Creating a living
Trying to make money making art in Chico
“It’s a buyer’s market.” The statement could apply to many things these days, but for Gregg Payne, it would be the Chico arts market. He should know how to describe it: The artist/activist has been intimately involved with that market for the past 30 years, as a sign-painter, muralist, sculptor and former city arts commissioner.
“Chico is an inspiring place to live,” Payne says, “[but] the supply of talent far exceeds the demand.”
Chico is full of art. It’s renowned for it. Our city has dozens of public galleries, private art dealers, plus restaurants and cafés showing art year-round. There are six community theaters in the area, each putting on full seasons of plays. There are nearly 400 active local bands and solo musicians, and a couple dozen live music venues in which they play nearly every night of the week.
That’s not even counting what Chico State brings to the scene, both through a continuing schedule of performances and exhibitions and via its overriding nurturing influence on the arts of this rural region. We’re not just full, we’re overflowing!
Payne is right; there’s so much for consumers to consume, it seems nearly impossible that a small city like Chico could support it all, and all the people involved—especially during ever-depressing economic times.
How far do you think your $5 cover charge at Nick’s Night Club goes when the bill includes two local bands that get a much smaller percentage of the cut than the touring headliner? What about the actors who rehearse and perform continually for six weeks for one production? How about the painter who’s trying to sell pieces from the walls of the Upper Crust Bakery, while over the next four blocks of downtown, 100 others are trying to do the same?
The overriding question of whether it’s possible to make a living making art affects a lot of people in Chico. We’ve decided to talk to a sampling of them—including a painter, a theater director and a musician—to find out how they are doing in such a challenging climate.
Caitlin Schwerin, artist
“I just remember sitting at this round table with my supervisor and my boss, and them saying, ‘We’re going to let you go, but we feel really confident that we’re just giving you that little shove that you need in order to do art.’ ”
That’s how Caitlin Schwerin’s career as an artist began, by being laid off from her job at local Internet service provider DigitalPath. That “little shove,” plus the added push of regular unemployment checks (“It makes it seem like you can do anything,” she said about the supplementary funds), proved the turning point in her professional evolution.
“I was showing while I was working full time,” Schwerin said, breaking out in a wide smile that took over her face. “So I thought, ‘If I really put all my energy into it, who knows?’ ”
As she sat at a large wooden table in the living room of her tidy Durham condo (yes, there are condos in Durham), Schwerin’s eyes were bright behind narrow, rectangular lenses as she talked about her work.
She’s the boss now, and surrounding the table are piles of her product. The paintings are in stacks on the floor and hanging on every wall, and just as many are scattered around her living room, hallway and dining room as overflow from her garage/studio. The majority of the scenes feature horizons, some nearly pushing the sky out of the frame, but most are dominated by the sky, and clouds—a clump of lonely trees under a gray sky, a red barn under blue.
“I’m very fortunate. I don’t know how I’ve arrived at this place, but I’m a very lucky girl,” Schwerin said.
She’s at a point where she makes a living almost exclusively from the sale of her artwork. Over the “about four years and four months” since her fateful layoff, Schwerin has become one of Chico’s more recognizable artists, one who is able to regularly make between $40 and $2,000 per colorful painting.
“It would be very, very rare to have a show not sell one to four pieces,” Schwerin said.
She admits that her best venues, besides her home studio during the annual Open Studios Tour, have been the Salon Chico hair salon (“Vince [Harrington, the owner] has been a supporter of mine since like 2000”) and the recently closed Black Crow restaurant downtown.
Such diverse placement of her work is a key component to her success in sales. In fact, Schwerin doesn’t show in local galleries, preferring instead to seek out smoothie shops and restaurants (such as Monk’s Wine Lounge, the site of her next scheduled show). It’s the sort of side-door approach that has marked her circuitous path to doing art full-time.
To begin with, Schwerin didn’t start painting until she until came to Chico for school.
“I fell in love, for the first time, with an artist,” Schwerin said about her initiation to visual art. “I initially always thought writing would be where my future took me. I got into the visual arts and absolutely fell in love with it.”
After taking a few art classes, Schwerin eventually switched her focus (“Art didn’t become my major until my parents were not paying for my tuition anymore”), then returned home to Marin before finishing her degree. While working full time, Schwerin passionately painted on the side, and during one fateful work Christmas party, she was asked to hang some of her paintings. She sold 16 of 32 of her works to co-workers and clients.
“It turned on a switch in my head,” Schwerin said. She moved back to Chico to finish her degree while working, painting and hanging her art wherever anyone would have it. By the time she made the full-time commitment to creating paintings, her willingness to spread her work around to many audiences had created a broad-based foundation where she was able to continually stock new paintings.
“It never ceases to amaze me that people will say, ‘Hey, I was fixing some lady’s shower over in Orland and as soon as I walked in there I saw this piece and I knew it was yours.’ ”
Of course, the current economic climate is affecting artists as much, if not more, than everyone else. And at downtown’s Chico Paper Co., where many local artists, from painter Cynthia Schildhauer to insanely popular printmaker Jake Early, historically do well selling their works, co-owner Jana Strong admitted that the local artists the store represents are being affected.
