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Take a Trip Inside the Brand New Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa with Director Steven Jenkins
This month, a new chapter in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s storied cultural history unfolded when the Bob Dylan Center opened in a 100-plus-year-old, 29,000 square foot former paper mill.
A boon for Dylanologists — the obsessives who pore over practically every hiccup of Dylan’s — as well as the most casual fan, the Center holds the more than 100,000 exclusive cultural treasures in Dylan’s archive, purchased six years ago from Dylan by the Tulsa-based George Kaiser Family Foundation, including handwritten lyric manuscripts for some of the world’s most treasured songs, previously unreleased recordings, never-before-seen film performances, rare and unseen photographs, visual art and other priceless items spanning Dylan’s unparalleled seven decades as one of the world’s most important cultural figures.
Located just steps from the must-see Woody Guthrie Center, The Bob Dylan Center also features cutting-edge and immersive technology in a multimedia environment, including a mock recording studio and deep dives into some of Dylan’s best-loved, and most analyzed songs.
Below, Rock Cellar talks with the newly-opened Center’s Director, Steven Jenkins, about some of those exhibits, what the Center seeks to accomplish over the near- and far-term, and, ultimately, why Tulsa in the first place.
Rock Cellar: Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me a little bit about your relationship with Bob Dylan and what you see as your role as Director of the Bob Dylan Center.
Steven Jenkins: Well, like so many of us, I’ve been a lifelong fan. I was a precocious six-year-old with the Milton Glaser poster of Dylan with the multicolored flowing hair on my wall.
Rock Cellar: A six-year-old with an aesthetic, no less.
Steven Jenkins: I’d say so. I think I responded to the color and the look and feel of that graphic prior to the music hitting me. And I benefitted from having a mom who was really hip to music. My earliest memories are of hearing the Beatles and Ella Fitzgerald and Dylan, because we had those records around the house. Plus, I had an older brother and sister who introduced me to quality music at a young age. So, this has just been instilled in me from the earliest days that this is a huge part of one’s life, and in fact, more than just providing a soundtrack it can really set you up on the journey, whether you know it or not, that you’re following, often guided by music and these incredible artists.
Yesterday morning, a crowd of Tulsans and Bob Dylan fans gathered in the @TulArtsDist to commemorate the opening of the Bob Dylan Center®.
Photos by Adam Koloff pic.twitter.com/rjwijWCdDN
— Bob Dylan Center (@bobdylancenter) May 11, 2022
Dylan, for me personally, has just always been there from the start. And again, I’d say like all of us who have engaged with his music, its meaning and its import changes for me as I grow, and grow old and older, and have different perspectives on life. These songs and these albums and Dylan’s whole mythos and mystique mean different things to me at different times. So, Dylan’s always been there as a kind of touchstone.
In the meantime, I cobbled together a so-called career in nonprofit arts and culture in the Bay Area over the past 37 years, writing about music, writing about visual arts, working at museums, working quite extensively at film festivals and film organizations, looking at things through a curatorial eye, thinking about how one presents the work of artists and what sort of narratives one wants to tell. I also got into fundraising along the way, which proved to be a very helpful skill to build.
All of these professional pursuits, these personal passions, seemed to dovetail into what I saw as a dream job when I heard about it. I threw my hat in the ring and got to know the folks at the American Song Archives in Tulsa, and sure enough, after many months — of conversation and getting to know each other and formal interviews — I was offered this dream job of director of the Bob Dylan Center.
What I see as my responsibility is to steward the Bob Dylan archives, and the materials within them, appropriately, in thinking about how to share them with the public. Of course, the archives will be available to scholars and academics, who will come in and use them for research purposes. That’s more in our curator Dr. Mark Davidson’s realm. He’ll be making the call on who can gain access and what the research projects are.
But in collaboration with Mark and all my other colleagues, we’ll be thinking about how we also make these materials available to the general public, which we’re doing through the 15,000 square feet of exhibition space, highlighting the breadth and depth of the archives through exhibitions, public programs, interactive elements, educational programs; all the different ways that I really hope will bring the archival materials to life.
And, most importantly, this is for the diehard Dylanologists, as well as the more casual fans; folks interested in music, arts, culture and American history in general. I think all those audiences, and more, will find a lot to enjoy and be surprised by.
And then day-to-day operations, participating in fundraising, partnerships working with other arts and culture and other organizations in Tulsa, to really make this center an important part of the ecosystem here, if you will.
Ultimately, we just want to do Dylan justice. That’s a big part of what I consider my mandate.
