Broken arts

Missteps, miscues mar art-selection process for Enloe’s new tower

Painter and art historian Delores Mitchell has tentatively agreed to sell two paintings to Enloe, but she wants to resolve the purchasing issues first. She would like to see Enloe use this opportunity to really showcase local art and artists.

Painter and art historian Delores Mitchell has tentatively agreed to sell two paintings to Enloe, but she wants to resolve the purchasing issues first. She would like to see Enloe use this opportunity to really showcase local art and artists.

Photo by Robert Speer

About ChiVAA:
Maria Phillips describes the Chico Visual Arts Alliance as like a “mini-chamber of commerce for the arts in Chico.” It sponsors the monthly neighborhood-based ARTabouts as well as the yearly Springtime Art Fiesta at the Matador Motel.

In late January, several Chico-based artists began receiving phone calls and emails from a woman in Sacramento named Becky Nevins who said she worked for a company called Ambiance Group. Her firm had been commissioned to find and purchase art for a “major project” in this area and was interested in buying—at a wholesale price 40 percent off retail—some of their paintings, she said.

Word travels fast in the arts community, and within days local artists understood that the “major project” was Enloe Medical Center’s soon-to-be-completed new tower, which will have four stories’ worth of bare walls that need artwork. Why, they wondered, was Enloe using the Sacramento branch of a firm headquartered in Tennessee, one that knew nothing about Chico art and artists, to broker the purchases?

It was a reasonable question, and as it turned out there was a reasonable answer, but because a series of emails to Enloe went unanswered for several weeks, that single question turned into many more, threatening to harm relations between the hospital and the arts community.

On Feb. 13, Maria Phillips, president of the Chico Visual Arts Alliance, called Bill Seguine, the Enloe tower’s project manager, to ask about the artwork. In a follow-up email the next day, she told him she fully understood “the corporate and monetary constraints that you by necessity operate under when you have such a big space … to decorate and you need to get things done efficiently.”

On the other hand, she wrote, “The art scene here is huge. It’s one of the biggest riches and one of the strongest tools we have toward ensuring the continued healthy growth of our community.”

There are many people and organizations that could have helped Enloe find local art for the tower, she said, naming ChiVAA, the Chico Art Center, the university’s Art Department and her own Avenue 9 Gallery “just a few blocks away from you. … Believe me, you do not need to go to Sacramento (via Tennessee) to help you find appropriate local art for your tower.”

She suggested that Enloe’s Board of Trustees “reconsider” its contract with Ambiance and asked to meet with Seguine to discuss the matter further.

When Phillips didn’t hear back from Seguine for two weeks, she sent another email on Feb. 29, reiterating that Chico artists could provide a wide range of artwork and asking again to meet with him and the Enloe board. She emailed the message to the trustees, as well.

By March 9 she still hadn’t heard from Enloe, so she decided to alert local public officials to the situation, sending out emails far and wide, including one to Laura Hennum, Enloe’s vice president for professional services and business development.

Dolores Mitchell, co-owner at Avenue 9, hadn’t heard back from Enloe either. Mitchell was one of the artists Ambiance had contacted in January. The company had tentatively selected two of her paintings for purchase, subject to approval by Enloe’s Patient Experience Task Force, the group vetting art purchases.

On March 7, however, Mitchell emailed Nevins at Ambiance—copying the message to Seguine and the Enloe board—asking that she meet with the ChiVAA board and Enloe officials to resolve the purchasing issue “in a way that will support our local Chico art community. If this occurs, I will be happy to have my paintings considered for the Enloe facility.”

Less than an hour after receiving Phillips’ March 9 email, Hennum, who’d been involved with the art selection for a long time but wasn’t aware of Phillips’ earlier communications, responded, saying, “It appears that there has been some miscommunication and I’m hopeful that we can offer clarification and find a way in which to move forward with our healing arts needs at Enloe Medical Center.”

The hospital’s priority “from the beginning has been to feature local artists in our new patient tower,” she wrote, adding, “so I apologize if that has not been made clear.”

Phillips, miffed at the prior lack of response from Enloe, responded that it wasn’t a matter of miscommunication, but of no communication at all.

She had a point, but so did Hennum. There had been miscommunication, and it was mostly on Enloe’s part, but it was understandable.

In a phone interview, Enloe CEO Mike Wiltermood explained that in 2007 the hospital had learned that the framing and installation of artwork in the tower had to meet strict standards imposed by the Office of State Health Planning and Development.

After some research, including talking with other Planetree hospitals offering “patient-centered” care, Enloe officials settled on Ambiance as a company capable of meeting the standards.

It was agreed that, to keep costs down, most of the artwork would be inexpensive “poster art” that Ambiance would provide free of charge. In addition, the hospital would “highlight” the artwork with 20 original works purchased from local artists. Ambiance agreed to arrange for those purchases at no extra charge.

In return, Ambiance would be paid for the framing and installation to state-mandated standards.

Unfortunately, none of that was communicated to local artists, who envisioned the entire Enloe tower being filled with artwork found and purchased by an out-of-town firm.

Another reason for using Ambiance, Wiltermood said, was that the hospital wanted to be sure the process was fair and equitable and didn’t play favorites, something Ambiance could provide.

“Nobody on our end knows the arts community,” he said, adding, “We did think afterwards that maybe we should have contacted someone on, say, the city Arts Commission.”

Now that he and Hennum understand why people like Phillips and Mitchell were upset, he said, they intend to reach out to them to resolve the issue. In the meantime, not all of the original artwork has been purchased, and there is still time to involve others in the process.

“There’s nothing that we can’t fix here,” Wiltermood said.

Besides, when the tower is finished, work will begin on remodeling the old part of the hospital, and artwork will be needed there, as well.

Phillips and Mitchell were gladdened to learn of Wiltermood’s statements and quickly arranged a meeting with Enloe officials for March 22.

“There’s going to be plenty of opportunity to work with the local arts community,” Wiltermood said.