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How Van Gogh’s Most Famous Art Has Transformed This California City

The immersive exhibits showcasing Vincent Van Gogh’s art—the ones that take his paintings and expand and reconstruct them, creating entire rooms that give you the feeling of being inside one of his works—have been a huge cultural sensation for the last few years. But with the benefits of a massive renovation of its largest art museum and an especially strong community network, Santa Barbara, California did things differently for its current Van Gogh exhibition.

In short, they turned the whole city into part of the celebration.

Not only is the seaside city on California’s Central Coast hosting an exhibit of Van Gogh’s art, it’s bringing that art outside of the museum into public spaces, other museums, hotels, even restaurants. And if you want to try your hand at imitating one of the masters, there are plenty of ways to do that, too.

“Through Vincent’s Eyes: Van Gogh and His Sources” runs through May 22 at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA), which recently completed a six-year, $50 million renovation of its galleries. The exhibit displays some of the Dutch artist’s most famous works, 20 in total, like Roses (1890), Wheat Field (1888) and the iconic Self-Portrait with Pipe (1886). In addition to the original Van Gogh works, the exhibit includes art from 60 other artists, including contemporaries like Paul Gaugin, Claude Monet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Camille Pissarro and Edgar Degas—artists who were both influences on and influenced by the post-Impressionist.

The official exhibit is contained inside the museum, but the art extends far beyond that. Leave SBMA and you’ll find a Van Gogh-inspired public art installation just down the street: Sunflowers on State. For the installation, Santa Barbara artists created oversized sunflower sculptures, which were then painted by local students.

Further down State Street, there’s a different kind of Van Gogh exhibit at MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation. “The Night Cafe” is a totally unique, Van Gogh-inspired virtual reality experience, offered in the museum on Saturdays through the end of May. Put on the VR headset and you’re instantly a virtual world constructed in the painter’s famous style, which features a rendering of the artist himself, as well as elements from his most famous works. Explore the cafe and you can find hidden corners that provide new perspectives on his work. Through the window, for example, is the Starry Night sky above the nearby buildings, but the stars are moving in a way that feels like it’s bringing the painting to life.

You might expect Impressionist-style art classes, of which the city is currently offering many, some of which are happening at local galleries, and some of which have taken place outdoors in places like Lotusland, a botanical garden in nearby Montecito that houses rare plants from around the world.

There have also been Van Gogh-inspired performances at the Santa Barbara Symphony and Opera Santa Barbara, as well as a reading of “Vincent,” a one-man retelling of the artist’s life, written by Leonard Nimoy, by the Ensemble Theatre Company.

Santa Barbara’s participation in the exhibit has been so extensive that it’s even happening at local restaurants and bars, several of which have designed Van Gogh-inspired cocktails to serve this season. The Good Lion, a buzzy downtown cocktail bar, is serving the “Green Beast” pictured above, made with vodka, absinthe, lime and cucumber.

But if total immersion is what you’re after, there’s a hotel for that. Belmond El Encanto in the Santa Barbara Hills is offering a “Visions of Vincent Van Gogh” package, with VIP access to the exhibit and a bouquet of sunflowers waiting in your bungalow at check-in. The hotel has been hosting Van Gogh-inspired evenings called “The Terrace Cafe and Night,” with poetry readings, live music, and Dutch-style food and cocktails; and “Painting in the Garden” lessons by local artists in Van Gogh’s style. The next events are May 18 and May 15, respectively, and are open to everyone, not just hotel guests.

“Through Vincent’s Eyes” runs through May 22, and requires a separate ticket in addition to SBMA admission. Thursday nights at the museum are free to the public.

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