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Davis, Calif.: Central Valley Art Scene

Venture off I-80 for a hidden oasis of the arts, including the Mondavi Center for the performing arts, a bounty of galleries, and public art.

Davis Calif.'s E Street
Photo caption
Bower Bird on E Street, sells home decor, jewelry, bed linens, and antiques.

On a recent Friday night in Davis, Calif., something strange was going on at the Boy Scout Cabin, which sits on a grassy lot at the edge of downtown. Light poured from the open door of the rustic log house built in 1927, and inside a crowd had gathered beneath wooden plaques where the Scout Law had been carefully carved many years ago. But this was no troop meeting, unless Boy Scouts these days have taken to wearing stylish clothes, sipping wine, and admiring paintings.

The crowd was there, in fact, for an art opening. The cabin—now an annex of the respected John Natsoulas Gallery—has become yet another place to find art in this city of 64,000 souls, many of whom seem to be riding bikes at any given moment on Davis’s 100-plus miles of cycling paths and trails. "The arts are alive and well in Davis," says painter Temo Moreno. "And it’s not just visual arts, but performing ones, too."

Located in the Central Valley about 15 miles west of Sacramento, Davis was known for years as a farm town with a top-notch ag school and winemaker program—a reputation that did nothing to lure visitors. But the University of California-Davis, with its nearly 30,000 students, has become an academic powerhouse in other fields, including art. Seminal figures in contemporary California art such as Wayne Thiebaud, Roy De Forest, Robert Arneson, and Manuel Neri have taught here.

WHERE’S THE BEEF? You can buy campus-raised beef, lamb, and pork at the UC-Davis Meat Lab, a federally inspected meat processing plant. For sales information, call (530) 752-7410 or visit animalscience.ucdavis.edu/facilities/meat.htm.

All these big names create a spillover effect: There’s now a lively museum and gallery scene and loads of public art. To check it out, leave Interstate 80 at Richards Boulevard and head downtown. You’ll find a relaxed setting where organics rule at the Saturday morning farmers’ market and the tree-lined streets boast a charming mix of storefront businesses and student hangouts. Downtown also has ethnic restaurants, where you can get Mexican tamales and Czech dumplings, as well as several higher-end options: At Tucos, a popular café and wine store, you can pair a changing menu of small-plate dishes—like mint-spiced lamb meatballs and a kicky tomato-pepper relish—with hard-to-find wines.

Pick up a free gallery guide, available at galleries or the visitors bureau. Davis has embraced a wide range of work: paintings and sculpture by well-known artists at Natsoulas and the Pence Gallery; ceramics, photography, and jewelry at the Artery; and exhibitions on architecture and textiles at the Design Museum. As for public art, don’t miss Arneson’s Egghead Series, five large Humpty Dumpty sculptures on the UC campus.

THE DISH ON SWEETS The Konditorei Austrian Pastry Café makes old-world desserts, such as a vanilla cassis torte. 2710 E. Fifth St., 758-1331.

Performing arts in Davis moved into high gear in 2002 with the opening of the Mondavi Center, whose 1,800-seat main hall and 250-seat theater host campus drama and dance groups, plus major touring acts such as violinist Joshua Bell (February 10) and jazz legend Sonny Rollins (April 6).

Not all the beauty in and around Davis is made by artists and musicians. In the university’s 96-acre arboretum, more than 4,000 kinds of trees and plants flourish in 18 different gardens and collections. Outside of town, the Vic Fazio Yolo Wildlife Area attracts some 200 species of birds. Guided tours are offered during the annual Duck Days event in February. It’s an impressive show and a lovely complement to the human productions in Davis’s galleries, theaters, and concert venues.

Photography by Melissa Barnes


This article was first published in January 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.