If change is the order of the day, then the Arts Council of Kern is full steam ahead. With the appointment of a new executive director earlier this year and a new team on board, the organization is poised to shake up the local art scene.
The seismic shift is less anarchy than democracy, according to Executive Director Elizabeth Spavento.
“I keep telling people my goal is to build the people’s Arts Council of Kern,” she said. “I have plenty of ideas for what I’d like to see, but to be an effective leader you need community input.”
Along with a few upcoming events (more on those later), the council’s focus is launching a listening tour, which Spavento describes as town hall-style meetings held in community gathering spots throughout the county as well as a Zoom session for those who cannot attend in person.
Along with discussing what the Arts Council currently does, the gatherings, which are set to begin this summer, will prompt questions such as “What is art and what does it look like in Kern County?” and “What should an arts council do?”
There will also be time to open the floor for dialogue and to 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.
Building a team
Spavento, who has lived in Bakersfield since late 2019, brings more than 13 years of arts administration experience to her role. (“I’ve pretty much done everything you can do in the arts.”)
She has worked in a variety of positions with arts nonprofits, commercial galleries, state and municipal arts agencies, and as an independent curator. She co-founded the curatorial collective Border Patrol in 2017, and has attended residencies with Acre Residency and Iris Project Residency.
Last year, Spavento and her husband, artist and Cal State Bakersfield instructor Jared Haug, worked with detainees at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center for “Voices in the Shadow.” While highlighting the talent of those detained artists, the project also aimed to spread the word about alleged conditions at the immigrant detention center and petition for their release.
Spavento said she still plans to retain her creative voice and address issues that matter most to her through her own projects, but that those can remain separate from her work at the nonprofit.
Along with Spavento, the council staff includes Lea Molina, who brings her years of experience in marketing, communication and web design to her role as ACK’s inaugural fellow. The Black queer ceramicist is excited about the mission to make art accessible to the entire community.
Chicana artist and recent CSUB graduate Frida Rocio Herrera serves as ACK’s administrative assistant. Fluent in Spanish and English, she aims to use her language skills to help build a multicultural environment for the organization.
Local creative Jeran McConnel is also on board as a branding and marketing manager.
She is building up ACK’s social media presence using the skills she developed in creating and marketing her own lifestyle brand, Oleander + Palm.
In the works
Spavento and her staff have hit the ground running this spring preparing for projects already on the books.
First up is the Plein Air Painting Festival, which kicks off Tuesday with a panel discussion at Bird Dog Arts at the Outlets at Tejon.
Somewhat scaled back from previous festivals, the event gathers five out-of-town artists along with local painters Art Sherwyn and David Gordon, who served as the last ACK executive director before leaving to launch Bird Dog Arts last year.
“We’re really excited to bring it back,” Spavento said of the festival that has been postponed since 2020. “We wanted to keep it a little smaller with more opportunities for the public to engage with artists.”
Along with the panel, which Gordon will moderate, speaking with Sherwyn and fellow artist Carol Tarzier, the festival will also include a paint out, which will bring the artists to downtown Bakersfield on April 21 for a quick paint session followed by a reception at the Bakersfield Art Association.
There will also be workshops with three of the artists for local creatives on April 23, and a Spring Soiree on April 24 where the public can mingle with the artists, view the festival work and, if so inclined, bid on the work.
Another ACK-sponsored project will culminate next weekend.
We Are Here/Estamos Aqui, a two-year collaborative, participatory arts-based project produced with the Mural Arts Institute, a program of Mural Arts Philadelphia, addresses the environmental justice issue of air quality and the health risks associated with breathing in chemicals from wildfires, pesticides, and emissions from oil and gas development in the Central Valley.
Headed by Dr. Rosanna Esparza, a 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 counties 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 art-making, storytelling and eco tours.
A 2,500-foot environmental justice story cloth — created out of 12-by-12-inch cotton squares naturally dyed in a process showing the effects of chemicals in the water and air — will be unveiled in a closed event on Panorama Drive.
An art installation, film screening and panel discussion will be held at Bird Dog Arts on June 4.
Stories on the Sidewalk, which combines the talents of local writers and actors to depict historical Kern figures in a downtown walking tour, is also slated to take part on May 21 and 22.
Although Spavento wants to hear from the community to develop new projects, she has one in development that is Bakersfield born.
“I have this dream project with the Kern County Raceway,” she said. “It’s a way to highlight the art that is Bakersfield born and bred.”
Noting that car culture involves work that falls into the craft-making tradition — metalsmithing, textile making, calligraphy/lettering, glass etching, detail painting — she’s working on a car show that highlights these local talents.
She’s in talks with Xavier “Harvey” Reyes of the Carnales Unidos car club and the raceway for an event next spring that would also include an art display 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’s newsletter to stay up to date with the organization. Visit the ACK Instagram page (@artscouncilofkern) or linktr.ee/artscouncilofkern to sign up.
“I’ve lived in a lot of different places,” she said. “Bakersfield strikes me as a place where people support one another, 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.