Optimism for arts

Passion, not public funding, drives a new approach to keeping the arts alive in Chico

Stephen Cummins at the Errol Flynn Luminary Art Bench near Second and Broadway.

Stephen Cummins at the Errol Flynn Luminary Art Bench near Second and Broadway.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Diamond Alley is one of those small, quintessentially Chico spots that inevitably gets taken for granted. Cutting through the alley, which connects Third and Fourth streets, people often walk underneath the arches en route to their destination without noticing the thousands of colorful tiles that adorn the pillars.

Stephen Cummins makes it a point to notice.

“For me, when I walk down that alley, I’m framed by art,” he said recently from his downtown Chico office at North State Public Radio. “How many people walk down that alley and don’t take a second to think, ‘Why is this so pleasant?’ It’s because you’re surrounded by art.”

But the Diamond Alley Arches, iconic as they are, are at the top of the list of public art pieces that have fallen into disrepair. One might not see it at first glance, but atop some of the pillars, entire swaths of color are missing. Looking up the height of one, a visible crack has emerged—a sign that water may have seeped underneath the surface of those colorful tiles, handcrafted by 3,000 local schoolchildren a decade and a half ago.

“We made a big investment in our public art,” explained Mary Gardner, who served as the city’s sole employee focused on the arts before being laid off amid the widespread cuts of 2013. “The city’s first public art mural was completed in 1996,” she added. “And these pieces are starting to show wear and tear.”

In many ways, Chico’s public artworks are an indicator of the state of arts as a whole in Chico. They are visible reminders of a time of prosperity, when funding for the arts was plentiful and varied. And they now show the signs of years of neglect following a recession that hit every sector of public life, from our trees to our pothole-laden streets.

“We’re recovering from a huge setback,” said Gardner, who now serves on the board of the Chico Arts & Culture Foundation, the fundraising arm of the city Arts Commission. “Now we’re at the point where we’re going to see what’s going to survive?”

The year 2017 seems to be pivotal in that recovery. In January, a State of the Arts symposium aimed to gauge the temperature of Chico’s arts climate. Artists and representatives from local organizations overwhelmingly expressed feelings of rejection from the city, of being undervalued, underfunded and underrepresented. In an effort to respond to the findings, chair Cummins and his fellow arts commissioners have begun to mobilize an effort to boost recovery. During its April meeting, the commission formed four ad hoc committees focused on key areas the panel determined were critical to the support—and survival—of the arts.

“We’re at a point where we see a lot of possibilities,” said Cummins, director of University Public Engagement, which encompasses NSPR as well as Chico Performances. “That’s what’s still exciting about this.”

At her core, Muir Hughes is an artist. When she co-founded the Chikoko fashion/arts collective over a decade ago, it was part of an experiment, one that met with immediate and lasting community interest. The five-woman collaborative continues to wow audiences with its annual fashion show, which draws huge crowds—1,200 people showed up one year—and its craft fairs, variety shows and other performances.

But Chikoko isn’t about making money for its members. It’s about inspiring people, about pushing boundaries and exploring art, be it wearable, edible or just plain cool. At the same time, with the elaborate nature of some of the collective’s shows, it needs money in the bank to pay vendors, rental companies and others.

“It sustains itself,” Hughes told the CN&R for a feature about Chikoko last year. “We’re essentially volunteers in our business.”

In 2013, amid dozens of layoffs at City Hall, Mary Gardner lost her job as the city arts projects coordinator.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

The same can be said of many of the arts groups in town, particularly those that are performance-based. Most are nonprofits, and most take in just enough money to keep doing what they’re doing. For years, many relied on public funding to supplement things like rent and other overhead costs.

“I see a lot of nonprofits struggling right now,” Hughes said during a recent interview at The Bookstore, the downtown shop she owns with her husband, Josh Mills. “People are just barely hanging on—but their passion is so much that they are.”

Hughes is a member of the 1078 Gallery’s Literary Committee, which works—or worked, as the gallery was recently evicted for its increase in live music shows, a byproduct of receiving no public funding, Hughes pointed out—to bring writers to the artistic stage.

She also served as chair of the Chico Arts Commission during its near death in 2014. It had faced setbacks before, in the form of changed funding mechanisms that left the arts vulnerable. With the loss of a point person—Gardner at City Hall—and a budget of its own, the City Council struggled to see the Arts Commission’s value. Gardner credits the survival of the panel with Hughes’ and others’ strength of will and ability to demonstrate to city staff and the City Council that there was value in their work beyond directing funding.

