Art history

What happened to COBA?

HANGING TIGHT<br>These COBA paintings on the exterior wall of Pluto’s, on Second Street, are among many that brighten up downtown walls. When they come down, however, they won’t be replaced, as the popular art program is now defunct.

These COBA paintings on the exterior wall of Pluto’s, on Second Street, are among many that brighten up downtown walls. When they come down, however, they won’t be replaced, as the popular art program is now defunct.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

There are four blank squares on the north wall of the Zucchini & Vine store downtown where paintings used to hang. For the first summer in seven years, they’re noticeably empty.

The Chico Open Board Art project, or COBA, which brought local art and artists into the public eye in a way no other event did, is kaput. No longer will people be able to gather at the Thursday Night Market to vote for their favorite paintings or bid the auctions where the paintings eventually were sold.

By most reckonings, COBA was the most popular art program in Chico. It was certainly the most widely known. So what happened to it?

Well, that depends who’s telling the story. Some say it died a natural death. Others charge it died of neglect.

First a little history: Although it had a rough start in 2001, COBA became more successful every year and received solid support from the Downtown Chico Business Association, the City Council and art lovers.

For four years it was an independent project. As such, it required a tremendous amount of work and a huge time commitment from many volunteers. The Chico Arts Commission funded the project, but all of the work that went into it was unpaid.

“It is, I think, a difficult project to run really well,” said artist and sign maker Gregg Payne, who was a major mover behind COBA during this early period.

In 2005, the Chico Art Center was asked to take over. It had a larger volunteer base, an office that did accounting and an organizational framework in place, so it was seen as a more stable sponsor.

But the CAC right away ran into a host of new problems. One of the biggest had to do with finding sites for the winning entries. Historically they’d been placed on building walls downtown, but apparently saturation had been reached. The CAC couldn’t find additional building owners willing to host the art.

Complicating the issue was the fact that, when the Chico Art Center took over COBA, the terms for maintaining the artworks had changed. Historically, the Chico Arts Commission had contracted with businesses to keep the paintings on their walls for 15 years but maintain them for only the first five, after which the commission took on the responsibility. Now the commission no longer wanted to maintain them, and businesses were being asked to take care of them for the full 15 years.

“We’re lucky we got what we got,” said Dave Lawton, who helped run COBA throughout its existence. He explained that it became harder and harder to find businesses willing to host artwork for 15 years. In fact, last year’s winner, Roy Steeves, is still waiting for his painting to find a home.

Also, in 2005 the Chico Arts Commission decided it had other projects it wanted to do around Chico, such as the benches downtown, and the COBA funding, $29,000, was too much to give one project every year. When COBA came up for renewal, the agreement was that it would receive $29,000 the first year, $25,000 the next, and the amount would decrease by $5,000 every year thereafter, until COBA became self-sustaining.

Some of COBA’s original organizers allege that the CAC was mingling the money made from auctioning the paintings with its other funds. COBA would still be around, they say, if the profits had been used to perpetuate COBA and for nothing else.

“It had always been enough money before,” said Daniel Donnelly, who ran COBA in 2004.

Lawton and Debra Simpson, who ran the project for CAC in its final years, disagree.

It would have been impossible for the project to be self-sustaining, Lawton said. The money COBA made from the auction proceeds was not enough to perpetuate the project. Even $29,000 was not enough to properly run something as big as COBA.

“There definitely wasn’t any fat to the program,” Lawton said.

Although the auction was more successful than ever in 2005 and 2006, the CAC decided not to apply for funding in 2007. “We didn’t know if we could maintain the quality,” Simpson said. Plus, the extra work was straining the CAC’s volunteer base, and the group decided it needed to focus on the things it was already doing well, like art classes and gallery showings.

“Of course people liked the project, but they weren’t involved in the minutiae behind it,” Lawton said, adding that the CAC would be more than happy if someone decided to resurrect COBA.