Santa Barbara Museum of Art (Santa Barbara, CA)

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A painting by Rufino Tamayo shows two women in the foreground. To the left are baskets of fruit. To the right, in the background, are two other women. A man enters the picture from the right offering flowers.

Rufino Tamayo’s Mujeres de Tehuantepec (Women of Tehuantepec), 1939, was part of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s exhibition Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted. Photo courtesy of Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, Room of Contemporary Art Fund, 1941:21, © Herederos de Rufino Tamayo

Perception matters in the fickle field of modern art. It takes a successful exhibit, accompanied by buzz, to make the art-world map. In 2007, Santa Barbara Museum of Art made the leap from a regionally respected museum to an institution regarded for its international touring exhibitions.

Tamayo: A Modern Icon Reinterpreted, the first major American retrospective of works by Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo, has drawn international attention to the little art museum north of Los Angeles. Nearly 60,000 people saw the exhibit while it was hung in Santa Barbara. Art magazines ran complimentary reviews right alongside critiques of shows in major cities.

“We aren’t in LA, we aren’t in Washington, DC, but we are doing a retrospective of international caliber,” curator Diana D. duPont said. “It’s been an overwhelming success. The NEA gave us a chance.”

The museum received an NEA Access to Artistic Excellence grant of $80,000 to support the exhibition. DuPont called on 98 museums and private collectors from four continents to collect works for the show, which closed in Santa Barbara at the end of May 2007 and traveled on to the Miami Art Museum and the Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo in Mexico City. DuPont is thrilled to see her museum acclaimed for gathering Tamayo’s work. Born in Mexico in 1899, Tamayo was never fully embraced by his homeland or his adopted environs of New York and Paris. It’s only in recent years that his painting has been lauded for leaping boundaries rather than representing a national style.

“Tamayo fused together Mexican art, American art, and Modernism,” du Pont said. “It’s that fusion that makes him so special.”

(From the NEA 2006 Annual Report)