Celesta M. Billeci, UCSB Arts & Lectures’ Miller McCune Executive Director, is on her 12th Zoom call of the day. It is 2 pm.
Despite scrambling to ensure the community had access to Arts & Lectures while COVID-19 steamrolled its 2020 season, Billeci is upbeat, bullish on 2021 and her institution’s place in the community.
Quoting the late U.S. Representative John Lewis, she says: “We must be headlights and not taillights.”
“We promise to be headlights for the community,” she says. “We promise to innovate, not hibernate.”
During lockdowns, this has meant moving lectures and performances that would be typically scattered at stages across Santa Barbara online – a practice Billeci and her team will keep on doing. “That we can bring people from all over the world to Santa Barbara is fantastic.”
Looking forward to 2021, Arts & Lectures has already lined up a diverse slate of performers and thinkers – Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Bryan Stevenson, chef José Andrés, opera diva Joyce DiDonato, David Sedaris, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Jon Batiste and many more – to “entertain, educate, inspire.”
“Each of those elements has its own urgency these days,” Billeci says. “We desperately need to be awestruck, amused, and entertained.”
Arts & Lectures is so much more than what happens on stage. Contributors and friends of the organization enjoy special access to these global thinkers and world-class performers in informal chats, dinners and private sessions. And Arts & Lectures’ massive education and community engagement programs serve all ages and learning levels, from school-age children to college students to parents and families, to seniors. Billeci points to Wynton Marsalis and Yo-Yo Ma who always give a master class to students that is also open and free to the public – transformational experierences.
“I joke with Yo-Yo, that I like his master classes better than his performances,” Billeci quips.
Arts & Lectures serves more than 110,000 each year with its over 300 public events and education programs – including 15,000 community members who enjoy the Spanish-language music and dance programs of ¡Viva el Arte de Santa Bárbara! This community-driven program provides performances and educational activities throughout Santa Barbara County, including agricultural communities of north county.
For Billeci, who loves Santa Barbara for its residents’ intellectual curiousity and willingness to be challenged, the Herculean effort of entertaining, educating, and inspiring the community is a matter of pride and responsibility.
“We connect this community and the community needs us,” she says. “We did not create this community, but we are vital to making sure it is vibrant and alive.”