But funding for the arts began its decline long before that. Current Arts commissioner Todd Hall remembers joining the panel in 2000, around the time when he says the method of civic arts spending shifted. Prior to that time, money was set aside as a percentage of the transient occupancy tax (TOT), a tourism tax levied on hotels and motels that generated, for the arts, in excess of $100,000 per year. Then the city changed the funding mechanism—instead of a set percentage put aside for the arts, it deposited that money into the general fund and then would allocate a set amount for the arts. The city sold the change as way for the allocation to be more predictable, but Hall didn’t buy it.

“We knew it was a lie,” he recalled. Indeed, over the years, that set amount of about $140,000 shrunk. In fiscal year 2009-10, the city budget included over $110,000 for the arts. Most significantly, that included $17,387 to the Blue Room Theatre, $15,261 to Chico Art Center and $14,700 to the Children’s Choir of Chico. It also included smaller amounts to individual artists.

Shortly thereafter, the arts went from being its own budget line item to being lumped together with community groups seeking funding—for instance, Catalyst Domestic Violence Services, the Torres Community Shelter and the Chico Nature Center. For Hall, that was problematic.

“Why should we have to ask the question of, ‘Do we fund the homeless shelter or the Children’s Choir?’” Hall said.

Last year, community groups received $100,000 from the city general fund. None was specifically arts-focused. This year, that number was cut to $50,000. Applications from local groups have yet to be vetted by an advisory committee—named by the mayor—that includes Cummins.

But city funding for the arts—whether in the form of TOT or general fund allocations—wasn’t the only public assistance that dried up for local arts and culture. Redevelopment funds, which paid for much of the public art we enjoy today, went away with the dissolution of the Redevelopment Agency (RDA).

“The RDA was cut right after I came on,” Hughes recalled. In 2011, when she joined the commission, the city’s RDA fund had $320,000 in it allocated for the arts. In February 2012, the RDA was dissolved.

The reality of the recession hit hard in 2013 and resulted in the elimination of Gardner’s position as arts projects coordinator and, as a result, almost led the city to dismantle the Arts Commission. “In a lot of people’s minds, it was like, why do we need an Arts Commission if the funding is gone?” Gardner said.

Andrew Coolidge, who was elected to the Chico City Council in 2014, remembers the arguments well. “I really wanted to keep them around, as a viable entity,” he recalled during a recent phone interview. “That’s really proving out right now to have been a smart thing.”

Todd Hall was a member of the Arts Commission in the early aughts when the city changed its arts funding mechanism. He’s now commission chair.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

While funding has all but dried up, Coolidge pointed to the advisory roles the commissioners perform—for example, researching alternative funding models to present to the council—that are paving the way for progress in the realm of public art. “They work really hard,” he said.

Three years ago, local nonprofit Friends of the Arts and the Arts Commission came together and, with private grant funding, commissioned a professional survey to be conducted by Americans for the Arts, a longstanding national nonprofit that has produced economic data for communities across the United States. The goal was to collect hard data to show just how much money is generated by things like theater productions, juried art exhibitions and touring musical acts.

Altogether, 54 nonprofit organizations participated in the survey, representing about half of those eligible in town. The results were impressive (see sidebar, page 18), showing that in 2014 alone, the local nonprofits surveyed contributed $17.7 million to the local economy. About half of that was spent by the organizations themselves—costumes, vendors, etc.—while the other half was spent by audiences, on things they wouldn’t have bought had they not been attending an arts event. In all, the city of Chico took in $519,000 in taxes and fees that year that could be traced directly back to arts-related activity.

“The perception that you don’t get anything back is erroneous,” Hughes said. “It’s just obvious.”

She pointed to the fact that when people attend an art show or a concert, they often have dinner beforehand. That’s beneficial to restaurants. Out-of-towners might stay at a hotel. If the occasion is something special, like a symphony performance, one might even go out and buy a new dress or a new pair of shoes. Meanwhile, the organization putting on the event often relies on the passion of volunteers, charging at the door only as much as is needed to break even.

“The fact is, the organizations and the artists make little or nothing, but they help everything around them to make money,” Hughes said. To help with that burden, she added, “A healthy economy should invest—thoughtfully invest—in culture.”

Hall, whose tenure on the commission overlapped Hughes’, agreed.

“The economic impact survey found that about 50 local organizations made a direct impact of $500,000 on the city’s general fund,” Hall said. Because of that, he called cutting civic funding to the arts “verging on unethical.”

Andy Holcombe, former city councilman, mayor and current arts commissioner, drew a hard line as well. “I view public art as a needed, almost crucial public service,” he said by phone. “Money should be spent on public art just the way it should be spent on other needed services.”

Everyone interviewed for this story agreed that the arts are worthy of financial support because of what they give back to the community.

