State of the Arts

When it comes to artists Chico is rich beyond belief, but the city is just beginning to take advantage of this treasure

Photo By Tom Angel

1. Mary Gardner, city of Chico art projects coordinator.

2. DNA, impresario and founder of the Right Now Foundation, a nonprofit group that restored and managed the Senator Theatre as a community arts center. Creator and manager of the Downtown Music Revolution Concert Series (11 years running) and producer of the Nowhere X Nowhere music festivals.

3. Debra Lucero, executive director of Friends of the Arts, director of Butte County Cultural Tourism Project.

4. Dan DeWayne, co-founder Strawberry Music Festival, California World Music Festival, director of University Public Events and Chico Performances.

5. Joe Hilsee, actor/director, artistic director of the Blue Room/Chico Creek Theatre Festival.

6. Dan Donnelly, artist, president of the Chico Art Center.

7. Sarah Blackstone, dean of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, CSU Chico, which includes the School of the Arts, the Humanities Center, the Theater Arts Program, C.A.P.E., the Janet Turner Print Museum, the University Art Gallery, and the Music Department.

8. Jerry Miller, longtime actor/director/playwright, director of annual Shakespeare in the Park Festival.

9. Zeke Rogers, music advocate and musician. Co-founder of now defunct Do It Yerself Rock Garage (D.I.Y.R.G.), creator of, an online listing/weekly e-mail newsletter of Chico underground show info.

10. Becky Anker, vocalist/guitarist/songwriter for band Royal Crown.

11. Betty Burns, actor/writer/director and Blue Room Company member.

12. Patrick Collentine, artist, co-creator of “Dancing Trout” fountain downtown.

13. Alice Patterson, communications and marketing manager for Chico Chamber of Commerce, city arts marketing campaign manager.

14. Ajamu Lamumba, CSU Chico, Associated Students Presents program coordinator/adviser.

15. Steve Schumann, president of North Valley Productions and

John Villani is an art and wine critic for the Arizona Republic and author of The 100 Best Small Art Towns in America, a travel book that sings the praises of such intimate American arts communities as Nevada City and Walla Walla, Wash.

Two years ago the Chico Arts Commission flew Villani here to taste the artistic flavors our little town offers. Soon after his visit he decided that Chico deserved to be in the next volume of his top 100.

Chico’s no stranger to making ratings lists.

“I guess Playboy got there before me,” Villani said in a recent interview.

As distinctive and idyllic as Chicoans see their home, the last widespread distinction these parts enjoyed—not counting, perhaps, Bicycling magazine’s one-time designation of it as America’s No. 1 bicycling town—is indeed that infamous No. 1 party school ranking that still rears its drunken head and haunts this town from time to time.

Nonetheless, the news that Villani would include Chico on his list lit a fire under local arts activists and provided the ammunition for getting the city to approve a $162,000, three-year arts marketing campaign.

That’s real money. And in Chico, a town where the only real money being spent on the arts is coming from Chico State University, which supports its own arts endeavors, real money has never been spent on local artists. This creates an obvious question, “When did the city decide that the local arts are important enough to spend so much dough on?” Was the word of one art critic enough for them to validate public arts funding? Someone send that guy to Sacramento!

When it comes to putting money into the local arts, Chico has never overcome the sense that Chico State’s strong arts programming negates the need to spend much on the local arts community. In response, local artists have always had to take a grass-roots approach. If a location is uncomfortable, drafty, filthy, sweltering or otherwise inconvenient, you can bet that an artist has put on a play, hung paintings or turned up the rock there.

Of course, amazing experiences have been born of these otherwise uncomfortable conditions. The Blue Room has managed to forge a productive black-box theater above Collier Hardware, the Chico Cabaret puts on successful musicals in a strip mall, and some of the best rock shows in this town have been staged in the living rooms and basements of college students.

In fact, it could be argued that, even though the people and the ideas that created these gems would never have been in Chico if it weren’t for the university, this grass-roots activity deserves at least equal standing with the established programs at Chico State when it comes to assessing the town’s status as a top art town.

The climate for the arts in California in general is of course changing drastically. The new state budget includes an unbelievable 94 percent cut of funding to the California Arts Council, leaving the agency with $1 million for the 2003-04 fiscal year. With California’s National Endowment for the Arts share of approximately $1 million and another $1 million in agency-generated revenue, the CAC will have just enough money to deny all grant requests and eliminate half its staffing.

