The making of Monca

Despite a rift with its biggest donor, the Museum of Northern California Art prepares to open in April

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Save the date:
Monca’s grand opening begins on Saturday, April 22, from 6-8 p.m. for major donors (by invitation). Saturday, April 23, is the opening for veterans from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and for the general public from 1-5 p.m. 900

When the Museum of Northern California Art celebrates its grand opening on the weekend of April 22-23, one person long identified with it will not be there: Reed Applegate.

It was Applegate who, in 2011, said he wanted to donate his remarkable collection of paintings by Northern California artists to the museum, giving it a powerful boost just as it was forming.

At that time, the museum was more concept than reality. It had begun in 2009, when a group of Chico women with artistic leanings held a series of “visioning workshops” on how they could re-purpose the Veterans Memorial Hall on The Esplanade, which for 12 years had stood empty, unused by veterans. The idea of a museum eclipsed all others.

By 2011, the museum—now called the Museum of Northern California Art, Monca for short—had incorporated as a nonprofit with a mission “to make art accessible and promote awareness of Northern California artists through collections, exhibitions and educational programs.” At that point, Pat Macias, one of the founders of the museum, initiated discussions with Applegate, who was eager to see his collection find a permanent home.

A lifelong Chico resident who still lives in the house he grew up in and inherited from his parents, Applegate, 74, began buying paintings in 1964. He vividly remembers his first purchase, a Käthe Kollwitz print titled “The March of the Weavers.” The price was $20.

Applegate is a robust man with thinning white hair who is a presence at many art openings around town. As he said during a recent interview at a downtown coffee shop, once he began collecting, he soon became “addicted,” focusing on Northern California artists. Eventually, he owned more paintings than he could handle. As they piled up, he began wondering: “What am I going to do with it? That’s when an idea clicked in: What about a museum?” He had the idea “right from the start.”

Nothing came of his idea, however, until many years later, when Monca’s founders began working in earnest to create a museum.

By 2011, the Monca directors were busily implementing their mission statement. Lacking a home for the time being, they decided to take the museum out into the world so people could see its potential, that it’s more than just a bunch of paintings hanging on walls. Rather, an art museum is home to a constantly changing variety of activities and exhibits for everyone in the community, from children to seniors, veterans to disabled people.

They bought a van they dubbed their “mobile museum” and had it wrapped in their colorful logo. The idea was to take art to schools, senior centers and kids’ clubs and introduce Monca to the public at community events such as A Taste of Chico and farmers’ markets. It was also to be used to visit other communities in Northern California, inasmuch as the museum intends to serve all of the region.

Meanwhile, the directors were working with the Butte County Board of Supervisors to forge an agreement for use of the vets hall, which for many decades had been the social center and meeting place for veterans and their families. The supervisors could see that the museum offered the best hope for preservation of the iconic building, which is now 90 years old. Ultimately, Monca signed a 20-year lease with an annual rent of $1.

The understanding was that the museum would be located in the four rooms and foyer on the west side of the building, just inside the front entrance. The foyer separates two rooms on the north side from two rooms on the south side.

The county has been a supportive landlord, said Macias, president of Monca’s board, during a recent tour of the building. She pointed to a place in the back doorway where recent rains had caused severe leakage. The county has been quick to repair any damage, she said.

The museum has also received welcome support from local veterans’ groups, who are pleased to see the building that for decades was so important in their lives receiving such tender care.

In April 2012, the museum hosted the first of seven “pop-up” exhibits, this one in an otherwise empty downtown storefront, with artworks selected by Applegate, who by this time had joined the 12-member board.

It was a “thank you” party as much as an art exhibit, with dozens of local artists and art lovers, including Monca board members, expressing their appreciation to Applegate for his generous donation.

At that point, the understanding was that Applegate intended to donate his entire collection, nearly 400 pieces. For the Monca directors, this was a major selling point. They needed to raise some $500,000 to refurbish the vets hall, a daunting sum. Having received a pledge of such a large collection gave them invaluable credibility.

Then Applegate changed his mind.

As he explained during his interview with CN&R, he began to realize that he was losing control of his collection and had promised too much. So in mid-2013, he scaled back his gift, choosing to donate 130 works, not 400, “without restrictions” on how they were to be exhibited.

He acknowledges that the 130 pieces are of “lesser value” than others in the collection, with none costing him more than $1,000.

But in February 2016, he held out a carrot. He hinted that he would donate many more, if not most, of his paintings on condition that Monca exhibit the collection in the way he desired. Specifically, he wanted the museum to exhibit only his paintings in the two north galleries during its first year of operation. He also wanted the southwest gallery dedicated to his collection for four months.

“I’m thinking in terms of the whole collection,” he said.

