Art Barn History

Photo of Art Barn from UMOCA Archive, circa 1945, photo © UMOCA

In celebration of our 90th anniversary, UMOCA has commissioned a history of the museum by author Will South. We will be sharing abbreviated sections of his history all year through our Newsletter, the first of which is published here:

Incorporation of the Art Barn took place in 1931, described as: “A statewide gathering place and exhibition center for all forms of arts, crafts, literature and music.” After dedication, the Salt Lake City public was fascinated with the Art Barn and its cornucopia of events and programs, leading the press and many others to refer to it as bohemian or make comparative references to its Greenwich Village-like appeal.

Choosing that vocabulary, journalists meant that it was an inclusive place, an independent but communal gathering spot. This was by design, and although a tremendous gamble at the time, the Art Barn was determined to be independently funded and self-supporting. The consequence of that decision was that it was free to do what it wanted. It would be isolated from the undulating whims of institutional policy.

The community’s obsession, however, did not mean the Barn was not without controversy. The Barn displayed the works of A. Franz Brasz in a mostly watercolor show, but it also included a painting of two nudes. How would this newly formed organization respond in an environment that had a strong distaste for the nude figure in art? Conversely, could an advocate for fine art turn its back on artistic freedom?

Proposed Addition for Salt Lake Art Center, 1971, photo © UMOCA

Once again, the Art Barn’s community-mindedness shone through. Leadership determined that it could do multiple things, even if they occasionally seemed mutually exclusive: bring challenging art before the public and open a welcoming discussion about it.

The Art Barn approached the exposure/education dilemma with the goal of inclusion, achieved by bringing in the artists, poets, musicians, novelists, and others who could explain why new approaches in art mattered. While the attempts were not always successful, what remained was the attitude of the importance of community in the conversation.

Nearly from thin air, Alta Rawlins Jensen built a thriving arts community, but rather than hold the reins closely as a branded entity of some kind of arts fiefdom, her vision was to embrace the associations of others and to expand to include them all. Within a decade, it had become an indispensable feature of the state and synonymous with art activities and programming in Salt Lake City.