Rock Cellar: You’re the new guy to the team though. The rest of the team has been here a while, but you also have the benefit of bringing fresh eyes to this. And to my mind, Bob Dylan isn’t just a recording artist or a performer. He’s a cultural anthropologist and a cultural historian. He does his metalworks. He’s a painter. He’s a poet. He’s so many things as a creative person. So, at some point, the people who grew up with and have loved Dylan since his earliest days will be gone. How do you see the mission over the long stretch, beyond what you just said?
Steven Jenkins: Well, I think it’s two- or possibly three-tiered at this point — and understand this is somewhat of a preliminary answer, because now that I am here as part of the team, and once we get the door open and can take a breather, we will be jointly working on longer term strategic plans — but I can say that we’re all thinking about the center as, of course, celebrating the work, and the ongoing work, of a particular artist who has a particular sort of genius for not just songwriting but, as you say, these other art forms.
And we will be displaying and highlighting these different art forms in the center, trying to convey the wide scope of Dylan’s artistry. Equally important, though, is Dylan as an exemplar of the creative instinct; of the creative impulse. And what we’re hoping visitors will engage with, as they walk in and tour the center, and take in as many surprises and delights and provocations, is the sense that all of us have something to say and communicate.
You know, it could be daunting, because I don’t know if any of us can write “Tangled Up in Blue,” to name one of any 400 songs I might mention that made Bob untouchable. But I think it’s indicative of the human spirit, or whatever you might call it, to want to communicate. We all have thoughts and dreams and a persona that we’d like to convey and communicate, and there are so many different ways we can do so. So if we can help folks tap into their own creative potential by looking at Dylan as an example of someone who has done that for 60-plus years, I’ll personally be gratified, and I think we’ll be meeting our mission.
We also will have rotating exhibitions that highlight the work of other creators, and we’ll draw connections between those folks and Dylan. Sometimes they’ll be very direct and sometimes they might be more tangential, but we really want to give ourselves the space to showcase the work of other artists that are contemporary, that are drawing from the past 100-plus years. And I think we’ll be able to help visitors make surprising and illuminating connections between Dylan’s output and the work of these other artists and creators. That’s also part of the long-term plan.
Rock Cellar: And because, too, if you know anything about Bob Dylan — it’s as much about the people who influenced him and who he’s influenced — and who, in turn, influence him back. Anybody who knows his work knows that what he does doesn’t come out of nowhere.
Steven Jenkins: Yeah, of course. We can go on and on with the clues and the hints and the intriguing mentions of contemporaries or influencers, and we have a whole section in the center of the influences listening booths, so that is a chance for visitors to come in and delve deep into who were these guys who Dylan named as formative influences. Woody Guthrie, of course — and there’s such an important connection here with the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, which was a big part of why Dylan felt that this was the town that should in fact be the home of his archives. Then we’ve got some folks who might be more surprising, like Muddy Waters or Little Richard, and we’ve got really terrific footage of all these artists that visitors can tap into through interactive touchscreens and audio guides. And then we’re looking at some artists Dylan has influenced, through our jukebox, and we’ll have guest curators for the jukebox — the first being Elvis Costello, who has selected 160 songs for the jukebox.
Rock Cellar: Elvis never does anything small.
Steven Jenkins: We weren’t going to get a dozen. But there’s a throughline through them, and Elvis has written this great essay to partially explain, or provide some context for, his selections. And six months from now we’ll have a new curator for that jukebox. Six months from now we’ll have a new artist featured in the creator’s gallery. We’re going to keep things lively and surprising. We want a lot of voices in the mix. We want different perspectives, with an eye toward diversity and excellence.
And I think we’re going to create some frisson here, and some dialogue. I want humor to be in the mix, too. This is Dylan. If he’s not the joker man, he is a joker, and I want us to, yes, treat this material seriously and come at this from, in part, a scholarly background. But it’s got to be accessible, and there’s got to be playfulness and humor to it. Hopefully all that will be reflected in the way we’ve opted to display the artifacts.
Rock Cellar: The two big things I want to wrap up with are what people will find when they come to the Center. Describe what the Center is like and how you’re going to utilize the space now and in the future. And, also, why Tulsa?
Steven Jenkins: I’ll address “Why Tulsa?” first. Really, Bob Dylan doesn’t have any particular personal ties to the city, or even to Oklahoma at large, but the figure of Woody Guthrie has figured so prominently for him. He has spoken about this many times over the decades. There are stories of Dylan visiting Guthrie in the hospital when Guthrie was ailing and having mutually meaningful conversations; a kind of unofficial handing over of the baton, if you will, from the elder statesman to the new kid in the coffeehouses, when Dylan was still very much a part of that folk tradition.
