Public art chronicles

As funding disappears, Chico Arts Foundation steps in to preserve the city's arts treasures

“Our Hands” need a hand.

“Our Hands” need a hand.

Photo illustration by Tina Flynn

The 2003 completion of the parking structure at Fourth and Salem streets in downtown Chico created an unanticipated side effect in the form of an ugly alleyway, made uglier by the addition of huge concrete pillars meant to keep cars from driving through the pedestrian pathway.

“The pillars were an eyesore, the whole alleyway was,” said Mary Gardner, the former city of Chico art projects coordinator, at a recent meeting of Chico Arts Foundation board members.

Gardner said transforming the walkway into its current, more functional and aesthetically pleasing form was a true community effort. As the City Council and the city’s Arts Commission discussed how to fix the problem, former Councilwoman Mary Andrews proposed it be dubbed Diamond Alley, as it was historically known (the now opulent Diamond Hotel had yet to be restored and rebranded with its historic name). The Arts Commission recruited the unlikely duo of a metal and ceramic artist (David Barta and Kathleen Nartuhi, respectively) to create the alleyway’s arches, and the artists in turn included 3,000 local schoolchildren to design the signature colorful tiles that have brightened up the alley and turned its entrance into a work of art.

“People see all of these public artworks all the time, but they don’t think of or don’t know the stories behind them,” Gardner said.

The foundation hopes sharing the stories behind the city’s public artworks—of which there are more than 50 all over town—can lead to a greater understanding and appreciation for them. The timing for this is critical, members believe, as many of the works are badly in need of repair at a time when the city has halted all funding for public art.

Chico Arts Foundation (from left): William Sheridan, Jennifer Parks, Monica McDaniel-Berg, Mary Gardner and Jenny Breed.

Photo by Ken Smith

The goal is to create a public-awareness campaign to help raise money and get other community groups interested in helping with repair work.

To accomplish this goal, CAF—a nonprofit fundraising arm of the Chico Arts Commission—has partnered with Tehama Group Communications, a team of standout students who run their own public relations firm as part of Chico State’s Department of Journalism and Public Relations. The Tehama Group is currently working with CAF to create interactive, self-guided and docent-led tours of Chico’s public art collection scheduled to launch in April.

In addition to providing maps and information about the individual art installments, the tour brochures will include smartphone-friendly QR codes linked to videos that offer further insight into each project.

Largely due to its iconic status, the “Our Hands” sculpture in front of the city municipal building is first on the list of works needing repair, which the CAF says will include regrouting and UV protection. And it’s one of the many pieces the Tehama Group has already filmed with Gardner and CAF founder/president Monica McDaniel-Berg providing commentary.

To put the state of Chico’s art into perspective, Gardner noted that five years ago the Arts Commission received about $70,000 annually from redevelopment funding to use on local projects, but the state halted that funding in 2011. More money—as much as $140,000 some years—used to come from an earmarked portion of Transit Occupancy Taxes, which are collected from area hotels and motels. Now, the only funding available for public art is a share of $25,000 in community organization funding, for which arts groups must also compete with social service organizations.

The CAF members feel public artworks not only add to the character and quality of life in Chico, but are also a major economic driver.

“Any corporation worth its salt has a checklist of things they look for when they look to expand into new cities,” Sheridan explained. “High on that list is arts and culture, especially when you look at tech companies and other types [of businesses] that Chico wants to and has a chance of bringing here. If the community doesn’t support the arts, those companies are likely to pass Chico by.”