“The arts and culture industries are an economic force,” Cummins said. “They bring money into the community, they bring people out at night and they provide employment. Those are all good things.

“But you can’t just point your finger at the City Council and expect them to do something,” he added. “Our job as the Arts Commission is to present them with options.”

At the most recent City Council meeting last Tuesday (June 6), Councilman Coolidge proposed taking $10,000 out of the $50,000 being allocated for community groups and earmarking it for maintenance and repairs for the city’s public art pieces. With no support on the dais, his motion died a quiet death.

The Chikoko fashion/art collective hosts elaborate shows that attract large crowds.

photo by kyle delmar

“We need to protect our investment, similar to what we do with our streets and light poles—it’s important to keep in mind that we need to take care of our arts infrastructure, too,” he told the CN&R. “The last thing I want to see is pieces taken down because they’re in such bad condition. If those [Diamond Alley] arches aren’t taken care of in a year or two, they’re going to be in bad shape. And then it’s not so much a public art piece as a public nuisance. That’s what we don’t want.”

For Hall, the failed motion was not so much unexpected as it was disappointing.

“That’s too bad—$10,000 would have saved $20,000 or $30,000 down the road. That investment would have paid off,” he said. “There is no [new] public art anymore. Our efforts now are to maintain what we have.”

In December, the council did approve an allocation of $5,000 to repair The Hands sculpture downtown. The artist who created it in 2000 originally recommended resealing the sculpture’s terrazzo surface every 10 years. That was never done. The work should begin any time now, Gardner said. It was put on hold only because of the rainy winter weather. For her part, Gardner sees the role of the Arts & Culture Foundation as pitching in on maintaining public art. The group’s monthly guided public art walks resumed in May and the first one brought out record numbers, she said, which was encouraging. Each time, participants make connections to the art and many, in turn, offer donations.

“Our view is, ‘What’s in your face? It’s our public art,’” Gardner said. She hopes to see that momentum continue.

As far as the Arts Commission is concerned, the creation of four ad hoc committees is an effort to collect information on best practices in order to go to the council with well-researched proposals. The four committees are focused on separate, but related, areas: fundraising, in particular studying the impacts of a development impact fee or TOT allotment for the arts; the possibility of building a community arts facility; the creation of a cultural district, including the mapping of local assets; and marketing for arts and culture tourism.

Holcombe, who is on the committee focused on funding, says the group is looking at other, comparable cities for inspiration. Some—including Oroville, he pointed out—impose a development impact fee on new commercial buildings that requires they dedicate a percentage of the development cost to art. That could be in the form of art at the project site, or it could be paid to the city as an in-lieu fee.

“This concept is not new,” he said, pointing to requirements for landscaping and lighting on new projects. “We’re just looking for a percentage for the arts. The energy for the arts is strong and healthy in our community—that’s all the more reason to fund it.”

What Cummins sees as a major force going forward are public-private partnerships, in which public money is buoyed by private donations. That model is already being used to attract city funding for community organizations, he said.

Basically, community groups compete for city money by both writing grant proposals to the city and then, through a fundraising drive organized by the North Valley Community Foundation, raising matching funds. “The way the process is structured, it requires that applicants clearly have community support,” said Cummins, who will be tasked with choosing recipients. “It’s smart. It shows us that you’re connected to your community.”

On the commission, he sees the ability to find proven methods of funding projects like a community art center or arts-related events by looking at other cities as well as grant funding that is available. It’s important, he said, to bring workable ideas to the City Council in order to make things happen.

Gardner agrees. “We really need public-private partnerships. In any city where the arts are flourishing, you have those partnerships,” she said, adding, “When the public sector contributes, it gives people faith that they’re donating to a worthy cause, to something that will thrive.”

In addition, the creation of a cultural district makes sense in Chico, Hall said. The concept was recently developed by the California Arts Council, which put forth a challenge to cities to map one out. Hall sees a cultural district encompassing The Esplanade from East Avenue south through downtown, including Chico State, and extending down Park Avenue, where vacant properties could be revitalized by artists’ studios and galleries. “I see that area as ripe for development, not displacement,” he said.

Then there’s marketing. Holcombe pointed to the relatively new Butte County tourism bureau, which is marketing the region under the name Explore Butte County. The group is holding an event later this month to unveil its branding of the region, which it says will position the county as a “premier destination for outdoor adventurers, locally grown food lovers, beer drinkers and art enthusiasts.”

Gardner sees the tides turning and her optimism is echoed by Cummins.

“I came to Chico four years ago from the suburbs of Chicago,” he said. “I came here because I saw a good quality of life here—and huge potential. Right now we’re six months into figuring out where we’re going—we might be naively optimistic, but we’re going forward with a lot of hope.”