Margaret Curtis: This, too. is on view in the Street Gallery through November 9, 2024

History — UMOCA: Contemporary Since 1931

Renovated entrance to the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art featuring the 2021 rebrand.

Co-authored by Glen Nelson and Maddie Blonquist Shrum


Years after its founding in 1931, Alta Rawlins Jensen recalled how the Art Barn in Salt Lake City, Utah—later the Salt Lake Art Center, and now the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art—came to be. In an undated, brief narrative history titled “The ‘Barn’,” now in the archives of UMOCA, she recounted with pride the plucky arts institution, formed in the early years of the Great Depression. Today, over 90 years later, it is time to put this extraordinary accomplishment of UMOCA into 21st century context.

It has been resolutely, tirelessly contemporary since 1931.

Looking at the complete story, one sees how the motifs of community, independence, vision, awareness, and inclusion recur time and again. These values—so central to the public’s expectations of art and artists in the 21st century—existed in this arts organizations’ heritage from its very beginning. They are the heart of its purposes. That is the legacy of its founder, Alta Rawlins Jensen, and those who have followed.

Alta Rawlins Jensen, who was born in Salt Lake City in 1884, had been a participant of the Carmel-by-the-Sea artists’ colony on the California coast, 120 miles south of San Francisco, near Monterey Bay. The bohemian gathering place was home to artists, writers, and intellectuals. Its Summer Art School and Arts and Crafts Club founded in 1910 drew novelists Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, painters William Merritt Chase and Paul K. Mays, architects, dancers, actors, playwrights, and others.1 In 1930, Rawlins Jensen had an epiphany, as she wrote:

“Discontented with Salt Lake City after a winter spent in Carmel-by-the-Sea, that Californian mecca of artists and writers, the thought stirred in a woman’s mind as she sat down in her garden, who happened to be myself: ‘Why can’t we have some similar source of inspiration here? Why can’t we gather our artists and writers here too,’ she asked herself, ‘all together in some central place?’”2

Alta Rawlins Jensen shown breaking ground for the Art Barn featured in Salt Lake Tribune news article, October 19, 1931.

In the first two decades of the 20th century, art colonies dotted the country, frequently in locations slightly removed from urban centers: MacDowell, Provincetown, Woodstock, Yaddo, Taos, Marfa, Shinnecock, New Hope, Ox-Bow, among others. Colonies brought artists and art aficionados together, particularly in summertime or as an escape from prolonged winters. The Great Depression changed that. Although colony classes, food, and lodging were not prohibitively expensive for most attendees—even after the 1929 crash—travel to them became a significant barrier. Instead, former colonists turned their sights to their own communities, and hundreds of new arts organizations appeared suddenly in towns across the nation as a result. Rawlins Jensen’s idea for an arts home in Utah was in the air.

The initial reactions to the idea of a Salt Lake City arts gathering place, a proto-colony, were polarized—not philosophically, but economically. The artists and arts supporters who believed in the project, jumped all in with Rawlins Jensen. Architect Taylor Woolley, whose local reputation shone after his years working with Frank Lloyd Wright, said, according to her, “Let’s go!”3 It was Woolley who identified the old Judge Barn on South Temple street as a potential site, although it ultimately ended up in Reservoir Park. Other supporters rallied and began fundraising—this, in 1930 and 1931. Local artists donated paintings valued from $50 to $300 for a raffle toward the effort. The governor endorsed the plan. Still, Rawlins Jensen and her sister, Leda R. Ray, were often rebuffed politely and told that however noble the idea of an arts organization in Salt Lake City like Carmel-by-the-Sea, this was “no time for a thing like that.”4 To the criticism that money should not be going to art but to the destitute, Rawlins Jensen replied that the unemployed would be back to work because of the building project. She added, “The money spent for art will actually go to buy food and clothing for needy families, accomplishing two desirable ends.”5

Local painters, sculptors, poets, and musicians urged the community to be supportive. Tabernacle organist Edward P. Kimball presented remarks at a chamber of commerce meeting titled, “What the Art Barn Can Mean for Music Lovers?”6 which was quoted in the local press, “It takes more than smoke and industry to make a city. We also need art.”7

Utah was no artistic wasteland. Its visual arts organizations alone during the era included: The Deseret Academy of Fine Arts, The Utah Art Association, Society of Utah Artists, the Utah Arts Institute, Fine Arts Society of Utah, Beaux Art Guild, Art Service Club, Utah Art Colony, art departments at Branch Agricultural College (Cedar City), Utah Agricultural College (Logan), Brigham Young University (Provo), and University of Utah (Salt Lake City), and numerous associations, clubs, institutions, organizations, community and religious groups’ programming entities, and budding collectives.8

Beaux Arts Ball tickets, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art archive

Many of the arts organizations unaffiliated with government or educational institutions, however, formed in moments of utopian fervor, slowly fizzled into collapse. Of course, in the early 1930s the crisis for all independent arts organizations was funding.

The Great Depression hit Utah hard. The state’s unemployment rate in 1933 was 35.8%, which was the fourth highest in the country. Even for those who retained their jobs, wages declined by 45%. According to John S. McCormick’s Utah History Encyclopedia, annual per capita income dropped by half by 1932, and by 1933, 32% of the state’s residents were receiving their food, shelter, and clothing—all or in part—from government relief sources. More than a third of the state’s banks failed. An agricultural state, farmers watched helplessly as downward spiraling prices for their crops resulted in 60% income declines. The State Legislature introduced a bill in 1932 that would require all married female state employees to resign their jobs. The Deseret News reported in 1933 that hundreds of families in Salt Lake City lost their homes and camped on any vacant lot they could find. With little hope remaining, demonstrations, protests, riots, and arrests ensued. In a psychological blow to a state determinedly self-reliant in character, by 1933 more than 20% of Utah residents had received New Deal aid, leading the nation in per capita relief.9  In Salt Lake City, the state and local governments, too, created committees to do whatever they could through large-scale, make-work projects including the construction of new landmarks: the Salt Lake City Zoo, state capitol grounds, Memory Grove Park, and the Art Barn.

Architectural sketch for the Art Barn, c. 1930, UMOCA archive.

The Art Barn had an initially-projected construction budget of $10,000, the amount of $151,438 in today’s currency.10 Early project funding in the form of land, labor, and financial aid relied heavily upon the goodwill of the community, the passion of artists and organizers, and the support of the government. The city commission appropriated $1,000 in October, 1931 to aid construction11 and the Salt Lake free public library board donated $1,200.12 Individuals, however, found donating more difficult. Rawlins Jensen wrote, “Enthusiasm ran high; but by now, nobody seemed to have a dime.”13

Governor George Dern lays the cornerstone at The Art Barn cornerstone ceremony, 1931, UMOCA archive.

On December 6, 1931, Governor George Dern, who joined Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cabinet in 1933, kicked off construction and laid the cornerstone on a new building known as the Art Barn designed by Woolley and located on a plot donated by the city in Reservoir Park on University Ave. A new era began. Unfortunately, the organization hit a snag mid-construction when it ran out of funds for the cottage-like building. Despite the community’s best efforts, the realities of the economy threatened to halt their progress until “an eleventh hour donation from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provided for a roof on the building and for windows, rendering the structure usable (although very cold in the absence of any kind of heater).”14

A few months later, the arts center—its official name still unresolved—sold tickets to a debate held at nearby Kingsbury Hall on the topic of the repeal of Prohibition, securing its place as a forum for social dialogue. A hot-button issue of the day, twelve hundred people attended to hear Reverend Elmer I. Goshen and Franklin Riter argue in favor of a repeal while Nephi L. Morris and Carl A. Badger argued against it. As Rawlins Jensen wrote, “…and the money rolled in.”15 The construction coffers were replenished, and work began again. 

