Tonight, the Levitt AMP Virtual Music Series continues with a new virtual concert featuring the upbeat sounds of California’s Central Valley Latin rock favorite Valley Wolf and a fusion of musical styles from faculty-led ensemble G Street Revolution, co-presented by University of California, Merced and the City of Merced – the dynamic team behind the Levitt AMP Merced Music Series. Tonight’s concert celebrates Merced’s ongoing efforts to revitalize an iconic amphitheater and fuel unity through the power of arts and free music. Tune in at 8pm ET/5pm PT at https://levittamp.org/virtual!
Creating and celebrating a shared identity
Located in the heart of California’s sunny San Joaquin Valley, the city of Merced is home to just over 83,000 people. Known as the “Gateway to Yosemite,” this tranquil center of the Golden State is just two hours from San Francisco and Sacramento, and 90 minutes from the famed Yosemite National Park. Surrounded by lush natural beauty, Merced residents enjoy streams, scenic hiking trails, abundant parks, an extensive bike path system and the valley’s rich agricultural heritage. Merced has served as the processing and shipping hub for agricultural produce of the valley since its 1872 founding by the Central Pacific Railroad. In 2016, Merced County generated over $3.4 billion in produce, becoming the fifth-top producing county in California. Over the past 20 years, Merced’s local industries have expanded to include printing, warehouse distribution, packaging and most recently, higher education.
In 2005, Merced became home to the newest campus in the University of California system, UC Merced, attracting over 7,000 students per year. Serving as an economic driver for the entire Central Valley, UC Merced supports thousands of jobs and stimulates new business development, in addition to significantly increasing college attendance rates among San Joaquin Valley’s first-generation college students. However, like other agricultural cities in the Central Valley, Merced has grappled with its identity over the years, perceived as a pass-through rather than as a destination by both visitors and its diverse local population where more than 25 percent identify as Hispanic, nearly 12 percent are Asian and over 5 percent are African American. Lacking a strong sense of community, it has been challenging to discover, embrace and celebrate Merced’s richly diverse community character.
Recognizing the power of the arts to build social cohesion and serve as a community building-vehicle, in 2018 the City formed the Arts and Culture Advisory Commission to reinvigorate and strengthen neighborhood centers of recreation, culture, history and community through inclusive policy, cultural programs and arts programming. For instance, the Commission has focused on protecting existing public art projects like a mural adorning the city’s G Street Underpass, which opened less than a decade ago to ease traffic congestion, and features the faces and landmarks of Merced by local artists.
The Commission partners with private and public groups to support artistic and cultural activities that reflect the community. Working alongside local nonprofits, including UC Merced, the City aims to build a shared identity that represents all of Merced’s residents. In this spirit, UC Merced is intentionally building welcoming spaces for students and local residents to come together to enjoy arts shows, plays and musical performances. “We’re always looking for ways to bring the campus community and the city of Merced together,” says UC Merced’s Executive Director of Arts Kim Garner. Their ongoing performance series Arts UC Merced Presents and annual Bob Art Show featuring student/faculty/staff artwork each provide places for community members and students to engage with local art and one another. UC Merced also partners with community art organizations like Merced ArtHop, Merced Symphony and the ShakespeareFest to create free events and accessible community arts events. As Garner explains, embedding arts and music into the local community “brings hope and unity to the city.”
Breathing new life into a forgotten community treasure
Looking to further bridge the town and gown divide and unite the city’s distinct populations, last fall Garner and her colleagues at UC Merced spearheaded the effort to apply for a 2020 Levitt AMP grant. Their hope was that a free and inclusive outdoor music series would breathe new life into Merced, contribute to the city’s cultural and economic vibrancy and strengthen ties between the university and the many communities within Merced. The Merced Open Air Theatre (MOAT), a centrally located yet forgotten community treasure situated in the heart of the city’s sprawling, 32-acre Applegate Park, seemed like the perfect spot to host the Levitt AMP series.
“The MOAT is one of the least utilized resources in Applegate Park,” says Garner. Created in 1989, the MOAT was once a vibrant space for residents to come together and enjoy a wide range of events, including the ongoing ShakespeareFest, which has brought The Bard’s plays to life for the Merced community since 2002. However, without regular activation, the park – and the MOAT in particular – fell into disrepair, creating an unwelcoming environment for visitors. Yet given its proximity to downtown and the UC campus, the MOAT had the potential to bring Merced’s diverse demographics together and help build a sense of community. The park itself is also home to a small zoo, playground, rose garden and Kiwanis-sponsored ‘Kiddieland’ amusement park.
In recent years, efforts have been made to restore Applegate Park as a community gathering place. The zoo has seen improvements and the playground has been refurbished. And just last year, the MOAT underwent renovations thanks to support from a local couple (and the City which matched their donation) who were inspired by the prospect of a free Levitt AMP Music Series coming to town. In a recent Merced County Times article, local artist, donor and community arts organizer Monika Modest explains how she and her husband always valued outdoor public spaces as they are “open and accessible to all community members, which create opportunities for people from all different walks of life to come together, cross paths, interact and share their cultural traditions.” She goes on to explain how Applegate Park is uniquely positioned to become a “vital bridge and connector between south Merced, downtown, and north Merced” and how the possibility of a Levitt AMP Music Series helped motivate their decision to invest in the renovations. In a similar vein, Modest organized a community mosaic project, “The Starry Night,” scheduled to take place this fall to inspire hope and improve the aesthetics of the MOAT, further fueling its potential to become a vibrant art-filled community destination.
Garner and her team were thrilled to see the community rally behind the prospect of a Levitt AMP Music Series and were looking forward to bringing together residents of all backgrounds to inject new life into the MOAT while enjoying free Levitt AMP concerts. “Being selected for the Levitt AMP grant is a step toward broadening our arts reach” explains Garner, “and I know it will be a huge support for the community.”
Reimagining community building during COVID-19
This month would have marked the inaugural Levitt AMP Merced Music Series, yet the COVID-19 pandemic caused its postponement until 2021. UC Merced academic life will look very different this year. For the safety of students, faculty and staff, most fall classes will be taking place online. With the current health crisis, UC Merced and the City of Merced have had to find new ways to uplift and safely engage the community in meaningful ways. For instance, in response to the resurging racial justice movement, UC Merced is planning to showcase 1960s images of Black Panthers at the Merced Multicultural Arts Center featuring “local artists of color and amplifying the voices of those who normally do not get the spotlight,” explains Garner. The City of Merced is also continuing to update its Public Art Inventory, an archive that provides a virtual map of art, sculptures and paintings for people to safely enjoy around the city. And later in the year, Garner and her team are planning to incorporate this exhibition into a multi-layered music-themed arts event that safely engages the community, with support from a Levitt AMP Bridge Grant.
Fortunately, residents and students (and Levitteers across the nation!) don’t have to wait until then – just tune into tonight’s virtual concert to enjoy energetic performances by Valley Wolf and G Street Revolution! Hailing from Modesto, Calif., Valley Wolf creates an immersive experience through a seamless blend of Latin rock and soul. Similarly, Merced-based G Street Revolution, largely composed of faculty and staff from UC Merced, creates unique arrangements through rich vocals and powerful fusions of indie rock, jazz and blues. These two local talents “represent the two halves of the community,” says Garner. “I hope we spur excitement, because here’s a taste of what you’re going to experience in 2021 with the Levitt AMP Music Series!”
Head over to https://levittamp.org/virtual tonight at 8pm ET/5pm PT to experience what’s sure to be a memorable show!