Art of hope

New Chico Visual Arts Alliance strives to unify art community

CHIVAA DIVA <br>Maria Phillips, surrounded by Michael Divens’ paintings at Avenue 9 Gallery, gets ready to launch ChiVAA, the Chico Visual Arts Alliance.

Maria Phillips, surrounded by Michael Divens’ paintings at Avenue 9 Gallery, gets ready to launch ChiVAA, the Chico Visual Arts Alliance.

Photo by matt siracusa

Avenue 9 Gallery

180 E. Ninth Ave.
Chico, CA 95926

(530) 879-1821

In the middle of an interview at Avenue 9 Gallery & Art Guild with art-maker and local-art advocate Maria Phillips—who co-runs the gallery with partners Dolores Mitchell and Giovanna Jackson—widely known local painter Michael Diven walked in the door.

Phillips, seated at a windowside table with Mitchell, had been passionately talking about her desire to see local art and artists be better appreciated and recompensed, and about her new nonprofit, ChiVAA (Chico Visual Arts Alliance), created with the intention to help support and connect local visual artists and community members.

Diven moved to Chico five years ago from the Bay Area, and has had his work featured in such prominent industry publications as Artforum and Artweek, and his unexpected appearance prompted Phillips to make a beeline for one of the corners of the gallery where his paintings hang. She called attention to one of his pieces, a painting tagged at just more than $1,000. A New York City gallery recently requested this particular painting, said Phillips, and it will probably sell for about $10,000 … in New York, but definitely not in Chico.

Plus, added Diven, the $1,000 Chico price is “the same price I would have gotten for it in San Francisco 30 years ago.”

Neither Phillips (a former resident of Los Angeles) nor Diven is angry. Living in Chico is a trade-off they are happy to make.

But they have a point, especially given the current state of the economy: It’s tough to make it as a visual artist in this town.

Artists are struggling to survive by showing their work in cafés and hair salons, pointed out Phillips, hoping to make a little money from an interested customer passing through.

In other cases, said Phillips—holding up a T-shirt from a recent local campaign promoting Chico as an art destination, and featuring a painting without the artist’s name—the artists simply don’t get credit. She doesn’t think it’s deliberate malice toward the artists, but a lack of awareness.

“I think consciousness-raising is a big part of ChiVAA,” said Phillips, president of the organization that she founded in September 2008, and that already includes All Fired Up owner Janice Hofmann, former 1078 Gallery director Pat Macias and long-time Chico artist Jana Lawton as officers.

ChiVAA, says Phillips, “grew out of a continuing realization that the visual arts really have special needs, compared to the performing arts …Visual artists need to sell big, expensive things in order to survive, rather than tickets [to a performance].”

Phillips compares her fledgling organization to Think Local, Chico!, or Alliance of Chico-area Theatres (ACT), groups made up of businesses and persons with a common interest in promoting all members of the organization.

As a kick-off to raise awareness and solicit members to the new alliance, Avenue 9 Gallery is hosting a Yes We Can group show May 15 featuring works by Avenue 9’s collective of artists.

“ChiVAA is an attempt to coordinate local business and cultural organizations so that they can all be aware [of what is going on in local art],” said Phillips. “People have asked, ‘Are you competing with Chico Art Center?’ No, they’ll be a member, too. We will represent them, not supplant them.”

Local tax accountant Sue Zarubin, for instance, an avid arts supporter, has also joined ChiVAA’s board. And Zarubin’s graphic-designer husband, who will help design ChiVAA’s new Web site (which will strive to foster communication between visual artists and will have an interactive calendar for arts events), is also a member.

“Our first goal,” said Phillips, “is to create a permanent art map, which we will revise every year, for visitors to find out: Where’s the art? Where’s the public art?”

ChiVAA’s folded, glove-compartment-sized Art Map, listing names of local artists and where and when their work can be viewed (Phillips is very keen to promote the CN&R’s Art First Saturday art walk, for one thing), is funded by a grant from the city of Chico. It will be available in late June. Phillips plans to have the maps available at the Chamber of Commerce, and in local motels, hotels, cafés, art-supply stores and galleries.

Also planned are periodic events designed to educate the community about the function of art and artists in the community.

“We don’t want to create an institution,” said Phillips. “We want to create an opportunity for people to coordinate shared concerns.”