“We began to feel the effect of the recession in mid-November,” said Strong. “We have noticed the fine-arts sales are diminished—they’re a luxury. Everyone’s so cautious now.”
When asked how she’s been affected, Schwerin remained optimistic.
“It’s waned a bit … I think there’s just a fear that’s bubbling on the surface. It’s easy to feel like, ‘Nobody’s got any money, so why am I doing this?’
“But, there’s always people with money. This is no cause to give up hope. If anything, it’s cause to work harder.”
Still, she added, “it’s always been feast or famine for me. I’m either rolling in dough— ‘Drinks are on me!’—or I can’t go out for weeks because I’m penniless. That all feeds into how hungry I get to paint. I’m usually hungry to paint because I’m hungry.”
In the black … barely
Chico Cabaret, community theater
“Theater in this town has never really been about making a buck; theater in this town has been all about the passion of doing the work,” said Phil Ruttenburg, owner of the Chico Cabaret. “The theater business is about making money. It’s not really about individuals making a dollar, but the business of theater being in the black.”
With his mop of curly hair and charismatic smile, Ruttenburg is an unmistakable local personality. Originally from North Hollywood, he and his wife, Sue, have been doing theater in Chico and Paradise for 26 years.
The business of theater has never been easy, especially in Chico. While there are many people here who are passionate about the art form, few make a living fulfilling that passion. With three college-aged children to consider, trying to do so would be an impossibility for the Ruttenburgs—Phil works as a school and private counselor, while Sue is a kindergarten teacher.
The theater professors in town may get paid to work in the field, but for other actors and staff of local companies, there is little to no money. Often directors get a nominal stipend for putting on a show; other than that, theater here is more a labor of love than a lucrative profession.
Chico Cabaret has faced economic challenges since its opening in 2000. The theater was in debt for years, until the Ruttenburgs made a change in strategy in 2006 that helped them pay off their debt and enabled them to make rent.
“It was all because of the shows we had that year,” Phil Ruttenburg said. Some of the sold-out productions at that time included Reefer Madness the Musical, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Full Monty. The Cabaret’s strategy became not only to put on quality shows, but also to put on those with proven drawing power.
“I’d love to do shows as an expression of art,” said Ruttenburg, “but I’d be doing it out in the street.”
Most of the money made in local theaters goes to the overhead of the productions, as well as upkeep of the space and investment in upcoming shows. There is little left over to pay actors or others who take part in productions.
Because of that, everyone at the Cabaret has a day job—a common reality among local community theaters—and comes into the theater after work. It takes more than 90 volunteers to keep the Cabaret running. The Blue Room and Chico Theater Company are able to pay a small stipend to directors and a few others, but like the Cabaret, everyone else, including actors, volunteers his or her time out of love for the work.
Just to keep the doors open at the Cabaret costs $5,000 per month (including rent and utilities). That doesn’t include show production costs or royalties, which can add up to anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 per show.
“Tickets pay for about 75 to 80 percent of our costs—if we’re doing well. The rest of it is donations, business sponsors, advertising and fund-raisers,” said Ruttenburg. “Every little bit helps.”
The Cabaret also has received city arts grants for the past three years, allowing it to purchase updated lighting, microphones and other equipment, for which the troupe is very thankful. The theater also sells food and alcohol and holds raffles during each show, but it doesn’t count on these sales to make up a substantial part of its budget.
“That’s not what we go for,” said Ruttenburg. “What we go for is ticket sales. Our primary focus is getting butts in the seats.”
The Cabaret just built a new stage—something that in hard economic times could be considered risky—and the new, larger stage reduces the number of seats from 119 to 110. But for a better quality show, it’s a risk Ruttenburg was willing to take.
For the best-case scenario of every seat for every performance being sold out at full price of $16 a ticket (that’s without student/senior discounts, or any season-ticket holders in the audience), for 15 shows, the Cabaret would make $26,400. The margin is so thin that every show of every production needs to come close to selling out just to avoid having the theater go in the red.
“We think that, especially in this economy, people are going to be far more selective about what they do,” said Ruttenburg, who hopes Chicoans will turn to local attractions such as theater for their discretionary spending. “With budgets shrinking, people are going to be looking closer to home for their cultural experiences.”
Libby Jensen, the production manager/technical director of the Blue Room Theatre, has found that to be true.
“[We’ve] had great recent success with our production of The Who’s Tommy. It was great to see that, even in these uncertain times, people are still willing and interested to see theater,” Jensen said. “We are pleased to be increasing our audience turnout, rather than decreasing.”
Rogue Theatre Company member Betty Burns has been acting in Chico for the past 18 years. She has performed and directed with Butte College, the Blue Room, as well as Rogue for numerous productions. A baker for Chico Natural Foods, Burns works a 40-hour week on top of the additional 20 to 30 hours she logs while working on a production.
“In one year I made about $1,000,” Burns said in reference to her theater income. “That’s for the entire year, working on at least seven productions. It came out to roughly 3 cents per hour!”