Attendees of The Art Barn cornerstone ceremony, including Alta Rawlins Jensen and Governor George Dern at The Art Barn, 1931, UMOCA archive.

Although the originally anticipated site of the old Judge Barn structure on South Temple did not work out as a venue for the nascent arts organization, the name stuck despite many efforts by its founders to persuade the community to adopt a more sophisticated and upscale title. Christened after its first-imagined location, the Art Barn was officially incorporated in 1931. Its first summer courses commenced in 1932 and its official opening, led by the new governor, Henry H. Blood, took place on June, 11, 1933.16 A flyer for its formal opening provided the exclamation: “This Art Center Belongs to You!”17 The way that it described itself points to its goals: “A statewide gathering place and exhibition center for all forms of arts, crafts, literature and music.” It publicized charter life membership without dues for a price of $1.00, and advertised rental space for “clubs, parties, lectures at nominal rates.”18 After dedication, the Salt Lake City public remained fascinated with the Art Barn and its cornucopia of events and programs. The space brimmed with artistic and communal activity; perusing local newspapers of the era, one notices with astonishment that some mention of the Art Barn appeared in the press nearly every day for years—hundreds and hundreds of published articles, notices, reports, and announcements. The Barn quickly became part of the texture of local culture.

All this historical background is mere preamble. Once established, what began as the Art Barn grew into the Salt Lake Art Center in 1958 and, after undergoing its final name change in 2011, became the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art we know today. Each incarnation marks an important shift and unique expression of its mission to present Utah to the world and bring the world to Utah. With an emphasis on contemporary art and a commitment to community gathering, the insightful forethought and impressive vision of its founders remains foundational to UMOCA 90 years later: its independence, its philosophical emphasis on community, education, inclusion, support of artists, and an insistence that art be relevant and address the social issues of the day. 

A Gathering Place: The Art Barn (1931-1949)

Photograph of the completed Art Barn, circa 1932, UMOCA archive.

From the organization’s founding, the press captured the idea for the public that its goals were more ambitious than a physical building or an arts organization. The Salt Lake Telegram referred to it many times as “the Art Barn movement.”19 Beginning with its announcement in 1930 and throughout the decade, references to the Art Barn reflected its avant-garde aspirations as being a “central, bohemian, informal, self-supporting” community fixture, “profitable to everybody.”20 The press soon caught on to its Greenwich Village-like appeal: “Salt Lake will soon have a miniature ‘Greenwich Village’ and bohemian art center to be used as a rendezvous for artists, authors, poets, sculptors and musicians. Like the Greenwich Village of New York, where fine old stables have been transformed into art galleries and studios, it is planned to initiate the movement here by remodeling an old stable into what will be known as ‘The Art Barn.’”21  

Despite its modest beginnings, the Art Barn stood for much more than its quaint namesake let on; it was a link to the aesthetic ethos of bohemian artistic life. Allusions to Greenwich Village by local journalists portrayed the organization as an inclusive place, an independent but communal gathering spot. Such connotations were by design and encouraged by the founders of the institution. Although it was a tremendous gamble at the time of its founding, the Art Barn set out 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. 

Outside of Utah, others took note. Laurence Vail Coleman, director of the American Association of Museums commented in 1933, “The Art Barn is indeed a unique organization and, to my mind, stands head and shoulders above similar centers in this country. Not only its architectural beauty, but the wide range of its activities and the enthusiasm with which the community is participating in them give a definite importance to this art center.”22 A quotation from The New Deal Magazine (also in 1933) further speaks to this accessible and encompassing approach: “Whether one’s interests lie in the direction of music, painting, writing, poetry, dramatic work, sculpture, dancing, landscape beautifying or the graphic arts—there is the opportunity for congenial association, inspiration and help, if any aspirant stands off and looks wistfully toward the Art Barn, afraid to venture in, it is his own fault. The invitation to come and participate is extended to all. There is not even the barrier of a fee.”23

All were welcome to attend the Art Barn’s wide-ranging events in the afternoons and evenings. As something of an open letter of invitation, Alta Rawlins Jensen wrote: 

“On these evenings in one room or another, groups are gathered, listening here, to Christie Lund Coles perhaps read her new poems bound to win a prize; there, to Ed Tuttle reading his articles on How to Revamp the Business Man. Irene Dunlap may be delighting the Barnacles with an original short-story; Jimmie Nakos entrancing a group of “Bookies” with his novel. Wallace Steigner [sic] may be addressing the League of Western Writers in the gallery; or on another of these special nights, Florence Ware may be there elucidating color and design. Rich Whitmore may be spot-lighting camera technique in the Attic Hall; or Dave Freed and his group may be there pulling other forms of magic from a hat.”24

The varied activities of the Barn’s first years can be seen now as a template for the following decades. They illustrate how the organization balanced sometimes paradoxical concerns: to display art of quality and to educate an audience that might be leery of it. As they saw it, the display of local artists’ works—encompassing music, literature, and visual arts—was a priority, but it was not the only goal. Classes and related gatherings set a tone of populism as well as fine art appreciation. Still, a significant role of the Art Barn was to expose visitors to the current fine art movements outside of their sequestered mountain valley and to engage the public in discussions about it—even if those conversations were sometimes uncomfortable.

Art exhibitions had begun even before the Art Barn building was formally dedicated. In 1932, local professional artists John Hafen, J.T. Harwood, and Cornelius Salisbury each had a one-person exhibition. Building relationships with art societies inside the state—the Associated Utah Artists, the Junior League, and the Salt Lake Camera Club among others—resulted in the constant display of local artists’ works. Formal exhibitions highlighted the activities of societies outside the state, too, starting with an exhibition from the Printmakers Society of California in 1932 and continuing an annual show from the Society for nearly 20 years. Likewise, the Art Barn was eager to showcase the works of its own art students once The Art Barn School of Fine Arts was organized in 1935.25 Both students’ and teachers’ work were featured regularly throughout the calendar year.

Alta Rawlins Jensen working in the Art Barn studio, Salt Lake Tribune, July 4, 1932, courtesy of University of Utah archive.

Early exhibitions at the Art Barn were not without controversy, and the institution’s first brushes with discontent foreshadowed the ways it would react to differing views in future years. In its third year of operation, the Art Barn displayed selected works by A. Franz Brasz, President of the California Watercolor Society. It was mostly a watercolor show, but it included a painting of two nudes. Though the Art Barn had displayed its first nudes to limited criticism the previous year, the Brasz image, created in a modernist style, elicited larger protests among the local community.26 The Board had a decision to make: how to respond in an environment that was both suspicious of modernism and had a strong distaste for the nude figure in art? Conversely, could an advocate for fine art turn its back on artistic freedom? 

Photocopy of newspaper article “Art Barn No Prude: Says Nude Not Lewd,” Salt Lake Telegram, April 26, 1934, courtesy of University of Utah archive.

