The face of public art

An exit interview with recently laid-off Chico Art Projects Coordinator Mary Gardner

Mary Gardner sitting on one of the pieces of public art created during her tenure with the city of Chico, Christen Derr’s “Chinese Luminary” art bench at the corner of Third and Main streets.

Mary Gardner sitting on one of the pieces of public art created during her tenure with the city of Chico, Christen Derr’s “Chinese Luminary” art bench at the corner of Third and Main streets.

Photo By jason cassidy

“The arts commission will still exist,” said Mary Gardner.

That answers a question that has been on the minds of a lot of people in the local arts community in the wake of recent layoffs by the cash-strapped city that included among them Gardner, the city of Chico’s art projects coordinator: If Mary’s gone, what will happen to the arts in Chico?

On the eve of her leaving, Gardner sat down to talk about her 16 years on the job, and offer some clarity about what dissolving Chico’s only arts-focused staff position will mean to a city that has long identified itself as an arts town.

In short, Gardner says, the Chico Arts Commission likely will expand its reach. “I know the arts commission is really determined to take a more active role,” she said.

It’s hard to imagine anyone but Gardner guiding the city’s arts. She has been the arts-community’s person on the inside since 1996, and was also one of the founders of the Arts Commission—formed in 1989—and served as a commissioner for seven years (two as chairwoman) before being hired by the city.

“I really saw myself having this job till I retired, so it’s a little bit unsettling right now, but I’ll land on my feet, for sure,” she said.

Gardner no doubt will find another place to land. Since moving to Chico in 1980 to attend Chico State—to study journalism initially, before moving over to arts—Gardner has invested her energies into Chico. She’s worked for the Chico Art Center and the now-defunct Wall Street Center for the Arts. She helped start Shakespeare in the Park in the early ’90s, and was the chief instigator of the Annies Arts Awards. Mary and her sister, Liz, were also the founding owners of Café Flo, the cozy, and very arty, café next door to the Pageant Theatre (that has since changed hands more than once).

Of course, the biggest mark she’s made has been with the public-art projects she’s shepherded.

With the pieces spread around the city, it’s easy to take our public art for granted and not see the larger picture made by the many works that have been installed over the last couple of decades, but even a quick look at the list is impressive, including: “The Silver Plow” on Park Avenue, the “Our Hands” sculpture in front of the municipal building, the gorgeous “Ancestor Gates” at 20th Street Park, the Lindo Channel Aerosol Art Gallery, 16 downtown art benches, the “Dancing Trout Fountain” in front of the City Council chambers, Gregg Payne’s giant xylophone in Wildwood Park, the “Dr. Martin Luther King Monument” sculpture at 20th Street Park, and the heritage-elms sculptures (aka “the horns”) at City Plaza.

Of course, some of those pieces are maybe more notorious than merely notable. Big, expensive sculptures such as “The Silver Plow” ($120,000) and “Our Hands” ($65,000) initially garnered as much criticism as they did praise for the art-projects coordinator. For her part, Gardner says that, in retrospect, she and the Arts Commission might have been able to create more public goodwill in the early days by spreading the arts money around on many smaller community projects (such as the more-recent art benches) rather than the big-ticket items they started with. But, she noted, they were all learning how to do the job as they went.

Learning curve aside, there has been some vindication. Despite its early detractors, the “Our Hands” sculpture has become an iconic image for Chico.

The public artworks “have become something that people want to go see, and take friends to, and meet up at,” Gardner said. “The hands just continue to amaze me at how many photographs every day get taken in front of those things. And that’s what good public art is supposed to do. It’s supposed to create a place for people to know: ‘I’m in Chico.’

“I really believe that one of the things that we’ve done in the last 23 years is create an expectation for Chico in terms of arts and culture,” she summed up. “It’s ironic that we’ve lost the dedicated staff at the same time that the commission is, I think, in a really strong place right now in terms of who’s on it and [what] their vision is of what it’s going to take to take it to the next level and get some real funding in.

“Maybe this will galvanize people? This could be an opportunity for the community to clarify what it wants, and really make their voices heard.”