And when Dylan visited the Woody Guthrie Center here several years ago, by all accounts, he was very impressed. He felt that the material was being displayed in a manner that was appropriate to the spirit and the work and the legacy of Woody Guthrie. He also very much appreciated the fact that we’re on Native American ground, and that the Gilcrease Museum here in Tulsa is very strong in a number of areas, one being documents of Americana.
We have a Declaration of Independence here as part of the Gilcrease. As well, the Gilcrease has done quite a bit to preserve and showcase the work of Native American artists. It’s my understanding that Dylan appreciated those genuine efforts to honor the land we’re on and the incredible creative spirit of Native American tribes here.
As well, he just liked the very vibe of Tulsa, and also liked the folks who he met at the George Kaiser Family Foundation. Because George Kaiser is sort of the patron saint of Tulsa, if you will — though I’m sure he would deflect such a title, just as Dylan would deflect any title someone tried to foist upon him — George Kaiser’s done an enormous amount of good for this city, and Dylan picked up on that, and in the end felt that this was the right home for his archives.
Now open to the public, the Bob Dylan Center® in Tulsa, Oklahoma, seeks to educate, motivate and inspire visitors to engage their own capacity as creators through exploration of the life and work of @bobdylan.
— Bob Dylan Center (@bobdylancenter) May 10, 2022
Since then, he’s given us his blessing. He’s created the 16-foot-high metalwork out front for us, and beyond that, trusts us to do the right thing. So, it’s not as if we need to check in with Mr. Dylan on any sort of basis. He really doesn’t want to be involved in the day to day, or even the long-term thinking, around what the Center will be. He’s very graciously trusting the Kaiser Foundation, the American Song Archives, and those of us at the Dylan Center to just do the right thing. So, that’s why in Tulsa.
As to what visitors will find, I’d hope they’re very surprised. I hope whether you’re a hardcore Dylan fan, or perhaps a more casual follower, or even if you’re just interested in arts and culture and music in general, you’ll not at all see a canned history of the man and his career. We do have some chronological elements, of course. [Historian] Sean Wilnetz has very incisively looked at nine key eras in Dylan’s life and career.
We’re also looking in depth at six songs, which will rotate. So, we’re starting out with a half dozen, but we’ll have another six, six months from now. And visitors can go deep if they wish into “Chimes of Freedom” or “Not Dark Yet,” to really get into the writing of these songs, the recording, the production, and the public release of these songs, and the second life or third lives that these songs sometimes have.
For example, “The Man in Me,” at the time of its release a kind of deep album cut on New Morning, then found this new audience when it was on the soundtrack to The Big Lebowski. Or with “To Make You Feel My Love,” a heartfelt, open song in the midst of the deep dark work on Time Out of Mind, which has become one of the most covered songs in the Dylan canon, we’ll look at, say, what does an Adele do with that song, or a Billy Joel. We’ll be looking at those sorts of things. Because there are all these afterlives with the songs that, of course, continue to evolve and develop.
Visitors also will, I believe, be delighted in the number of different interactive elements at the center. Whether it’s The Church Studio control room, where visitors will have a chance to turn dials and push and pull levers and isolate different tracks, as if you’re an engineer or a producer in a recording booth. Say you want to focus on Al Kooper’s seminal organ track on “Like a Rolling Stone.”
You can isolate that organ track in the [mock] control booth and really hear Al Kooper hanging on for dear life, trying to learn how to play the organ and follow a six-minute masterpiece as it was being created. Or you can get into just the vocals and hear the grain and the grit in Dylan’s phrasing and cadence in something like “Most of the Time” or “Mississippi,” and you can turn up those vocal tracks.
Also, by visitors tuning in the narratives on the audio guide that they’ll be able to carry around with them, and utilize at different touchpoints throughout the Center, they’ll find, for instance, touchscreens throughout where they can scroll through the revisions to “Jokerman” or “Tangled Up in Blue.”
So, I think visitors are going to have a lot of fun with that. And again, it’s fascinating in and of itself, but what I’m hoping this all reveals is there are creative choices being made all along the way, whether it’s revising lyrics, whether it’s trying a different melody or a different rhythm, and all of these things will be on display and manipulatable.
Finally, we have an immersive film experience by Jennifer LeBeau, who has done work with Dylan footage and material for a number of years, in what I think of as a sort of spatial presentation, in a room with multilayered screens, in which images of Dylan throughout his career are projected that tell a whole different story and really put you in a specific time and place — Greenwich Village in 1963, or on the road during the Rolling Thunder Revue tour.
The Center is all these things and more that will greet visitors when they walk through the doors.
But let’s leave some surprises …