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Museums finding ways to stay active in community

With some last-minute decisions left about stimulus checks, the second COVID-19 package is nearly ready to go, which includes among its many provisions the Save Our Stages bill, set to provide funding to a variety of cultural venues including museums.

That's a great boost for struggling organizations but local museums also haven't rested on their exhibits these past eight-plus months of the pandemic. They've found ways to remain connected with the community and stay active on social media.

"We are building a plane and flying it at the same time," Amy Smith, the Bakersfield Museum of Art's executive director, said of parsing state guidelines for museums to operate during the pandemic.

While she said she is glad to not be the one who has to make decisions on reopening, she's got "17,000 square-feet of safe distancing that can happen" when the museum can reopen indoors.

Remaining closed as Kern County remains in the purple tier and under a stay at home order, the BMoA continues to develop its #MuseumAtHome initiative online. 

"I think everyone needs some sort of outlet (to relieve stress), and there are limited opportunities except multimedia and virtual," Smith said. "We have all of these virtual lessons that we have done and we're encouraging people to visit our website and other museums’ websites."

Some of what the museum reported it was able to offer this year included: 50 online art lessons; seven Spanish-language instructional videos; nine video tours of BMoA's permanent collection; 65 chalk works at its Via Arte Italian Street Painting Festival held safely at The Marketplace; and 22,000 visitors to its Art After Dark online programming for Pride and The Bakersfield Sound exhibit (podcast) as well as a socially distanced event for Dia de los Muertos held in the sculpture garden.

"We're trying as best we can to maneuver the COVID roller coaster that we have," Smith said. "I can't tell you how proud I am of my team for continuing to create original content."

The Buena Vista Museum of Natural History & Science team has also been busy with informative videos, creating Just For Kids STEM Activities and looks at museum exhibits.

"Our staff has been working very diligently to create stuff that wasn't everywhere and things that pertain to the museum here," said Koral Hancharick, the museum's executive director. "We've had 22 videos and we have three more (ready) that probably won't be out until January. We've released a couple a month to keep science education out there.

"They can't come to the museum but can still have fun with our volunteers and staff through the videos."

While funding has been challenging for most organizations this year, Buena Vista was dealt an additional blow earlier this month when two fires tore through its downtown block, destroying neighboring businesses and causing water and smoke damage to the museum.

Despite the setback, Hancharick said they are committed to sticking around as the best local source for the county's rich geological history including Sharktooth Hill, the fossil bone bed that continues to provide specimens.

"We’re such a crucial resource. We don't want to go away and we want to continue to serve," Hancharick said. "This is our 25th year. We had big plans to celebrate and that's going to have to wait. ... I hope the museum is around a long time into the future."

The Kern County Museum is also investing in preserving local history. Like the other museums, it has recently started rolling out a series of videos on Facebook, quick tours set to music featuring one of the 60 permanent structures in its Pioneer Village.  

Although it has been able to keep its main grounds and some exhibition areas open, the museum has taken a big loss on events. Executive Director Mike McCoy said they lost $750,000 this year as a result of not being able to host most of the weddings, festivals and other events usually held throughout the year. 

As a result, the museum had to significantly cut its staff, including curator Bethany Rice. McCoy said of the remaining 12 on staff, just over half are full time. 

Along with a socially distant Village Flea event in October, the museum has greatly benefited from being able to host Bakersfield Christmas Town. Although McCoy said they weren't sure what the reception would be like for the revamped drive-thru event, it has been quite a success with 121,000 people coming through the grounds (safely in their own vehicles) this month.

McCoy is also optimistic about the work that has been done including a solar panel project years in the making that is expected to eliminate the museum's annual $150,000 PG&E budget. 

There has also been growth in the local neon collection, which has doubled in size with the addition of 12 new signs including Andre's Drive-in, Vincent's Cyclery & Sporting Goods as well as Sinaloa Mexican Food Restaurant and Sandstone Brick Co., a business dating back to 1886 that was bought out in 2007.

"It’s probably the best sign," McCoy said of the Andre's neon. "It’s the coolest 14-foot hamburger; it even has sesame seeds on it. It was a gift from a family, and the actual Andre’s family is paying to restore it."

People will soon be able to see the new neon when it's installed on site. Before that McCoy still recommends guests bring family and their visitors by to get in their steps, with admission reduced to $5 (free for kids 12 and under).

Over at Buena Vista, post-fire assessment and cleaning continue as staff prepare the space for when it can reopen again.

And BMoA is just waiting for the green light (or actually red tier).

"We’re ready to go, if I was told I could reopen tomorrow," Smith said. "The exhibitions are hung."

Those include "The Bakersfield Sound: Roll Out the Red Carpet," which was delayed from earlier this year; "Color + Figure: Paintings by Linda Christensen"; and "Uncommon Perspective : Paintings by Art Sherwyn," featuring new work from the Bakersfield artist.

With some federal relief in site, these museum directors can rest a bit easier but all are committed to making sure their museums are around for the long haul, from donations and community outreach to grants and activities as guidelines allow.

"We have some very committed donors and supporters to help us," Smith said. "We have a phenomenal board of directors who have said yes if we need to to dip into the investments we have. We haven't but we could if we need to."

"We'll chase every opportunity possible (before that)," she said.

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