Will South describes what took place next: “A public debate was scheduled, and all interested people invited, including Mr. Brasz. Prior to the event, Alta Jensen, a spiritual as well as administrative leader for the Art Center, told the press: ‘I think that we should settle the question for all time. It is a time to find out if Utah is a bit of a backwash, remote from the main current in progress, or if culture here has grown to maturity, where truth and beauty can be seen in the nude as well as in the other art. We will never develop any art that is real or great in Utah until art can be anything it wants to be.'”27

The Salt Lake Telegram headline read: “Art Barn No Prude; Says Nude Not Lewd.” Its subtitle? “Lovely Lady (in Oils) Hangs in Gallery After Art Lovers Decide Petticoats Unnecessary.”28 The Deseret News article covering the issue ran this headline: “…How Far Can Art Go in Utah.”29 Tellingly, the article quoted Rawlins Jensen who said frankly that,

“…she did not like the picture. She thought it ugly, but she hung it because she wanted to see ‘if art could be nude in Utah.’”30   

While the Art Barn did not necessarily seek to be a provocateur of controversy, it realized that neither did it need to self-censure and could instead hold space for such lively conversations to take place. Even though the 1934 debate did not settle the nudity question once and for all, as Rawlins Jensen hoped, it did set precedent for the organization to take a stand when under fire on the side of creative expression.

To further its goals regarding education and art criticism, by the end of the decade it began publication of an on-going journal titled The Art Barn Bulletin which promoted upcoming events in an effort to bring differing views into dialogue. The journal sought more than mere advertisement. Its editorial policy stated, “The Bulletin solicits comments and articles upon all subjects pertaining to the arts; particularly controversial discussions, quoting from Peyton Boswell, Jr., editor of the Art Digest: ‘Controversy revitalizes the spirit of art.’”31 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 welcome open discussions about it. 

Alta Rawlins Jensen’s personal copy of The Art Barn Bulletin, September 1938 edition, UMOCA archive.

This stance may appear logical and even inevitable, but during the same period in other American cities, it was not uncommon for a museum or performing arts institution to strike a more militant posture between its artists and audiences, particularly when it came to the sensational early 20th-century avant-garde art movements. Imported by the 1919 Armory Show in New York, European modernism arrived in America to a shocked and contemptuous public with experimental art that appalled. With it came literature that some thought obscene and indecipherable music that stunned audiences with seemingly chaotic sounds. 

Progressive arts organizations of the period reacted divisively, at times adopting a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, invoking their expertise and authority to defy anyone who challenged it. In such an atmosphere, unsurprisingly, audiences with few tools to process modern styles were compelled to leave the conversation altogether. Cities across the country witnessed a backlash against new expressions in art, making exposure and education a particularly complex challenge. In Salt Lake City, however, the Art Barn approached the exposure/education dilemma through education with the goal of inclusion. It sought to make up for perceived deficits of audience understanding by bringing in artists, poets, musicians, novelists, and others who could explain why new approaches in art mattered. 

In 1946, Alta Rawlins Jensen wrote that the Art Barn was “Utah’s Louvre.” This hyperbole speaks to the institution’s affirming attitude toward local artists, hinting at an ambitious future. In its first decade of art exhibitions, two features are especially prominent: first, local artists had a home where they could exhibit their work proudly at an independent institution, and second, traveling exhibitions brought work to Utah that many had never seen before.

Publication featuring Alta Rawlins Jensen’s affirmation of “Utah’s Louvre,” 1946.

The list of artists’ works on display in the 1930s at the Art Barn is impressively extensive. Significant is the range of media which included photography, sculpture, watercolor, painting, and printmaking, and unusual for the time, women artists. Typically, the Art Barn mounted between 15-20 exhibitions per year during the 1930s. Moreover, artists in Salt Lake City were invited to hang their paintings in the free gallery of the Art Barn.32 In the same period, the Barn brought shows to Utah that originated elsewhere. These included ongoing relationships with art societies in California as well as traveling exhibitions of individual artists and group shows. Some of these conveyed emerging philosophies of art to the state, and others were populist, by design. 

When an exhibition of Diego Rivera paintings from the San Francisco Museum of Art was brought to the Art Barn, the excitement about the first showing of his work in Utah was tempered with local debates on Rivera’s politics. Two years earlier, the destruction of the Mexican artist’s Rockefeller Center mural the night before it was to be completed sent a chill through the American art community. Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future, a 63-foot long portrait of workers that Nelson Rockefeller had commissioned from Rivera, became a symbol of the combustibility of public art, ego, wealth, and politics. In Utah, the reaction of the Art Barn’s 1936 exhibition of Rivera was much more sedate, in keeping with the curiosity of a public who wanted to see what all the New York fuss was about. One year later, the works of Frida Kahlo arrived. Artists and administrators at the Art Barn were demonstrably proud of their efforts to show influential international artists locally.

Diego Rivera, Man at the Crossroads, 1933, Rockefeller Center, New York (destroyed).

It is good to remember that in the 1930s, long before printing technologies allowed art works to appear frequently on the pages of magazines and newspapers in color, seeing a painting face to face had an emotional immediacy and impact that may be difficult to comprehend today. One aspect of their power was rarity—how many people in Salt Lake City would have seen a Mexican mural, even in reproduction? Another is the physicality of seeing itself. Imagine walking into the Art Barn and standing before a hallucinatory Frida Kahlo painting, or one of the fourteen Vincent van Gogh paintings exhibited at the Barn in 1941, sponsored by the Junior League of Salt Lake City. Art exhibitions of the era allowed dormant sensory responses to emerge. They would have been like the moment in The Wizard of Oz (1939) when Dorothy takes her first black and white steps into a Technicolor world. Although there might have been some response by patrons who viewed these works suspiciously because of the artists’ politics or reputation, the visceral experience of seeing ultimately outweighed all else.

At the same time, other arts organizations in Salt Lake City took hold, which impacted the Art Barn to varying degrees. Using funding from WPA-era state and federal government agencies, the Utah State Art Center was established in 1938. Its purposes overlapped with the Art Barn, but its artist members focused more on modernism. In the eyes of some, they were competitors. South notes their coexistence but outlines the decline of the Art Center, which was dependent on federal financing and therefore ceased operations with the onset of the war, in 1943.33


Invitation to Join the Art Barn Writers with complimentary tickets to Beaux Arts Ball.

The Art Barn demonstrated an almost limitless capacity to house artistic enterprises. Consider the various groups and clubs that functioned in some ways with the auspices of the Barn: The Barnacles (writer’s group), The Barnstormers (dramatic group), Art Barn Photographic Print Society, Art Barn Poets, Music Guild, Woman’s Council, Literary Committee, The Art Barn School of Fine Arts, the Art Students’ League, Fine Arts Group, the Camera Club, Ogden Palette Club, League of Utah Writers, Federation of Music, Associated Utah Artists, Junior League, Neighborhood Garden Club, any number of art teachers’ and their students, and more.

Nearly from thin air, Alta Rawlins Jensen generated a thriving arts community, but rather than hold the reins closely as a branded entity of arts fiefdom, her vision was to embrace the associations of others and expand to include them all, echoing the atmosphere of art colonies. The Art Barn did not view other arts organizations in an adversarial manner; instead, it served as an aggregator of multiple artistic disciplines and an equal number of outside entities that were allowed to grow and thrive within its walls on Finch Lane. In some cases, they were part of the Barn’s official configuration; other examples include arts organizations that remained autonomous but used the Barn’s infrastructure to develop and grow. Within a decade, it had become an indispensable feature of the state and synonymous with arts programming in Salt Lake City.