He envisions rotating shows three or four times a year, including a couple of themed shows—one on dogs, for example, or one on humor. After a year, he wants his collection to be located in the two north rooms of the museum until the big auditorium on the east side of the building is retooled to free up space for it. That change isn’t expected to occur for several years, however.

He doesn’t believe his demand is unreasonable. “I’m thinking there wouldn’t be a museum without me,” he said. “What I’ve given is far more than anyone else has.”

He cites the 40-plus years he’s spent collecting the art and the “hundreds of thousands of dollars” spent on it, as well as the knowledge of the collection and individual pieces that he possesses. He doesn’t trust the board of directors to exhibit the art with the sensitivity he has.

To which Macias has a blunt response: “It’s the Museum of Northern California Art, not the Reed Applegate Museum.”

She and the other museum directors believe strongly that the museum needs to continue the kinds of innovative and imaginative exhibits and programs it has sponsored while waiting for the physical facility to be ready.

On the museum’s Facebook page, the museum directors state, “The vision of the museum is to extend its collection beyond the Applegate gift, not only in size, but also in breadth, to include video art, installation art and conceptual art.”

Applegate’s collection, as rich as it is, can’t sustain a year’s worth of exhibits by itself, they insist, nor should it.

Longtime local artist and entrepreneur—and Monca board member—David Hopper agrees. “Monca is much more than a static art museum,” he writes in a Facebook post. “Monca will reach out and engage all ages, exciting the imagination, creating self-confidence, personal pride, and helping all to realize the joy of being creative.”

Flexibility and the ability to respond to changing circumstances are important for a museum. If an exciting traveling exhibit becomes available on short notice, museum directors want to be able to show it. Or if a respected local artist dies, they want to be able to do a memorial exhibit. They’ve already announced that they will be recognizing the late artist and teacher James Kuiper, who died recently, with a show in the fall. That couldn’t happen if all the exhibit rooms were dedicated to paintings from Applegate’s collection.

Besides, it’s incorrect to suggest that there wouldn’t be a museum without Applegate’s collection. Led by Macias, a retired art educator with seemingly boundless energy, the board has spent more than five years raising funds, developing an architectural design with Chico architect David Griffith, connecting with groups inside and outside the arts community (Chikoko, Idea Fabrication Lab, Habitat Lab), putting on the huge 900 Gala (a splashy affair that raised nearly $20,000), and generating public and political support, including a state grant for construction of a new accessibility ramp. It also has raised a significant amount of money by selling naming rights to the museum’s four rooms and foyer.

Along the way, board members made it a point to honor Applegate whenever it was appropriate—at the pop-ups and other events, through a documentary video about his collection, and in newspaper articles and on radio and television.

The disagreement peaked in July 2016, when the Monca directors voted unanimously, with Applegate being recused, that Monca could not meet his conditions while “adhering to its stated organizational purposes and acting to advance Monca’s mission.”

Instead, they offered what they considered a compromise: For the first six months, the walls in the two large north galleries would be dedicated to Applegate’s paintings. Then, for the following six months, the walls in one of the north galleries would display his paintings. In all cases, Monca would curate the exhibits.

Monca also stipulated that Applegate would donate 25 additional paintings that had been included in his offer of 130 paintings but never delivered.

Applegate didn’t respond to the board’s proposal, so on Aug. 5, 2016, the directors formally ended discussions with him, saying in a letter that the board “must now turn its attention to pressing work ahead as we prepare to open Monca’s doors next year.”

That pressing work includes dealing with unexpected obstacles—lead paint and asbestos that needed abatement before construction could begin, for example, and raising additional funds for the ADA ramp, which has yet to be built—and lining up a contractor, Butte Construction, to do the actual work.

One problem the building presented was the bank of large windows in each of the rooms. Paintings can neither tolerate nor be exhibited in sunlight, so designs called for freestanding interior walls to be erected about two feet in front of the windows.

The most expensive upgrade was installation of a new HVAC system.

At this first stage, the museum will inhabit about 4,000 of the building’s 17,000 square feet and comprise four rooms and the large foyer on the west side of the building. Long-range plans call first for retooling the huge auditorium space, with its stage on the east side, and then refurbishing the rooms in the basement downstairs from the current museum.

For his part, Reed Applegate will be sitting out the grand opening. “I need a break [from the museum] after this last year,” he explained in a recent phone conversation.

The stress of not feeling appreciated, despite the 40 years he put into creating the collection and his deep knowledge of the paintings and the artists who created them, was causing medical problems, he said.

He doesn’t know what he’s going to do with the rest of his collection. He has a couple of cousins in Durham who will get some of the paintings; that still will leave hundreds to find homes for. Storing artworks is not easy—or cheap. They need to be in a climate-controlled and protected environment.

Does Applegate see any chance for a better relationship with Monca down the road? “Possibly,” he replied. “I can imagine it.”

Right now, though, “my heart isn’t in it anymore.”