’ve lived in Santa Barbara all my life and when that went up…so many people, friends and family, were like, ‘What? A rainbow gate? Ok, well, how does that represent Santa Barbara?”
How It Represents Santa Barbara
“Public art, in some instances, defines [cities] as destinations,” said Brush. “Art adds a certain ambience; it helps to define the region.”
Though people were not enthusiastic about the Chromatic Gate at its inception, Brush contends that overtime it has come to define the waterfront. “It’s a part of what people expect,” she said, “and what they’re used to seeing.”
Beyond defining the landscape of Santa Barbara, public art, Brush argued, has added to its local economy. Materials used for public art are purchased in the city and its artists continue to spend revenue downtown.
In 2007, nonprofit arts and culture in Santa Barbara County was a $77.6 million industry and one that supported 2,288 full-time jobs (one of which was held by this fledgling reporter). The arts generated $7.62 million in local and state government revenue and built audiences at local restaurants, hotels, retail stores, parking garages, and other local businesses.
The County Arts Commission has recently announced that it will participate in an economic impact study to evaluate this revenue stream in the current fiscal climate.
Gateway to the Future
“When you think about all the famous people that have lived in Santa Barbara—” said Ferri. “there’s a picture of Albert Einstein on the beach; we read about famous authors [like] T.C. Boyle—Santa Barbara is really in some ways a Mecca for very creative, talented, brilliant people.”
Ferri had the honor of meeting Bayer in the early 1980s. “I always remember this story: he and his wife Joella lived in Montecito, but they also lived in Morocco in the 1950s. He was always impressed by the bright colors and strong contrasts of the sun and the shadows [there]. And that started him using those progressive pigments.
But he also loved the fact that when he would travel in Morocco, sometimes he would come to a place where there would be gates out in the desert…there would be no people living there. There would be an archway and nothing else.
He saw that as a beautiful symbol. A lonely symbol. That man leaves everything behind. A life once lived there. But an archway was a dimension. A romantic gesture.
If I had my druthers, the Gate would be in the sand where it’s supposed to be.”
Bayer always felt that a modern city needed a symbol of human thought. And indeed, in the great cities of the nation, from St. Louis to New York, you do find iconic arches.
“It has become a little bit more of our culture,” Ferri said wistfully. “I think it would be rather sad to lose something like that simply because nobody cared. He left a piece of art in Santa Barbara and hoped that we would take care of it.”
Herbert Bayer’s Chromatic Gate is located on the corner of East Cabrillo Blvd. and Calle Puerto Vallarta