During the war, the activities of the Barn slowed down somewhat, but surprisingly not as much as one might think. Programming remained robust, although some of its events transitioned to aid defense efforts and the troops. Glancing over the history of its exhibitions of the period, notable is the continuing support of local artists and a stream of traveling exhibitions. 

The Utah State Symphony Orchestra (later Utah Symphony) formed in 1940, and in 1947 with the arrival of Maurice Abravanel, it grew to be a regional powerhouse. The city had a long history with theater, as well, and the public thronged to Hollywood films, like the rest of the country. Ballet West would arrive in 1963. But what about visual art? 

Landscape photograph of the Art Barn in Wintertime, UMOCA archive.

In 1948, a Salt Lake Tribune article lamented what it called the “homeless orphan” of Utah: art. Jack Goodman wrote, “The Art Barn is small, off the beaten track, difficult for tourists to discover…. Only a permanent, easily accessible gallery can bring art and public together. Perhaps such a gallery will one day be a part of the proposed civic auditorium building—part of a museum displaying permanent acquisitions, traveling exhibits and contemporary art in an adequate setting.”34

Growing Pains: Becoming the Salt Lake Art Center (1950-1978)

Architectural drawing of proposed Salt Lake Art Center, c. 1970, UMOCA archive.

With a growing mass of accomplishments, it was inevitable that as the Art Barn matured, administration would become somewhat unwieldy. The public came to expect a constant barrage of activities in multiple artistic disciplines as well as social gatherings, meetings, and events. It had always been the Barn’s good fortune to attract a wide array of volunteers. There was always much to do. An assumption of excellence met each exhibition, too. Alfred Goodwin became the chairman of exhibitions. Historian Will South describes Goodwin as being especially attuned to the needs of artists, and as artist Douglas Snow recalled, “Goodwin was very much in touch with the times, extremely articulate, and collaborated beautifully with the artists. He played a big, big role…. Openings were packed in those days, you couldn’t move.”35 

To address these questions regarding acquisition goals, the Art Barn made an official announcement about the potential collection and declared that it should include “stimulating works of all periods, with special emphasis upon paintings of unusual contemporary interest.”36 It is a contradictory statement in some ways. “Works from all periods” suggests that a collection of 19th century Utah painters’ landscapes, for example, would be welcome. The explicit mention of “contemporary,” however, establishes some level of expectation that the works be created nearer to the present day. But there is another interpretation: that the works have relevance to contemporary life. This is an important distinction because the Art Barn had always focused on building a community of artists, patrons, and audiences. The diversity of its audience demanded a spectrum of offerings.

George Dibble, Sketch for Cubist Breaks, first exhibited in 1954 at the Art Barn.

The organization was changing. Most apparent in its art exhibitions, the 50s represented a shift in curatorial approach. Over the decade at mid-century, the total number of regional artists who had one-person exhibitions declined dramatically. 

Further turning away from serving artists, writers, musicians, and a wide swath of artistic productions, in 1958 the Art Barn had officially changed its name to the Salt Lake Art Center in order to fulfill its expanding mission to become a locus for Utah visual culture and a destination for art connoisseurs. 

In 1961, SLAC hired its first full-time director, James Lewis Haseltine. An artist himself, Haseltine was educated at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Brooklyn Art Museum School. While he came to organize many exhibitions manifesting a deep interest in Utah artists, he had limited exposure to Utah. After the war, he had settled in Oregon and was actively involved in the Artists Equity movement. 

His approach to mounting exhibitions in Utah was a departure from the Art Barn’s past, which could be described generally as emphasizing relationships with California arts associations and colonies, as well as showcasing local and regional artists, and introducing international artists and cultures of distinction. Yet, those shows of artists outside the area, however important and impactful, were largely brought to Salt Lake City as traveling exhibitions rather than curated by someone within the organization. Haseltine’s point of view was in stark contrast to his predecessors. In a 1964 annual report, he wrote dismissively of borrowing or renting existing shows, “In the exhibition program less reliance has been placed on traveling or ‘canned’ shows. The Art Center will continue to stress its present policy of organizing exhibitions of national interest.”37 

SLAC director James L. Haseltine Installing an exhibition of contemporary Utah art. (South p. 22)

Haseltine brought with him rigor, curiosity, and a new perspective toward the art of Utah, as well. Sometimes, insight requires an outsider to see things afresh, and this was the case with SLAC and its new director. Haseltine embraced Utah art from both a historical perspective and as an advocate of contemporary art. He showed and defended artists whose work was challenging to the community. Meanwhile, he codified the status of earlier Utah artists whose reputations had suffered through neglect, ironically, because they were not modern enough, including LeConte Stewart, whose first full-scale retrospective was held in 1962, mounted by the Salt Lake Art Center. Importantly, the Art Center published an exhibition catalog for the Stewart show that included a short essay by Haseltine, listing of works, and a chronology of the artist’s life. By reintroducing the importance of creating publications that accompanied exhibitions, Haseltine accomplished something significant: a scholarly catalog turns an ephemeral exhibition into a permanent resource and historical record, and he seeded a legacy of academic investigation. The director’s writing style was right for his audience.

SLAC furthered its goals of exposure and outreach beyond the walls of the institution, as well. The local PBS station, KUED, aired a program developed by the institution, The Way of Art, whose predecessor, Thesaurus, launched in 1963. Using public television, SLAC was able to disseminate the message of fine art in a monthly, half-hour program to audiences who never stepped into the Art Center itself. Haseltine conceptualized an ambitious plan to exhibit a century of Utah art, “the first time a full-scale survey of Utah painting from the earliest pioneer days to the recent past” had been attempted.38 In 1965, the exhibition of 118 works opened, 100 Years of Utah Painting, accompanied by a 62-page catalog of the same title that remains a hallmark of clarity regarding Utah painting, all penned by Haseltine. One of the director’s aims was preservation, a concept that pushed the organization further toward the role of a museum rather than a gallery or a loose collective of arts social clubs. In the 100 Years of Utah Painting catalog, he wrote:

“Our heritage is rich and worth preserving.”39

During the period, SLAC marked the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Art Barn. A number of the founders were still alive in 1961, and they gathered to reminisce. Alta Rawlins Jensen was front and center for the festivities, and she noted how far the Salt Lake Art Center had come. How satisfying it must have been for them to see their vibrant little building, practically bursting with activity. Space—specifically a lack of it—was becoming an increasing problem, however. Even before 100 Years of Utah Painting, SLAC put out feelers regarding the possibility of leaving its humble home on Finch Lane for something new and grand. In a 1965 interview with the Salt Lake Tribune, Haseltine mused publicly about a new edifice, “We have found that existing buildings are not the answer. What we need is a specialized building with flexibility in the utility of space, lighting, humidity control, air conditioning and dust control.”40 Haseltine’s vision of an expanded space informed the decades ahead, as SLAC continued to grow as an organization, partnering with government organizations for the first time to realize it’s growth. 

Proposed addition for Salt Lake Art Center to original building.

Increasingly, the Finch Lane building hampered SLAC’s ability to grow. Limited space capped the number of classes that could be offered at the school and caused bottlenecks of social gatherings and other activities. Exhibitions that it otherwise would have liked to mount were not possible because of the building’s capacity and mechanical systems. That same year, after SLAC’s proposal for a new building failed to generate sufficient enthusiasm in the community, Haseltine resigned. After an interim replacement, Joseph M. Stuart was hired to lead the Center in June 1968. Although he continued programs he inherited—the number of classes offered by the Center increased dramatically, for example—the overriding issue was a goal to construct something that expanded the existing building or replaced it with a new museum in the same neighborhood of Reservoir Park.