Most of the local theaters do a cast benefit night, where one show’s proceeds are divided among the actors and the theater takes nothing. How much the actors make can vary wildly depending on the number of people in the cast and how well they sell the night.
“I’ve worked on shows with benefit nights and have made up to $200,” said Burns, “and as little as $13.”
Beat goes on
Tino Marrufo, musician
“Well, yeah, there’s not that many gigs. But I started noticing that when I came back [to Chico] to get my master’s degree … in 2006.”
Those were the words of 35-year-old Chico drummer extraordinaire Tino Marrufo upon being asked if the current state of the economy has affected his livelihood as a working musician.
Now, it should be noted that Marrufo is the guy who—in addition to working on his master’s degree in ethnomusicology at Chico State—plays with the proverbial “everybody in town,” from rock band Mute Witness to indie-country faves Aubrey Debauchery & the Puke Boots to myriad jazz configurations (including Chico State’s Jazz X-Press and CAMMIES-nominated Beans N’ Rice Experiment) to numerous musical theater productions.
So, if Marrufo is saying that things are getting bad … well, he’d know.
Sitting at the kitchen table of his north Chico home recently, nursing a cold, Marrufo explained how he’d had a “good two-year run” of musical money-making starting in 2003, when he first arrived in Chico from his Southern California hometown of El Monte to work on his B.A. in music and was playing drums in the orchestra for Chico Theater Company musicals.
“[But] then, they weren’t making enough money from ticket sales, so they just got a piano player,” said Marrufo about how the theater company eventually had to downsize. The same, he said, happened with downtown venue 33 Steaks, Booze & Jazz, which phased out jazz groups in favor of solo piano players and the popular Kelly Brothers dueling-piano act.
Marrufo mentioned other formerly regular jazz gigs that no longer exist: “No more Duffy’s; the Black Crow has gone away.” Even when there are venues available, Marrufo observed, there’s always the potential problem of being undercut by another group.
“Beans N’ Rice—there are five in the band—they’re all good players,” said Marrufo. “But who will book us when there are always other bands who will do [the gig] for half the price?”
He also pointed out that “since cops are cracking down on backyard parties,” even rock gigs are harder to come by, making it difficult to develop the necessary following that comes from party-goers’ familiarity with a band. That college-aged following, said Marrufo, can translate directly to hireability at clubs like LaSalles.
Besides, he pointed out, “with rock bands, you’re not gonna make any money off the door—you gotta have merch. Sometimes we’re playing just for gas and food, and the opportunity to sell merch …
“The musician side of me says, ‘Keep playing with these bands because you like the music,’ but financially, it’s a tough call.”
If it weren’t for the supplemental income he gets from financial aid, providing drum lessons (which, interestingly, has picked up for Marrufo of late) and recently getting hired as “floor staff” at both Lost on Main and Nick’s Night Club (both places where he also performs with various groups), Marrufo said he wouldn’t be able to make ends meet.
“I get hired as door man because a lot of people know me, and because of the intimidation factor,” joked the stocky drummer. “You know, that job doesn’t require me to set up all that [drum] gear and play—it just requires me to check IDs. But I get paid just as much as when I play.”
Economic problems have hit the music department at Chico State as well, Marrufo pointed out. Not only has he found himself having to take apart and re-weld the school’s 13-year-old drum set shared by “seven or eight drummers banging the crap out of it” (a new drum kit is unaffordable at this point), Marrufo is responsible for teaching an ethnic percussion ensemble, for no pay, as part of his graduate work.
“Sometimes I play seven gigs in two days,” he reflected, “and I’m just exhausted. And that doesn’t include rehearsals, classes, studying, writing papers, washing clothes and cleaning the house.
“Playing the drums,” he continued, on a roll, “is not an easy job. Unloading gear, setting it up—everything is time-consuming. And when there’s a cold or a virus coming in, that doesn’t help. I just spent a hundred dollars on stuff like DayQuil and NyQuil just so I can play the gigs with half-health. And I had to bail on some gigs. And there’s no sick pay, no health insurance. I’ve even had to pull a couple of my own teeth.”
Part of the trouble, Marrufo believes, is that a lot of people “don’t look at music as being a job,” and therefore don’t ascribe sufficient value to it the way people do, say, in Latin American countries.
“They don’t know how hard it is to make this limb [holds up one hand] and this limb [holds up the other] play two different rhythms at the same time,” continued an animated Marrufo, a sheen of sweat from being sick clinging to his forehead. “Then you gotta add the right leg and the left leg, and they’re [each] doing a different job. Now play each pattern for six minutes straight. It’s not easy.
“You gotta do all that, and pay your dues so you can make 50 dollars for two hours in Chico. If you’re lucky.”
While he will certainly continue playing the drums because he loves it so much, Marrufo—the first in his “9-to-5, with three or four hours a day overtime” family to graduate from college—is looking forward to getting his master’s degree in May and finding a job teaching music at the college level. He doesn’t plan to try to make a living as a professional drummer.
“I’d like to be able to stop going to school as the student and be the teacher,” said Marrufo. “Plus, I don’t know [record producer] Rick Rubin on a personal level.”
—Christine G.K. LaPado