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Freedom, friendship at 'Edge' of BMoA's new exhibition

Like many fascinating stories, this one starts with two dynamic women. One a nexus of the California contemporary art scene and the other a passionate advocate for the arts in her hometown. Both are united by a desire to celebrate what defines the California art scene.

Opening Thursday at the Bakersfield Museum of Art, "On the Edge: Los Angeles Art, 1970s-1990s, from the Joan and Jack Quinn Family Collection" is an unprecedented exhibition, featuring more than 150 objects from nearly 70 artists including Ed Moses, Billy Al Bengston, Lynda Benglis, Peter Alexander, Frank Gehry, Robert Graham and Ed Ruscha.

This collection from the Quinns, amassed over decades of friendships with these artists, is on display for the first time on this scale. A previous 2010 exhibition at the Pilgrim School in Los Angeles, timed to the dedication of its new arts center, only featured a fraction of the works and was a limited four-day display whereas the Bakersfield exhibition will remain on display through Jan. 8.

Joan Agajanian Quinn credits BMoA curator Rachel McCullah Wainwright with her decision to share the family's personal collection with the public.

"She persisted until she wore me down — and I'm glad she did," Quinn said. "I'm very excited, honored to be there."

"Rachel has been absolutely fantastic. ... I appreciate what she's done, bringing those family feelings that we have out to the forefront, to understand what this collection is."

For many viewers, "On the Edge" is a stunning display of some of the best art from the West Coast, but for Quinn it goes much deeper. Joan and her husband, who passed away in 2017, helped foster a creative community for artists to grow and share their work as the contemporary art scene continued to evolve. 

Some of the artists Quinn has known for decades, meeting many in her youth — including Dora De Larios in middle school, Billy Al Bengston while working at a department store in high school, and Ken Price and David Novros in the art department at USC.

Over the years, she and her husband supported their friends by buying art and encouraging John's lawyer colleagues to also buy art. As a journalist, Joan also promoted the arts as the West Coast editor of Interview magazine, society editor of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, and writing for Condé Nast Traveler and House & Garden. 

"These things have been on the walls in my house, placed on the walls by each artist," Joan Quinn said of her collection. "They came in and installed their work. Played off of each other like friends on the wall."

"What separates the Quinns (from other collectors) is the work that she did to promote these artists," Wainwright said. "She was the one buying the pieces directly from these artists in their studios before they became successful. As I'm planning this show, she's having conversations weekly with these artists. The relationships have been maintained."

Joan Quinn has had her portrait painted by dozens of artists — including David Hockey, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Ed Ruscha, Billy Al Bengston — as have members of her family, and some of those works open the new exhibition.

"She was excited to show the portraits, using the portraits to start the story," Wainwright said. "It's a more historical and academic approach to the story."

Quinn said having an educational component to the exhibition was another reason she was excited to be involved with BMoA.

"Rachel said schools come in and have lectures. That's what demystifies the museum. It's not sacred ground. You can go in and be inspired and be fulfilled. New ideas come into your mind. You follow suit and maybe be an artist yourself."

Additional programming includes a symposium on Nov. 18 with exhibiting artists including Andy Moses, Ned Evans, Laddie John Dill, Charles Arnoldi and Lita Albuquerque.

There will be a Zoom panel discussion about Steven Arnold, a protege of Salvador Dalí, on Oct. 19 with Vishnu Dass, director of "Steven Arnold: Heavenly Bodies," biographer Michael Michaud and Stephen Jerrome, society photographer for the Herald Examiner.

And on Oct. 28, the museum's annual Masquerade will include a screening of the Arnold documentary and will take its inspiration from Arnold's The Nocturnal Dream Show series of midnight movies.

Along with enjoying the works, Quinn would like to encourage viewers to begin or build their own art collection, driven by their interests not their investments. 

"I hope that people can see that you don't have to have someone telling you what to buy. We never had an art adviser or art consultant."

"My husband and I never sold anything. It was like having our friends on our walls. Don't think of it as an investment. It’s something that you want to love, be with every day."

Stefani Dias can be reached at 661-395-7488. Follow her on Twitter: @realstefanidias.