In 1972, a visiting official, Charles Thomsen, from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development visited Utah at the invitation of the governor, Calvin Rampton.41  Thomsen recommended that the upcoming biennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1976 serve as a catalyst to rebuild the downtown area of Salt Lake City to add a visual arts center, and to develop arts organizations as a central fixture of the city’s identity. Implementation of this vision, however, was anything but smooth. Politicians, community leaders, multiple arts organizations in different disciplines, the press, and the public all wrestled with the concept of a performing arts and visual arts complex downtown. For an arts organization that largely had carved out its own evolution for 40 years, the logistics of collaborative politics at the scale required for a major downtown museum space proved to be an almost overwhelming project. 

And yet, after much planning, advocating, and partnering, on March 10, 1977, ground was broken for the new museum, part of the Bicentennial Arts Complex. The Art Center had hired the local architectural firm, FFKR Architects for the project at 20 South West Temple, adjacent to the Salt Palace with Price Construction as the builders.

Architectural sketch of the Utah Bicentennial Arts Center, c. 1970, UMOCA archive.

According to a letter sent by board president Paul M. Dougan to donors, the construction costs were provided by the State of Utah and Salt Lake County, 50% each, but furnishing, equipment, personnel, and programming costs continued to be the responsibility of the Art Center.42

A New Home with Room to Grow: SLAC’s Relocation (1979-2008)

At the time of its move toward Temple Square, SLAC was run by a full-time director and two part-time employees. Allen S. Dodworth, serving as executive director at the time, played a critical role in the institution’s transition from its historic, but modest quarters to Salt Lake’s new downtown art district. Functioning triply as manager, fundraiser, and curator, Dodworth oversaw the expansion, relocation, and reinterpretation of the Art Center as a community arts space.  The new building quadrupled in size and a team of nine full-time and two part-time staff were hired.43 Ambitious and lofty as the vision for this new space was, it came with a price. By 1980, operating costs grew to four times its 1976 budget.44 While the Art Center in Salt Lake struggled to increase individual investments required to afford its new scale, arts fundraising hit a brick wall nationwide. Attacks on the National Endowments for the Arts and accompanying rhetoric about the needlessness of contemporary art directly impacted SLAC’s relationship with the public and with its donors at the exact time it needed them most. 

Public visibility became a double-edged sword for the institution. Everyone had an opinion, and all were determined to be heard, whether they had any expertise in art or not. Some of the debates became contentious. Being conducted to some degree in the local press via letters to the editor, articles, and editorials, the seeds of suspicion regarding modernism in particular continued to be planted at the same time that a new symphony hall next door moved forward with pride and fanfare.

Finally, the Salt Lake Art Center opened its doors in a grand 7,500 square feet space spread over multiple galleries on two floors (street level and lower level), with the opening celebration held May 19, 1979.

Its first outdoor sculptural installation, Column 24 by Ilya Bolotowsky, would soon become a permanent fixture of the Center’s new courtyard. The former building on Finch Lane was turned over to the Salt Lake City Council for the Arts. Alongside the new Art Center, Symphony Hall opened September 14, 1979 and was renamed Abravanel Hall in 1993.

Photograph of Bolotowsky’s Column 24, c. 1979

SLAC also worked to make the building accessible. Governor Scott Matheson noted with pleasure, “I’m especially pleased to note that ‘Utah 1979’ was designed with accessibility for the handicapped as a priority.” And he concluded in a letter to the public, “Again, welcome to ‘Utah 1979,’ a model for museum and gallery accessibility for handicapped people; and also a showcase of the work of some of our finest Utah artists.”45

With the new expanded building came the need for expanded staff. The growth of the organization in terms of square footage was out-paced in terms of operational support and funders. Ripple effects of the cultural wars which questioned whether or not the government should be funding arts at all—particularly spurred by discussions around contemporary art—reduced large funding. With increased expenses and reduced support, grim predictions were made about closures or possible mergers with other arts organizations. However, with the support of board president Marcia Price, whose husband had also built the building, the organization survived as it attacked its deficits responsibly, all in full view of a skeptical public.

Exhibitions programs varied in the 1970s and 1980s as SLAC continued its mixture of fine art and popular art, local works and art from outside the region, exhibitions aimed at adults and at children, a variety of styles and media, and a robust mixture of art and objects such as quilts and crafts made by artists. For the center, which was independent by nature, there was always a perceived bias. Director Richard Johnston said,

“The public perceives the art center as an elitist organization showing only abstract art. We intend to change that perception in very real ways.”46

While his statement regarding abstraction may have addressed concerns regarding populism and reflects a desire to build wider attendance.

It must be noted that many other American arts organizations were also struggling with similar questions, each trying to find their way through uncharted and dangerous topographies. As an institution, SLAC had long maintained a mission to educate, and it cast its net wide by conveying encyclopedic interest in art and objects. During this period, it mounted exhibitions such as Sculpture for the Sightless (1976), (a problematic and reductive titled show, aimed at inclusion) The Hispanic Show (1984), African Mask Sculpture (1985), Utah Artists in Taiwan (1985), Arabic Calligraphy (1989) and many more that attempted to broaden understanding between audiences and artists in disparate cultures. Throughout the 1980s, in particular, the number of exhibitions blossomed because of the new space. Exhibitions of student artists became a recurring feature, as did Christmas exhibitions. In 1984, a major outdoor renovation of the Art Center enhanced and reinvigorated its exhibition space even further, with multiple, large exhibitions able to be shown simultaneously. 

Despite being heavily-led by women at its founding, in its history, the Art Center had elevated women to the director’s post on an interim basis, but the appointment of Allison South in 1989 marked the milestone of the first woman to serve as the Art Center’s director. South led efforts to redefine the mission of the organization. What did it mean to show contemporary art? South defined it as “that which responds to the conditions and concerns of modern life and which discovers and defines new forms. We wish to be an institution which encourages artists to experiment.”47 Her declaration put the public on notice that the Salt Lake Arts Center had a mission. It could not be everything to everyone. Its decades of experience and successes were leading it to fully embrace the ideas, issues, and people living in the present. In 1992, SLAC noted in its mission statement:

“An art community will neither progress nor develop if left to respond only to itself.”48  

Ever striving for relevance, the Salt Lake Art Center sought to balance its dual role as an advocate of local living artists and a public ambassador of contemporary art through education, programming, collaboration, and publication. Through its history, art classes had been an important, even principal, focus of the organization’s activities. Viewing art and making art were considered by the organization to be symbiotic activities. In the new building, the Art Center School came into its own. It described its studios, which were available for public use, as state-of-the-art facilities with equipment and space open to those with or without prior training. SLAC provided a professional faculty, including successful artists who offered real-world insights. The costs for courses on the curriculum were nominal—it advertised that students could pay for tuition, have access to faculty, and gain studio space for the price of a movie ticket each week. The School was open daily 10-5 with extended hours on Friday, and also open on Sunday afternoons.49 A sample of courses provided include the following: Portrait, Fundamentals of Drawing and Painting, Life Drawing, Children’s Class, and Painting. 

Don Doxey instructs in life drawing class, 1964, UMOCA archive.