Arts funding is disappearing all over the country, but this development places California dead last in arts, putting our arts support at less than 3 cents per capita annually. According to the CAC, the national average is around a buck per capita, and in comparison to the over-five-dollar per capita allowance in all industrialized European countries, our state’s arts funding is essentially nonexistent.

Chico is changing too. No longer can you count on your share of the rent to be under 200 bucks, and buying a home is now nearly as prohibitive as it is in the rest of the state. While the arts cuts, and the state and local economies in general, are certainly affecting local arts organizations and the individual artists in particular, struggling to make it in this field in Chico is not a new development.

Significant arts spending by the city is, however, a new development. In response, many individuals and organizations have been working overtime at keeping the arts a high priority and to insure they remain a vital component in the planning and development of Chico’s economy.

It’s not helping matters that, in the two years since Chico’s inclusion was announced, the new volume of Villani’s small-art-town guide has yet to be published, but the spirited author, in a recent telephone interview, was fairly reassuring: “It’s sitting at the publisher waiting.” August 2004 is the new release date.

Photo By Tom Angel

“It’s really important—the regional tourism—for economic development,” said Villani, explaining the attraction of arts communities for tourists. “[It] makes for a better economy for the entire region.”

This is of course the rationale behind putting real money into this type of promotion, and as the public art coordinator for the city of Chico, no one is more excited about the city’s actions than Mary Gardner. The deeply committed Gardner has been working for this kind of city support for over 14 years, and over that time she, along with the city arts commissioners, has helped spread the minimal funds set aside from the 30 percent of transit occupancy tax, or “motel tax,” for community agencies (of which 30 percent is designated specifically for community arts programs) around to everything from public art projects to augmenting the operating budgets of local nonprofit arts organizations such as the Chico Art Center or the Friends of the Arts, to the more recent $2,000 mini-grant awards given to individual artists.

“When you talk about the ‘state of the arts,’ that’s exciting to me. Finally, after all these years of knowing what’s here, maybe we can get people to put money into it.”

The effort to get folks to come to Chico was put in the hands of the Chico Chamber of Commerce in a collaborative partnership with the Arts Commission’s Arts Outreach and Education Committee (Chico News & Review Publisher Kathy Barrett is a member of both the commission and its outreach committee), and applications for the campaign’s initial design were accepted from local artists.

The marketing campaign, submitted by locals artists Gregg Payne and Dylan Tellesen, was titled “Art…It’s in our nature,” and the slogan and accompanying logo is not only prominent in the marketing campaign’s materials, but is also sharing top-billing alongside the chamber’s logo on many of its publications.

Alice Patterson, director of publicity and marketing for the chamber and the person charged with managing the arts marketing campaign, spelled out what the city’s game plan is. “We are targeting people within a four-hour radius of Chico in an effort to, one, brand Chico as an arts destination, two, bring exposure to our artists and, three, ultimately boost the local economy by bringing people to Chico who will take in the arts, then dine, shop and spend the night in our lodging facilities.”

The campaign has so far included participation in the Sunset Magazine Weekend Trade Show last spring, advertisements on KBFK radio out of Sacramento and the production of the chamber’s arts brochures and media kits. Still to come are planned billboard advertisements in the Sacramento area and advertising in the Ashland, Ore. Visitors Guide as well as the in-flight Skywest magazine, which has the potential to reach nearly 2 million passengers over three months.

One of the more touted, and crucial, aspects of the campaign is the creation of the Chico arts information Web site, As a portal for linking to existing arts resources in town, such as the local weeklies and the Chico Art Center, the site is functional, but the calendar and community events portion is not yet up to speed.

The event information is not organized clearly. It just scrolls along at the right of the screen in no particular order or organizational pattern and at last look was nearly three weeks out of date, which points to a key criticism of the marketing campaign: There appears to be no real community input (the calendar listings were cut and pasted verbatim, without permission, from this very publication).

Patterson’s assertion that, “It would be virtually impossible for any one of us to keep track of the countless art, theater and music performances taking place each month,” suggests that the artists and venues don’t really know about the Web site. If they did, “up to date” wouldn’t be a problem. They’ll generally provide copious amounts of event information when free promotional services are available.

