A bittersweet farewell

Overflow crowd at Avenue 9 Gallery's final reception.

Two rooms, two exhibits for Avenue 9’s finale.

Two rooms, two exhibits for Avenue 9’s finale.

Photo by Robert Speer

Final exhibits, Avenue 9 Gallery, now showing through Feb. 7. Closing party: Saturday, Feb. 7, 1-3 p.m.
Avenue 9 Gallery
180 E. 9th Ave.

So many people turned out for the final reception at Chico’s Avenue 9 Gallery last Friday (Jan. 23) that they spilled out of the building onto the front patio, where the air was cool and a young moon was dancing with Venus in the night sky.

It was a fitting scene, one that not only marked the last exhibits of the gallery after 11 years as one of Chico’s most exciting arts venues, but also served as a tribute to Maria Phillips, whose tireless enthusiasm was the driving force behind the gallery. She succumbed to cancer on Oct. 5, and her brilliant presence was much missed, creating a bittersweet mood among many of the attendees.

There will be one final “Early Valentine’s Day” party, Saturday, Feb. 7, 1-3 p.m., before Avenue 9 closes for good.

The reception was actually for two exhibits, one titled Snow Goose Festival Wildlife Art, the other Best & Last of Avenue 9 Art Guild. Each was held in one of the gallery’s two rooms. As the titles suggest, they were fairly distinct group shows. I say “fairly” because several artists exhibited in both.

Group shows are like potluck dinners—you may not like everything on offer, but there’s usually plenty you will enjoy. That’s certainly the case here. The wildlife show was juried by two artists and two nature lovers, so the overall quality is high. In the other room, longtime art lovers and collectors will recognize the names and work of Valerie Payne, Waif Mullins, Cynthia Sexton, Dolores Mitchell, David Mallory, Jim Woronow, Karma Ganzler, Candy Matthews, Lenn Goldmann and Doug Rathbun, all members of the Art Guild, the collective that put on most of Avenue 9’s exhibits.

Phillips was also a guild member, but that was the least of her commitments. She not only ran the gallery, she used it as a base for creating other art groups and events, such as ChiVAA, the Chico Visual Arts Alliance, which sponsored the monthly ARTabouts (walking gallery tours) and the annual Springtime Art Fiesta at the Matador Motel. It was also her idea about eight years ago to hold an art exhibit in conjunction with the Snow Goose Festival.

Phillips was an immensely talented woman, an accomplished painter in her own right who also had a doctorate in art history. She gave up a tenured position at George State University, in Atlanta, Ga., to move to Chico to be closer to family. Here she became friends with Mitchell, another painter and art history teacher (at Chico State), and together they founded Avenue 9 in 2004. (Phillips later took over sole directorship.)

In all of this Phillips enjoyed the support of her husband, Bob Klang, the financial white knight behind his wife’s creative genius. Just as she worked without pay, he owned the building and donated it for use as a gallery—a contribution that he estimates cost him around $200,000 in lost rent over the years.

He sold the building soon after his wife died. He did so, he tells me, because he didn’t want the responsibility for it and he didn’t see anyone in the guild who was able to replace her. Even if there were someone who wanted to do so, “I’m 81 years old,” he said. “I don’t want to be getting phone calls at night because there’s a problem at the building.”

His generosity continues, however. Several exhibits during the latter half of last year were financially successful, and he was able to donate the money earned—$20,000—to the campaign to name a room for Phillips at the Museum of Northern California Art (monca). Klang added another $5,000 from his own pocket, thereby raising half of the $50,000 needed to obtain the designation.

Reed Applegate, whose personal collection of Northern California art will form the initial permanent collection at monca, told me that about half of the $25,000 balance needed to match Klang’s donation has already been generated. Anyone who wants to contribute can send a check to monca, 900 Esplanade, Chico, Calif., 95926. There is nobody in Chico more worthy of having a museum room named after her than Maria Phillips.