The school was only one of many programs that engaged the community, often as service and outreach. SLAC raised money to bus school children to the Art Center, it provided scholarships to the Art Center School, it had a program for the blind, it raised money to purchase works for its permanent collection, among many other civic initiatives. A hallmark of contemporary art is a connection to events of the day—more than that, to people and their daily lives. The Salt Lake Art Center rediscovered values—always present—of being topical, of caring for community, and of building understanding. The need to serve the community offered SLAC a solution to some of its challenges of sustainability. It renewed its values, a move perhaps best exemplified through its collaborative relationships. The following are examples. Beginning in 2007, the Center fostered a congenial partnership with the Utah Film Center, screening everything from an intimate portrait of Keith Haring to Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop for appreciative audiences. SLAC also found itself interested in supporting local humanitarian causes. It advocated with The Children’s Center (an agency of the United Way) on behalf of mistreated children ages 2 through 6, who used art therapy in their work with children. The Art Center sought to be a community center, and it frequently paired with other organizations to highlight the needs within communities, including groups of people largely outside of public view. The new building allowed for more gatherings and events with those aims. For example, in 1990 the Art Center joined with the Salt Lake Arts Council, the Utah AIDS Foundation, and many arts organizations in Utah for a “Day Without Art.” At the Art Center, film screenings, literary and poetry readings, theatrical works, and an exhibition of mixed works, and an exhibit titled “A Test of Love: AIDS in Utah” were mounted. The day’s events concluded with a candlelight vigil and then a concert at First United Methodist Church.50 The Art Center added another core value: to embrace the underserved. In one exhibition, it showed the work of nine Hispanic artists from Utah, combined with a film series as part of an annual Latin American cultural arts festival. These are but a few examples of many successful efforts by SLAC to galvanize citizens and bring them together with art functioning as a nexus of gathering. 

It also established partnerships with foreign nations. After SLAC exhibited 4,000 Years of Chinese Jade, it reciprocated with an exhibition sent to Taiwan’s National Museum of History of 130 Utah photographers and artists. Earlier trans-national partnerships included a Utah-Bolivia cultural exchange and aid mission in 1964-66. SLAC sent to Bolivia an exhibition of Utah artists’ works that traveled to multiple sites within the country.51 In conjunction with the Salt Lake Jewish Welfare Fund, SLAC exhibited modern Israeli artists. Of course, the examples above are just a few of the many offerings of the Salt Lake Art Center. The Art Center became a true crossroads of multiple local communities. With art as a common language, they grew together. 

SLAC publication of Robert Olpin’s Dictionary of Utah Art,1980.

Beginning in the 1960s under Haseltine’s direction, SLAC committed to producing exhibition catalogs. In the early 80s, a flurry of catalogs appeared that renewed an interest in published scholarship. 15 books were published in the decade, in contrast to a single volume from the entire previous decade. One large project that was initially slated to mark the bicentennial was delayed until 1980. Authored by Robert S. Olpin, what had been initially imagined as an essay grew into a much larger, 311-page work entitled Dictionary of Utah Art, which “instantly became … the most used reference on the subject.”52 The volume was published in cooperation with the Utah American Revolution Bicentennial Commission and remains a standard source for Utah art to this day. This rich tradition of academic writing and scholarly contribution persists in the form of the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art Press—a publication dedicated to serious consideration and documentation of Utah artists.  

Even after her monumental tenure as executive director, Allison South remained integrally involved with the Salt Lake Art Center in an assistant capacity. Perhaps most importantly, she paved the way for those who followed. In 1992, Sam Gappmayer became SLAC’s new director, envisioning limitless possibilities for the Art Center to continue its legacy as a catalyst and hub of artistic activity.53 Prior to his appointment, Gappmayer had observed the Art Center from a distance, taking note of its creative attempts to grow its audience and remain relevant to the community. As well-intentioned as some of this previous programming was, the new director felt that the best way to build an audience would be to, “…remain true to its mission and direction, which is and was contemporary art.”54

SLAC façade after renovation during Gappmayar’s tenure as director, c. 1995.

Beyond staying consistent with its vision, Gappmayer also worked hard to establish relationships with the city and community of Salt Lake. Such connections proved invaluable, as they allowed SLAC to move forward with its structural and educational goals. Gappmayer’s contributions ranged from a major outdoor renovation that changed the façade to its current appearance with a new ADA ramp, revolving doors, and glass pyramid atop the entrance, to converting a gallery space into a hands-on art center in collaboration with the Utah Film Center, to expanding the Center’s educational offerings to include photography and ceramics with the help of Rodger Newbold and Steven Frederick.

After a four-year stint, however, Gappmayer left the institution and SLAC again found itself in need of leadership. While energizing, the rapid administrative turnover of former decades meant that the organization had never enjoyed the benefits of a longstanding director. This was about to change. Ric Collier, an enthusiastic sculptor with a flare for the avant-garde, served the Art Center as Executive Director from 1996-2005, becoming its longest-tenured director to date. In its first known mission statement in 1997, Collier outlined the Center’s ambitious, multifaceted purpose:

“to foster the development of Utah and regional contemporary visual art; to educate the public to an appreciation of contemporary visual art; to bring together artists and non-artists into a working organization; to present the work of Utah, regional, and national contemporary artists to the public by means of exhibitions and other activities; and to promote and increase public awareness of contemporary art.”55

Intent on transformation and elevating the quality of its exhibitions, executive Director Ric Collier rolled up his sleeves—literally. During his near-decade at SLAC, Collier personally mounted and curated impressive exhibitions:  Me We: Tre Arenz and Amie McNeel; Love in Hell: Contemporary Artists Reflect on Orpheus and Eurydice, an exhibition in conversation with the Utah Opera Company’s production of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice;  Reading Between the Lines: Image and Text by Contemporary African American Artists; Kazuo Kadonaga: Wood, Paper, Bamboo, Glass; Chihuly 2002: Salt Lake Olympic Winter Games installation; V. Kim Martinez: Mimesis, a show of psychological triptychs exploring systems of incarceration; The Daily News, an exhibition featuring artists who cleverly appropriate print media in their works which traveled to Wyoming and Idaho; Robert Motherwell: Te Quiero; SF Recycled; Resonance and Return: Social Documentary Photography 1935-Present complete with catalogue; and Life After Death: New Leipzig Paintings from the Rubell Family Collection

Nancy Chunn, Front Pages, 1996, featured in the Daily News exhibition.

Such quality was not always met with praise, however. Responding to accusations of elitism, Collier said, “Some have said we’re elitist. But are baseball teams elitist because they want the best players? Why not shoot for the best [artists]? We’re not living in a vacuum here. There’s a bigger world out there that’s making art.”56 Making a variety of exceptional artworks accessible to an ever-wary public was no small challenge, but with each new and exciting display, Collier consistently worked to convey his “egalitarian view of contemporary art” and firm belief that the Center should “display artworks with the respect they [deserved].”57 Sophisticated and conscientious as he was, these aspirations never prevented him from getting his hands dirty. Many a patron would stumble across him priming gallery walls in a paint-bespeckled polo shirt, personally maintaining what he considered to be a “temple of art.”58

Gallery photograph of 75th anniversary exhibition works in situ, 2006.

In 2006, two decades after its move downtown, the Salt Lake Art Center marked its 75th anniversary. It took the opportunity to produce a celebratory exhibition that highlighted two dozen Utah artists, many of whom had taught at the Art Barn or the Art Center. Some had been students at the Art Center School. Nearly all of them had previously been exhibited with solo shows, “many more than once, and all of them, to some degree, have considered the Art Center their artistic ‘home’.”59 

Nonetheless, rather than rely upon nostalgia and its own history, the Art Center was willing to reimagine what an art experience could be entirely. In 2007, the Salt Lake Tribune began an article about a new project: “Imagine a new, urban contemporary art center packed floor to ceiling with paintings, murals, sculptures and installations. At its grand opening, crowds stream through the center to marvel at the space, view works by more than one hundred artists and celebrate the city’s emerging art scene. And then, after a few weeks, the entire thing is destroyed.”60 The article was describing an ambitious reinvention of gallery-going and a reexamination of art’s impermanence.

