A visit to the art district

New Chico State Arts & Humanities Building is hub for university’s arts programs

Chico State Guitar Ensemble performs at a summer soft opening for new Zingg Recital Hall.

Chico State Guitar Ensemble performs at a summer soft opening for new Zingg Recital Hall.

Photo by Jason Halley, University Photographer, CSU Chico.

The best view in the city just might be from the second floor of the new Arts & Humanities Building at Chico State. To stand in the yet-to-be-named “arts critique space,” a 1,000-square-foot gallery for master’s of fine arts student works, and look north out the two-story-high wall of windows is to have a bird’s-eye view of the grandeur of the beautiful campus. The picture framed of the old brick buildings at the university core, surrounding the Kendall Hall lawn with its lush canopy of trees, looks almost jigsaw-puzzle perfect.

The $58 million view, paid for with California state bond funds, is just one impressive aspect of a well-designed modern building that was thoughtfully integrated into already beautiful surroundings by its designers (WRNS Studio) and builders (Otto Construction). It’s a curiously handsome structure, displaying different personalities as you make your way from the mostly glass north side that shows off the warm woods of the gallery and recital hall entrances within; to the ebony bricks complementing the newly painted gray facade of the Performing Arts Center across the breezeway; to the various public art features—including Wes Heiss and Marek Walczak’s “Facewall” sculpture (with 966 individual faces) on the Second Street side, and John Pugh’s repainting of his iconic trompe l’oeil-style mural, Academe, the original of which was lost during the demo of the previous building.

Ground was broken on the project in November of 2013, and the four-story, 90,000-plus square-foot building—which replaces the two-story 52-year-old Alva P. Taylor Hall—was completed earlier this summer. It opens for classes for the first time beginning Monday (Aug. 22), the start of the fall semester.

A couple of weeks ago, Joseph Alexander, associate dean of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, led this writer on a tour of the new building. He highlighed its many impressive features, including a state-of-the-art recording studio with connectivity to many performance spaces on campus as well as the old recording studio (in the PAC), and huge glass-blowing and ceramic studios, both with windows looking out on an inner courtyard.

And of course, every corner of the complex is wired for the modern world, with smart classrooms, studios, study areas, conference rooms and lecture halls. Many are equipped with retractable screens and projectors and wireless connectivity, allowing smart devices and laptops to communicate with and operate systems.

“Now it’s about what comes out of the building,” said Alexander, who’s excited to put what he called “an incubator for creativity” to work. “We have the capability to do so many different things. It’s a tremendously exciting time for us.”

In addition to its obvious academic advantages, the new building is touted for its role in focusing the school’s various arts-presenting groups into one area. The Arts & Humanities Building sits at the apex of what has been newly dubbed the Chico State “Arts District.” Laxson Auditorium and its Chico Performances and North State Symphony programming is on one side, and the Performing Arts Center building and its very active trio of theaters showcasing drama, music and dance is on the other. And the new building’s slew of new and updated performance and exhibition spaces do make it an ideal entry point—right at the junction of the university and downtown Chico.

“We now have this connection to the community,” Alexander said.

The Arts & Humanities Building boasts new homes for a couple of existing campus art galleries—the Janet Turner Print Museum and the newly redubbed “Jacki Headley” University Art Galley—and also features a brand-new MFA Gallery, all housed in high-ceilinged rooms with polished-concrete floors.

But the star is the Paul and Yasuko Zingg Recital Hall, a 200-seat performance space with an acoustic makeup integrated into its sleek yet warm décor. Floor-to-ceiling wooden diffusers are designed to either reflect or absorb sound, and behind those, curtains can be pulled out or drawn in to further deaden or brighten the room. The stage is a floating platform surrounded by more adjustable diffusers, and the entire room is wired for video and audio in conjunction with the new recording studio across the hall.

“It’s not colored by reverberation,” Alexander said. “What you hear is what’s happening on stage with very little interaction from the room.”

So far, there’s been a soft opening in the hall, featuring performances by an a capella group and the university’s guitar ensemble. The first public performance will be a multiartist recital featuring faculty ringers past and present on Sept. 11, and by then the district will be jumping with live shows at Laxson and the PAC, and all galleries full of new art.