The integration of Bakersfield’s most noteworthy contribution to American culture into the mainstream of polite society continues.
Almost exactly one year after Bakersfield unveiled its new city slogan, “The Sound of Something Better,” a line adapted from the country music song “The Streets of Bakersfield,” hoity-toity has fully embraced honky-tonk. High and low culture are having a baby, and the due date is in January.
"The Bakersfield Sound: Roll Out the Red Carpet," a celebration of the music and effects that came out of the southern Central Valley between 1951 and 1974, was to have opened Sept. 24, occupying the main gallery at the Bakersfield Museum of Art through April 2021.
Then the pandemic knocked the show from the museum calendar into that limbo of uncertainty populated by pretty much everything else in our world today.
But now it’s back.
The exhibition was conceived as a rediscovery of the life and times of country music stars Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, who for years dominated country music culture from their Bakersfield bases, and their less remembered but equally essential contemporaries. It was to have included photographs, fashions, album covers, guitars and assorted other ephemera.
That’s still the plan.
Opening day, now Jan. 28, will come with the usual checklist of new-reality health and safety requirements — not completely hammered out but likely to include accommodations for social distancing, including regulated traffic flow.
In keeping with one of the show’s most important themes — stage costumery of the type inspired by movie-cowboy tailor Nudie Cohn, and others — rhinestone studded trail bandanas will be de rigueur, in lieu of N95s.
Well, I made up that last part.
“A lot of museum culture, especially art museum culture, is known to be very elitist and that's a horrible facet of art museums,” said BMoA curator Rachel Magnus, who, inspired by museum patrons Bart Hill and Jim Shaw, is putting the show together.
“It’s something a lot of museums and museum organizations are trying to break down, because for a museum to truly educate its community and beyond, it has to be for everyone. ... If we bring art in that is so esoteric that people don't even grasp it, what service are we doing for this community?”
The Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra, another institution that has fought back against the elitism thing, recognized that truth when in 1999 it brought Buck Owens and the Buckaroos onto the Bakersfield Convention Center stage for a memorable melding. The BSO also shared the Fox Theater stage in 2016 with Big House frontman Monty Byrom, whose Memphis-flavored country blues gave the Bakersfield Sound some latter-day soul in the late 1990s.
But there’s more at stake in this BMoA show than the marriage of two disparate cultures.
Museums across the country are struggling financially and, though the BMoA is on relatively solid ground, the Bakersfield Sound exhibit will have a prove-it subplot.
The American Alliance of Museums polled more than 750 museum directors in June and the results were alarming: One-third believe they may be forced to permanently close because of the economic harm wrought by the COVID-19 closures.
Just this month, two museums in Tucson and one in L.A., the Annenberg Space for Photography — which, coincidentally, bridged the art vs. twang gap with 2014’s “Country: Portraits of an American Sound” — say they’ve closed permanently.
Several Bakersfield museums, broadly defined, are, like the BMoA, on hiatus: the Buena Vista Museum of Natural History; the California Living Museum (don’t worry, the residents of CALM are being cared for); and the Kern County Museum, which has been forced to lay off its curator and director of marketing.
"We have about $50,000 a month in expenses and last month we brought in $470 in revenue," said Mike McCoy, executive director of the Kern County Museum. McCoy said he himself took a 25 percent pay cut.
BMoA Executive Director Amy Smith says the art museum is fortunate to be on more solid footing.
"I’m the eternal optimist here," Smith said. "I’m also the financial person, so I would say that we’re not (closing). We have a nice little nest egg of reserves if we need to use it, but we have not had to. Our donors have been phenomenal about stepping up."
The BMoA staff is busier than ever, Magnus says. She and her colleagues have been producing digital online newsletters and virtual tours, and she has continued to front Art After Dark, the podcast sibling of the "Hello Bakersfield" podcast she has been co-hosting for about a year with a half-dozen other engaging local millennials.
The most recent Art After Dark, which posted last week, focused on the history and enduring impact of the Bakersfield Sound and served as a preview of this exhibition, which is scheduled to run through next Aug. 28.
Now we wait. We work while we wait, but we wait.
“I've been really impressed with the activity and the ingenuity that's gone on” during this pandemic-prompted shutdown of museums across the country, Magnus said. “There's been a lot of pivoting, shifting. When you manage a public institution that does not allow the public to visit, you have a huge problem. ... But I think that it's really provided an opportunity for museum staff to get more creative. In times of great stress and trauma, creativity flourishes and for museums we're seeing that in real time.
“For the visual arts, we're going to be seeing the results of that over the next five years. We're going to see what manifests itself out of this shared global experience.”
Magnus, like the rest of us, is hoping to hear the sound of something better — and see its visual companions — very soon.