Named the 337 Project, a local attorney Adam Price and artist Dessi Price owned a multi-level, 25,000 sq. ft. building with 42 rooms in it. In 2007, they gave it over to 150 artists, including graffiti artists, who were encouraged to do whatever they wanted with it, all in full view of visitors for three months, until the bulldozers arrived to demolish the entire building.

Photograph detail of mural for the 337 Project, credit Craig Cleveland.

In the years since, the 337 Project has created award-winning art experiences in nontraditional venues: murals painted on garage doors, mobile art installations via the Art Truck—a 25-foot moving van turned into a gallery on wheels—and more.61

The Art Truck with exhibition Aïsha Lehmann Present: My Roots, Your Roots, 2022.

In a 2007 exhibition catalog, Resonance and Return: Social Documentary Photography 1935-Present, a revised mission statement appeared. The primacy of social purpose was becoming evident: “The purpose of the Salt Lake Art Center is to encourage contemporary visual artists and art which challenge and educate public perceptions of civil, social and aesthetic issues affecting society. The Salt Lake Art Center supports artists who are independent and responsible, who are engaged in their communities and with vital contemporary issues, and who want to expand the artists’ roles in society. The Salt Lake Art Center presents contemporary exhibitions and programs of art which have aesthetic and social consciousness, which elicit civil dialogue about crucial issues, which evoke emotional responses, and which are thought-provoking to the community and to other artists. The Salt Lake Art Center is responsible for challenging and educating the community about contemporary visual art and for developing a strong mutual trust with it. The Salt Lake Art Center explores provocative issues relevant to contemporary society, issues not limited by past precedents, boundaries or policies. The Center discourages division but welcomes differences and diversity. It raises questions rather than providing answers.”62

Robert Dawson, Salt Air Pavilion, Great Salt Lake, Utah, 1984, gelatin silver print. Featured in the 2007 Resonance and Return exhibition.

The Salt Lake Art Center’s social proclivity during this period was perhaps best manifest in its education and outreach efforts led by its Curator of Education and Public Programming, Jay Heuman. Within a year of his arrival to the Art Center in 2005, Heuman successfully broadened the scope of its programing and experimented with engaging formats. Believing in a multifaceted “Venn diagram” of human identity, Heuman utilized a highly interdisciplinary educational and curatorial approach to welcome visitors from all walks of life, inside and out of the Center. He introduced film screenings in partnership with the Utah Film Center, book discussion programs with the Salt Lake Public Library, “World Cafe” community discussions, an afterschool program for children K-12 called KidsmART, and its sister program ArtBytes which joined forces with agencies like Road Home, Neighborhood House, and the Boys and Girls Club to serve underrepresented community members. Given his “beyond borders” model for creating value for a universal public, it was only a matter of time before Heuman found ways to bring art into one particularly unanticipated venue: correctional facilities. An art education program for inmates at the Salt Lake County Metro Jail became a fixture of the Salt Lake Art Center’s outreach initiative, teaching foundational art skills to students and displaying final works from their “Big Project” in the Center galleries.

Paul Heath Salt Lake Art Center painting commission from the private collection of Jay Heuman.

Heuman also found creative ways to call attention to issues like accessibility; in Blindsight, a remarkable exhibition which displayed works by visually impaired artists, Heuman seamlessly integrated education and curation to explore the way the world of art is seen through sightless eyes with the help of computer software and goggle simulation of various eye conditions. The results were nothing short of profound. By always remembering who his work was for, Heuman set a standard of excellence for public programming and education that remains intact today.  

John Bramblitt, Perceptions #2 (Angry Baby), 2006. Featured in Blindsight exhibition, UMOCA archive.

After nearly ten years of dedicated service, Ric Collier retired from his post, marking the end of an era and leaving SLAC in the capable hands of its second female director, Heather Ferrell. Though she only held the position for sixteen months, Ferrell was intent on having “something for everyone,” and laid the foundation for the Artist-In-Residence program which supports emerging and nationally established artists with studio space, exclusive workshops, and an exhibition venue. However, it would take another few years (and a significant name change) before this dream would fully come to fruition.

What’s In A Name: The Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (2009-2021)

Exterior view of the Utah Museum of Art (UMOCA) façade, 2011-present, UMOCA archive.

Under the direction of Adam Price, it became clearer to the organization and to the public that it was time to reevaluate the mission of the Art Center, once more. When the Art Barn first came into existence in 1931, it was nearly impossible for a typical resident of Utah to encounter the works of Kandinsky or the Mexican muralists, for example, or emerging painters and art movements in California, New York, China, Peru, and so on. The Art Barn was its window to the art world, and a small exhibition brought into Salt Lake City had an impactful influence with a curious public. However, new technologies broke through earlier barriers that limited access to art and objects outside of the region. By mid-century, color television, magazines, and books brought high-quality reproductions of fine art into any home interested to see them. Art was becoming commonplace, and the notion of an institution being a sole resource for art was obsolete. What did it mean to organize a successful exhibition of art in Utah, then, once the visitors to the museum could compare it to their own first-hand experiences seeing art elsewhere? What made the gallery-going experience in Salt Lake City unique? It took time to reimagine what the organization could be and what the full local community needed it to be. 

In the twenty-first century, the Art Center’s focus shifted because the world had changed. While it continued to produce or bring in exhibitions of noteworthy artists occasionally that it considered important, the Art Center determined that it could do its best work by transforming into an institution showing recently-made work, exclusively. In 2011, the Salt Lake Art Center changed its name to the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. Not only did the director wish to communicate its specialty to the public directly, there were also practical reasons for such a change:

“Over the first year I was working here, when I was talking to people, there was confusion about what the Art Center offered. Art centers range from institutions like this that are indistinguishable from museums to a place for community-art classes. It’s a matter of the name catching up with the evolving role of the institution.”63

Museums around the country in major cities were undergoing similar name changes at the time: The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and even the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver each made strategic moves to rebrand and the Salt Lake City art community wanted to keep up. Some worried that the important heritage attached to the Salt Lake Art Center (and before it, the Art Barn) might be lost with this third incarnation, but Price contended that such a shift necessarily reflected the institution’s purpose and might even be more in line with its founders’ vision. By adding the word “museum” to its name for the first time, the organization honed its message as the premiere local institutional specialist of contemporary art—all the while continuing education and outreach programs that it was uniquely qualified to do. 

With this expanded definition in hand, a new generation of curators and educators filled the galleries with cutting-edge displays and dynamic programming. UMOCA further increased its geographical reach, venturing beyond the confines of its white-walled galleries to people’s own front yards. Also in 2011, with the support of Adam Price and the 337 project, Micol Hebron, a gutsy curator with an affinity for the aesthetics of cute, conceived of the Lawn Gnomes: Eat Your Hearts Out exhibition: a juried competition and public art project which invited local artists to display lawn sculptures in “front yard galleries” all over Salt Lake City and the Wasatch Front.

