If change is the order of the day, then the Kern Arts Council is full steam ahead. With the appointment of a new CEO earlier this year and a new team on board, the organization is poised to shake up the local arts scene.
Seismic change is less about anarchy and more about democracy, according to executive director Elizabeth Spavento.
“I keep telling people that my goal is to build the people Arts Council of Kern,” she said. “I have lots of ideas of what I’d like to see, but to be an effective leader you need input from the community.”
In addition to a few upcoming events (more on those later), the council is focused on launching a listening tour, which Spavento describes as town hall-style meetings held at community gathering places throughout the county as well as a Zoom session for those unable to attend in person.
In addition to discussing what the Arts Council is currently doing, the gatherings, which are due to begin this summer, will raise questions such as “What is art and what does it look like in the county of Kern?” and “What should an arts council do?”
There will also be time to open the floor to dialogue and record concrete data on how residents are engaging with the arts.
Spavento said she and her team will then use that feedback to set priorities, develop a strategic plan and apply for grants.
Build a team
Spavento, who has lived in Bakersfield since late 2019, brings more than 13 years of arts administration experience to his role. (“I’ve done pretty much everything you can do in the arts.”)
She has held various positions with non-profit arts organizations, commercial galleries, state and municipal arts agencies, and as an independent curator. She co-founded the curatorial collective Border Patrol in 2017 and has participated in residencies with Acre Residency and Iris Project Residency.
Last year, Spavento and her husband, artist and Cal State Bakersfield instructor Jared Haug, worked with inmates at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center for “Voices in the Shadow.” While highlighting the talent of these detained artists, the project also aimed to spread the word about the alleged conditions at the immigration detention center and call for their release.
Spavento said she still plans to maintain her creative voice and address the issues that matter most to her through her own projects, but that those can remain separate from her nonprofit work.
In addition to Spavento, the council’s staff includes Lea Molina, who brings her years of experience in marketing, communications and web design to her role as ACK’s first fellow. The queer black ceramic artist is excited about the mission of making art accessible to the whole community.
Frida Rocio Herrera, Chicana artist and recent CSUB graduate, is ACK’s administrative assistant. Fluent in Spanish and English, she aims to use her language skills to help create a multicultural environment for the organization.
Local creative Jeran McConnel is also on board as head of brand and marketing.
She is building ACK’s social media presence using the skills she developed in creating and marketing her own lifestyle brand, Oleander + Palm.
In the books
Spavento and his team started this spring by preparing projects already underway.
The first is the Plein Air Painting Festival, which kicks off on Tuesday with a panel discussion at Bird Dog Arts at Tejon Outlets.
Slightly scaled down from previous festivals, the event brings together five out-of-town artists as well as local painters Art Sherwyn and David Gordon, who served as ACK’s last executive director before leaving to launch Bird Dog Arts last year.
“We’re really excited to bring it back,” Spavento said of the festival which has been postponed since 2020. “We wanted to keep it a bit smaller with more opportunities for audiences to engage with artists.”
In addition to the panel, which Gordon will host, speaking with Sherwyn and fellow artist Carol Tarzier, the festival will also include a painting outing, which will bring artists to downtown Bakersfield on April 21 for a quick paint session followed by a reception at the Bakersfield Arts Association.
There will also be workshops with three of the artists for local creatives on April 23rd and a spring evening on April 24th where the public can mingle with the artists, view the festival’s work and, if they wish, bid on the work. .
Another ACK-sponsored project will culminate next weekend.
We Are Here/Estamos Aqui, a two-year participatory arts-based collaborative project produced with the Mural Arts Institute, a program of Mural Arts Philadelphia, addresses the environmental justice issue of air quality and the risks to health associated with the inhalation of chemicals from forest fires, pesticides and emissions from oil and gas development in the Central Valley.
Led by Dr. Rosanna Esparza, gerontologist and environmental health researcher, and public art and social practice artist Michelle Glass, the effort consisted of participatory workshops with youth and community members from Fresno and Kern to “expand their own knowledge of the causes and impacts of air pollution, how they can protect themselves immediately and fight for longer-term solutions.”
Events included participatory artistic creation, storytelling and ecological tours.
A 2,500ft environmental justice story fabric – created from 12 x 12 inch squares of cotton naturally dyed in a process showing the effects of chemicals in water and air – will be unveiled at a closed event on Panorama Drive.
An art installation, film screening and panel discussion will take place at Bird Dog Arts on June 4.
Stories on the Sidewalk, which combines the talents of local writers and actors to portray historical figures from Kern on a downtown walking tour, is also scheduled to participate May 21-22.
Although Spavento wants to hear from the community to develop new projects, it has one in development that was born in Bakersfield.
“I have this dream project with Kern County Raceway,” she said. “It’s a way to showcase the art born and raised in Bakersfield.”
Realizing that car culture involves work that is part of the craft tradition – metalwork, textile manufacturing, calligraphy/lettering, glass engraving, detail painting – she is working on a car exhibition that showcases these local talents.
She is in talks with Xavier “Harvey” Reyes of the Carnales Unidos automobile club and the circuit for an event next spring that would also include an art exhibition and workshops as well as food trucks and other vendors.
Spavento said she is excited to engage with the community and urges people to sign up for the Arts Council newsletter to stay up to date with the organization. Visit the ACK Instagram page (@artscouncilofkern) or linktr.ee/artscouncilofkern register.
“I’ve lived in a lot of different places,” she said. “Bakersfield feels like a place where people support each other and engage in the community.
“It’s a really exciting time.”
Stefani Dias can be reached at 661-395-7488. Follow her on Twitter: @realstefanidias.