MCASB was founded as alternative arts space Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum (CAF) in 1976 by artists and art supporters seeking a venue dedicated solely to contemporary art. These initial organizers envisioned a “forum” for the display of and discussion about artwork being made today, both locally and in the larger national and international art community. Initially a roaming space, CAF found its first home in the historic Balboa Building in downtown Santa Barbara, before moving into the current 3,500-square-foot venue in the Paseo Nuevo Shopping Center in 1990.
In 2011, MCASB opened a satellite location at the Hotel Indigo Santa Barbara on lower State Street, near the Funk Zone neighborhood and the Cabrillo coastline. This site enabled MCASB to further its mission by offering cutting-edge exhibitions and public programs to an even larger segment of the community—free of charge. The space also enhanced MCASB’s capacity for creative partnerships with local neighborhood associations such as the Funk Zone, Santa Barbara Waterfront, Urban Wine Trail, Stearns Wharf, and the Historic Downtown Santa Barbara Arts District.
A longstanding forum for interchange between artists nationally and internationally, early exhibitions included work by Craig Kauffman, John Baldessari, Llyn Foulkes, Ed and Nancy Kienholz, Peter Shelton, and Wayne Thiebaud. During MCASB’s distinguished history, the following notable exhibitions have been presented: Home Show (1988) featured Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler, Lisa Hein, David Ireland, Jim Isermann, Joseph Kosuth, and Erika Rothenberg; Home Show2 (1996) featured Vito Acconci, Margaret Crane and Jon Winet, Dan Graham, Haha, Linda Hudson, Jean Lowe, Pepon Osorio, Buster Simpson, George Stone, Alan Wexler, and Michele O’Marah; and Home Show, Revisited (2011) featured Piero Golia, Evan Holloway, Bettina Hubby, Florian Morlat, Kori Newkirk, Jennifer Rochlin, Ry Rocklen, Kirsten Stoltmann, Stephanie Taylor, and Jennifer West.
Local artists featured at MCASB who have since garnered international reputations include Jane Callister, Ann Diener, Penelope Gottlieb, Keith Puccinelli, and Richard Ross. More recently MCASB presented exhibitions by artists Tam Van Tran, Dasha Shishkin, Sanford Biggers, and Mario Ybarra Jr. MCASB promotes avant-garde performance art and has been the only Santa Barbara museum with an ongoing roster of new music, dance, video, and performance art, often co-sponsored with local institutions. Highlights of past events include performances by Ann Edge, Liza Lou, John Malpede, Rachel Rosenthal, and Carolee Schneemann.
In 2012, trustees guided the organization toward what they saw as the next step in its history and CAF became Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara (MCASB) with a refined mission toward education and the arts. What once began as a grassroots, artist-run organization with nominal funding now serves as the leading contemporary arts presenter in Central California. MCASB became an American Alliance of Museums-accredited institution in 2016. Operating as a kunsthalle, MCASB continues to function as a non-collecting, non-profit museum dedicated to innovative and experimental contemporary art and arts education. Both adaptive and responsive, MCASB is an incubator for new ideas and risk-taking artwork as it positions itself to be a contemporary museum for the 21st century.