“Access to information about artists in Chico is a gap that we do have,” admitted Gardner when asked about the need for communication between the arts organizations and the artists in town. “That calendar is supposed to be an extensive, comprehensive calendar of arts and cultural events. I have some concerns about that, but we’ll see…”

Also in play on the local arts advocacy front, and spearheaded almost entirely by the tireless efforts of local arts maven Debra Lucero, who is also the director of the Butte County Cultural Tourism Project, is the group Friends of the Arts. “We have to make people aware of why they should get off I-5… and an aggressive marketing campaign can do just that. Such a campaign benefits artists, galleries, lodging facilities, restaurants, gas stations, theaters, music clubs, etc.”

With a business background in marketing and product development, Lucero is perfect in the role of arts advocate, dialed in as she is to the workings of both the arts and the business worlds. “People come here because they’re inspired to be here,” Lucero enthused, switching gears effortlessly from the spiritual to the practical. “This area is poised to be a major growth area.”

Energetic and full of ideas, Lucero began Friends of the Arts to create a state-local partner with the California Arts Council. Of course, now that CAC funding has been cut so drastically, the goals of Friends have been hampered, which is too bad, since one of the goals was to do a cultural assessment to create a comprehensive directory of all Chico art. That sort of community interaction is the first thing any advocate needs to insure that the people who make the art are included in the community being advocated.

Lucero’s other projects, the old arts awards program the Annies, which Friends resurrected and turned into a biannual event, and the Experience Butte County Web site both appear to suffer from some of the same disconnection that the chamber’s efforts do. The Annies are still struggling to make a comeback, and the county arts Web site, while a very good link source for local resources, doesn’t have much else going on.

It’s obviously tough without the funding, and Lucero realizes that “rural environments typically have economic issues.”

Photo By Tom Angel

“We need infrastructure,” she admits, but she also goes on to say that the entire Friends operation is open to everyone. “I would love to have people involved. [We’re] looking for people interested in serving on committees, being community representatives. … In fact, Friends of the Arts is in need of selection committee [for the Annies].

Understandably, the university is prominently featured in this arts marketing campaign. Its Chico Performances alone brings more high-quality stage artists to the area and does more to connect Chico to the greater world of culture than any other single entity in town, so the attention is obviously justified.

“Art reaches a larger cross-section of people than anything else,” explains Dan DeWayne, director of Chico Performances and University Public Events. “It’s an opportunity to introduce us all to different people and different cultures.”

Despite his obvious ties to the school, DeWayne has seen first-hand the part local folk play in the makeup of the arts community. “Artist after artist remarks about the great audiences in Chico,” he said in reference to the traveling artists who perform on the school’s stages. “People are very supportive of the idea of art in general, and there’s a willingness to explore a little bit.

“Just because you can sell 50,000 tickets, and you’re the Rolling Stones, that to me doesn’t make you any greater in terms of artistic merit than the person over here playing upstairs above Collier Hardware. In fact, that’s sometimes way more exciting. Chico needs to make a further commitment to the arts. What they get for their dollars is phenomenal.”

Sarah Blackstone is the dean of humanities at Chico State and as such is the one who oversees pretty much every other arts function sponsored by the university. When asked about what needs to be done to best address the multiple needs of all the arts voices in town, Blackstone suggested that an arts summit, with “carefully guided discussion,” is the way to go. “We need to be ready to take advantage of this with exhibits, activities, good information about all our work, etc.”

Juri Brilts, a development specialist at Chico State and also the current president of the Chico Arts Commission, laments the lack of big-pocket sponsorship in Chico. “We don’t have a corporate presence in this town, so we can’t qualify for corporate funding. We’re really reliant on our own resources here.”

Brilts knows what he’s talking about too. At the university his job is to get grants, and from that perspective he suggests that local arts groups need to “look past the blinders and look at possibly merging or affiliating with other organizations. … There’s money out there for consortiums.”

From his vantage point as artistic director of the Blue Room Theatre, Joe Hilsee sees the town’s theater history make its way up and down the two flights of stairs to his facility nearly every weekend.

