Our arts town: Chico’s arts scene makes top-100 list

Chico gets the nod—a huge one—from the author of a book listing the top 100 small arts towns in the nation. Hey, nothin’ we didn’t already know.

Kyle Wiley Pickett, a professor at Chico State University, is also the conductor for the popular North State Symphony.

Kyle Wiley Pickett, a professor at Chico State University, is also the conductor for the popular North State Symphony.

Photo By Tom Angel

Author John Villani searches the country for small communities whose arts cultures are thriving. Last November, he discovered Chico, and he has since named it one of the 100 best art towns in the nation. He plans to publish a book highlighting that distinction.

Chico’s supporters of the arts remembered being worried that Villani would not see the city at its best: He arrived on a night when a storm left the entire city dark.

It was the opening Friday night of the preview exhibit for the Chico Art Center’s Open Studios Tour that weekend, and although there was no light to showcase the art work on display, Villani saw raw but vibrant emotions stemming from a “spirit of adventure” attitude held by local artists.

“It was a unique way to begin the weekend with John,” remembered Mary Gardner, arts projects coordinator for the city of Chico. “I was worried about the effect the power outage might have on the overall night, but we persevered, using candles and flashlights for lighting at the show, which ended up adding to it,” she said. “The place was packed with people and positive energy. It was a great start to a pretty amazing weekend.”

“I think it is a great honor to be recognized in his book,” offered Paula Busch, chairwoman of the Chico Arts Commission. “Arts are the social fabric of a community; they enrich the cultural life.”

1078 Gallery, at 738 W. 5th St., has been offering consistently fine exhibits for more than 20 years.

Photo By Tom Angel

It was the work of Debra Lucero Austin, executive director of Friends of the Arts–Butte County, that brought Villani to Chico and who with one phone call had him booked for a crash course in the arts for a weekend. Austin, along with other members of the community, took Villani on a tour of Chico so he could experience first-hand the eclectic collection of art, which is displayed in many diverse forms around the city.

“When I first discovered John’s book, I knew that we belonged in it,” Austin said. “Chico is a very unique town that fosters an environment where arts can thrive.”

In taking a drive down Park Avenue, visitors and locals are immediately faced with an artistic presence in the form of a recently erected sculpture that evokes the image of a farmer and his plow horse. Nearly every Chico coffee shop is a mini-art gallery, as paintings by local artists hang from the walls. Running errands around town will take you past City Hall’s widely discussed statue of enormous carved hands. Driving past the Downtown Plaza Park many nights will reveal sounds of live music, drawing crowds of all ages.

And, in the world of performing arts, theater productions staged by the Blue Room, Chico State University and Chico Cabaret are very popular.

Art is unavoidable in Chico, offering tourists and locals many outlets to different forms of expression and cultural awareness.

It is evident that our community welcomes artistic culture with open arms due to the diverse forms in which it is expressed and the places where it is displayed. “Art is a connecting language for people of different generations and cultures,” Austin said. “It is something we can’t live without, and I’m very pleased with the recognition.” This type of dedication to the art and community proved evident throughout Villani’s stay, prompting the addition of Chico’s name to the latest edition of his book, due out in December.

Now, it seems, people who use art as a form of expression, a profession or simply as a hobby are now more than ever encouraged to continue their work and keep the social fabric of Chico thriving and recognized.