“Theater has a long tradition here. The Chico community has been a savvy theater crowd for generations.” Pointing of course to the university as a huge influence in this area, Hilsee also sees long-standing community-theater regulars as a huge force in this tradition. “It’s not an oddity to see local theater going on. There are some members of the Blue Room, for instance, that have been regular theater attendees for 30 years or more.”

Despite community theater’s proven track record, when talk of funding comes up, Hilsee points out that locally “organizations have been getting less and less. I think the local artists are more concerned about the local community.” To illustrate the importance of donations and funding, Hilsee points out that, “If the Blue Room were to support itself entirely through ticket sales, it would mean raising the individual ticket price to $24. … We would price ourselves out of the market."As president of the Chico Art Center, Daniel Donnelly is in regular contact with a wide variety of artists. Even though he understands the push for marketing Chico as an arts destination, the order of operations might not be straight. “We should start by letting our own community know we have artists, and once we’ve saturated ourselves locally with this info, then go outside. We need substance added to the concept of our town really being one of the best small art towns in America."Gregg Payne, a Chico resident and artist for the last 22 years, has spent his entire time here as an artist and an active player in the goings-on of the arts community. As a creator of logos for local businesses, the giant chimes in Wildwood Park and one of the co-creators of the arts marketing campaign’s “Art…It’s in our nature” slogan, as well as a major volunteer/organizer of the COBA art project, Payne is very dialed in to the arts community and as such is one of its more honest critics. “There’s a huge vast reservoir of potential resources that the city has not tapped into. It’s like we’re some little town in Texas sitting on the biggest oil reserve, and they’re trucking in the oil.”

Payne concedes that he “really wants to see it work” but suggests that the art in town is not supported enough to merit publicizing it. “It’s like putting the cart before the horse a little bit.”

It’s all comes back to “quality of life” for the artists, but there’s only so much the trees and the hot summer nights can do to keep you afloat. “You gotta live in the margins,” jokes Pat Collentine, who is doing better than a lot of local artists by teaching part-time at Chico State and doing wholesale neon manufacturing to fund his artist’s lifestyle. Collentine, who recently completed the construction of the new city-funded “Dancing Trout” fountain downtown with his life partner Susan Larsen, has been able to slowly build that comfortable Chico “artist life” that so many artists moved here for in the first place.

“The quality of life and low cost of living … the affordability of Chico,” are motivations Collentine remembers, and he realizes that for newcomers it’s now “hard to do that here anymore.”

Christine LaPado (who is a frequent free-lance writer for the News & Review) is one of those who are finding it hard to do just that. Playing stand-up bass in the local jazz combos Jazzgrrls and the Christine LaPado Jazz Concoction, LaPado wouldn’t be able to make it if her partner, also a musician, didn’t have a “regular job.”

Photo By Tom Angel

“I depend on wedding and private-party gigs and the occasional good-paying restaurant gig to make some OK money. But some gigs pay fairly little, and you play them because they’re fun, you want the exposure, and maybe a private, well-paying gig will come out of it.” While LaPado’s gigs do pay ("That’s one thing I have to say about playing jazz—it’s definitely more lucrative,” LaPado said), many local musicians receive very little for their services, if anything at all.

Asked about making a living in Chico as musicians, local punkers Saint Ann and Ray Dehated, who co-front the long-standing band The P.A.W.N.S. replied via e-mail, “Absolutely not.” They went on to point out “it’s a nice place to live and use as a home base. … Because of the lower cost of living as compared to that of the Bay Area, we have been able to travel and tour extensively nationally, internationally and overseas.”

Local performance poet and Bibliographic Services Librarian Jim “Moondog” Dwyer echoed The P.A.W.N.S.’ sentiment, eagerly replying, “No way, I ain’t quittin’ my day job!” which is one of the two more common sentiments of most of the local artists. The other has to do with one of the more refreshing aspects of the Chico arts community: the audiences.

“The artists aren’t afraid to root for one another. We enjoy a largely cooperative versus competitive spirit in our arts community.” This according to local musician, school teacher and father Ken Lovgren, who, while being one of the most infectiously positive humans in this town, sees that there nonetheless “seems to be a lack of ‘non-artists'—i.e., traditional ‘fans'—turning out to support various art events. For example, local bands often perform for an audience made up of about 75 percent musicians: ‘Come check out my band and I’ll check yours’ is the name of the game.”

Agreeing, Moondog proposed that “the appreciative people aren’t necessarily the people with the money. In fact I’m convinced that if anything there is an inverse relationship between wealth and taste. That phony ‘painter of light’ Thomas Kinkade has a chain of galleries across the U.S., including one in Chico.” He went on to suggest that a “20 percent fee” should be levied on every sale of one of Kinkade’s pieces to help support the “real artists.”

“The arts keep us from going bananas. The arts have nothing against bananas. … Warhol loved bananas.” These bites of wisdom come from one of the biggest providers of community energy Chico has ever possessed, the über impresario DNA. Having produced everything from the Johnnies 100-band marathons to the Nowhere X Nowhere music festivals, DNA has just wrapped up his 11th straight year of his outdoor concert series the Downtown Music Revolution.

All too familiar with the concept of “going bananas,” DNA and a ridiculously tiny crew of volunteers dismantled giant “widow-maker” walls and restored the historic Senator Theatre to its original configuration as a large performance hall. After spending a couple of years and thousands of volunteer hours trying to raise money under the nonprofit Right Now Foundation, the whole time constantly providing an impressive space for any and all community groups to showcase their arts, the money and the patience of the building’s owner ran out.

While money was and remains a huge issue for the Senator, the city’s take on the project does point to an issue other than lack of city funding that is a huge concern for local arts. City Councilmember Dan Nguyen-Tan (phoning in his comments from across the country in Washington, D.C.) said the city is still willing to be a partner in turning the Senator into a performing arts center, but the community (and the private sector) are going to have to be even more involved.

“In recent history,” he asserts, “I have not seen a significant enough community contribution. I’ve seen a lot of great people who have put in a lot of blood, sweat and tears to showcase [our] city’s artistic talent, but it’s going to take a lot more resources.”

It may well be, however, that the Senator, for all its historic significance, may not be a viable community performing arts center. It’s large, old and expensive to heat and cool, and it’s in need of repair and refurbishing that would cost millions of dollars. With a community-wide effort to build a new, state-of-the-art downtown facility—perhaps a 500-seat theater combined with an art museum and rehearsal spaces—the community might become more enthused.

Redding offers an interesting comparison. It’s about the same size as Chico, has a significantly smaller local arts presence, but nevertheless has a thriving municipal art museum and a civic auditorium, both subsidized by the city.

The new Big Room at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. is a splendid new venue, but it’s definitely a sideline business for the brewery, which brings in only about 20 shows a year. It’s also too expensive for most local groups to rent for performances.

The economic state of our state’s arts is pretty obvious, and while California’s lack of an arts budget is certainly sad to anyone who cares about art at all, the local arts community just may have an exploitable resource within its grasp.

Even though Public Arts Coordinator Gardner admits that “it took money to get the city involved,” she’s quick to respond, “Who cares? They’re starting to believe. They’re going to start having fun, and they’re going to start liking it.”

At this point, it hardly seems necessary to add that Chico has a lot of art to offer. Anyone who regularly reads this paper and gives the calendar in the back even a cursory perusal knows that in any given week there are more viable cultural events, performances and showings than they could reasonably hope to attend in a month’s time, let alone in a week.

This past week alone over a hundred visual artists opened their studios to the public (this was on top of the 15 or so gallery shows already up in town) during the Open Studios Tour; the Russian Ballet Company put on two Nutcracker performances; the Rocky Horror Show played live; five area theaters opened five plays, ranging from French comedy to a Broadway musical; Buena Vista Social Club Diva Omara Portuondo put on a passionate performance; the renowned Momix dance troupe performed their Opus Cactus; filmmaker Michael Moore visited town; Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast was recreated live at the Blue Room … the list goes on.

This was one week. It’s my job here in the “Review” part of the News & Review to experience the local arts, and despite much effort I made it to only a fraction of stuff on that list.

Chico has always been this way, not so much isolated as insulated. The intellectual and cultural influences, proximity to the natural world and relaxed attitude fostered by the combined presence of the university, the park and the brewery make this cozy locale one mighty attractive home for arts enthusiasts and artists. Chuck an almond in any direction, and nine times out of 10 you’ll peg someone involved in the arts.

Whether the city will continue to develop this valuable resource remains to be seen. The arts marketing campaign is a good first step, but that’s all it is.