Collin Bradford, FEAR FEEDS, Lawn Gnomes 2020

This was not the first time the museum had ventured outside its own walls; during the summer of 1974, twenty-one Utah artists were given the blank canvases in the form of advertising billboards across Salt Lake, allowing viewers to cruise through what was essentially a city-wide gallery, a museum without walls. Hearkening back to this monumental undertaking, Lawn Gnomes became an overnight success. So much, in fact, that during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, the concept was revived with the help of social media as a way to safely view art out of doors and restore a sense of community art-viewing during a time of social distancing.

During his directorship, in 2011 Adam Price also brought on Aaron Moulton—a Utah transplant from Berlin, Germany—as Senior Curator of Exhibitions. Keenly aware of the defining moment he found himself in, Moulton took to heart the reasons behind the name change by using thoughtful curation to manage perception. Driven primarily by an anthropological approach to presenting art in context, Moulton’s curatorial practice “cut into places where language didn’t exist and culture was afraid to look.”64 Two particular exhibitions, Battleground States (2011) and the Utah Biennial (2013), epitomized his methodology. The former, an unprecedented exhibition that explored nonbinary gender identities, imagined the figure on its quest for self-realization. It prompted viewers to understand how one is as a person, how one is completed by another person, and even the possibility of experiencing completion in a third space. In the latter, Utah’s first Biennial exhibition, Moulton held up a mirror to the Utah art community to reveal its surprisingly multifaceted diversity. Essentially featuring works from Salt Lake’s “seven different art worlds,” the Utah Biennial juxtaposed a legendary list of artists side by side, from Andrea Baur to John McNaughton. As Moulton himself would say, “an avant-garde without resistance is a mediocrity”—a phrase that captures the essence of both his curatorial philosophy and formative time at UMOCA.65  

Artwork from Battleground States, 2011, UMOCA archive.

This was indeed a critical moment in UMOCA’s history. Another major addition to its reputation as a premiere contemporary arts institution began with this simple question: “What is a painting?” Posed by Suzanne Larson, founder of the Jarvis and Constance Doctorow Family Foundation, this question sparked what would become one of the museum’s most prestigious and synergistic relationships to date. In honor of her mother Catherine, Larson knew she wanted to create a prize that would directly benefit its creative recipients. Her mother was a contemporary artist with a commitment to excellence, making UMOCA a natural choice for partnership. Out of this grew what is now the nationally recognized Catherine Doctorow Prize for Contemporary Painting. Because of UMOCA’s propensity for outreach and attention to “now,” Larson feels that her mission to provide support for mental health and the arts is in total harmony with UMOCA’s attention to emerging artists and public engagement. 

Educational initiatives continued to flourish under the direction of Felicia Baca and L-E Baldwin in the 2010s. Baca, who went on to become Executive Director of the Salt Lake City Arts Council, was instrumental in implementing and selling-out the museum’s first fee-based educational programs. She also continued Jay Heuman’s legacy of engagement by working with underrepresented members of the community and serving as a teaching artist for youth K-12. Baca was replaced in 2013 by L-E Baldwin, who immediately recognized the needs of the LGBTQ+ youth in Utah. Giving them a platform for personal expression, Baldwin personally organized UMOCA’s first “Out Loud” program in 2015. Over the course of several months, queer students met together in community groups and received attentive mentorship during a weekly workshop. Baldwin facilitated discussions, invited guest artists to provide support, and encouraged students to create individual work. Through explorations of contemporary art and the creation of a museum exhibition featuring their own artwork, students built their capacity for self-expression and cultivated a sense of agency as important contributors to society. Still a fixture of UMOCA’s programming today, the program promotes a safe space for interactions with peers, mentors, and the greater community, helping students build positive social connections and share their experiences with others.66

Featured work from the Out Loud exhibition artist workshop for LGBTQ+ teens, 2016, UMOCA archive.

Other notable programming expansions during the 2010s included an educational program geared specifically towards adults called Art Fitness in 2011 and an Artists-in-Residence program in 2013. Originally designed by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, Art Fitness equips its viewers with the tools of close observation and key questions in three, two-hour workshop sessions, thus empowering them to confidently “muscle even the most difficult contemporary art.”67 A long-awaited dream of more than one museum director, the Artists-in-Residence program was finally realized with the help of Jared Steffensen, whose training at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh uniquely prepared him to host and facilitate the work of emerging artists. Expressly designed to meet the needs of artists living and working in Utah, UMOCA’s long-term artist-in-residence program supports its residents by offering studio space within the museum, exclusive workshops with national artists and art professionals, and career-building opportunities. At the end of their residencies, artists additionally have the opportunity to showcase the culmination of their work in an AIR Space gallery, a museum setting dedicated solely to them.68

While much of Adam Price’s tenure was marked by visionary programs, strategic modernizations, world-class personnel, and revolutionary displays, it came at high cost. Data discrepancies, financial mismanagement, and a reduced staff left the museum in less than ideal circumstances after Price’s stint as director, leaving its next administration to pick up the pieces. 

During this transitional period, Maggie Willis was appointed as interim director by the board. Board President Roy Jespersen expressed his confidence in her as an administrator and tasked her with preparing for a new executive director while maintaining the momentum garnered from the previous era. That new director would be Kristian Anderson. Prior to his appointment at UMOCA in 2014, Anderson served as the first full time Director of the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries, a national organization specializing in education and advocacy for museums as well as helping to set museum standards.69 In order to keep the museum afloat, a difficult decision regarding the institution’s private collection needed to be made. As a process, deaccessioning is complex and rarely without controversy, but Anderson felt it a practical and intentional decision. Funds from the sales could be used to pay rent and the de-emphasis on the museum’s archival responsibilities would allow the institution to refocus its mission on the display, rather than the preservation, of contemporary art. After all, the architecture itself did not logistically lend itself to the conditions required to preserve the work in the first place. It was in the best interest of the objects—as well as the museum—to find the art a proper home. Many of the pieces sold remain in the state of Utah in the collections of sister organizations, like the Springville Museum of Art and the Utah Museum of Fine Art, allowing works to remain in the public trust.70 

Support for UMOCA, especially in its precarious state, also came in droves from members of the Board. Val Antczak, who had been involved with UMOCA in various voluntary capacities since the 1990s, worked to redefine the purpose and function of the Board of Trustees during his multiple, intermittent terms as President. “My philosophy,” he said, “is that the Board is really there to help on the business side, particularly with raising money.”71 Taking this to heart, he and his associates directed their energies toward important fundraising opportunities, like the museum’s annual Gala—an event that began with only 10 tables, but quickly became the organization’s most important fundraising and public relations function of the year.

UMOCA Board Chair Emeritus Val Antczak, photo credit Zachary Norman.

With the support of the board and fellow curator Rebecca Maksym, Kristian Anderson further maintained UMOCA’s high standard of excellence in programming and exhibitions. Particularly memorable exhibitions included Robert Smithson: Hotel Palenque, a photographic slideshow taken by the artist of an unfinished hotel on the Mayan architectural site of Palenque, Mexico; Panopticon, a display of the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art’s collection of photographs, video, sound, installation, and multimedia works exploring surveillance; Grandma’s Cupboard: Kate Ericson & Mel Ziegler, and Mel Ziegler, an exhibition featuring the collaborative and conceptual works of these two 21st-century public artists; Analogital, an exhibition of international artists engaged with concepts generated from the transitional space between analogue and digital; and .gif Shop, a mesmerizing display of video art pieces constructed from the comedic digital medium.72 The first official artists-in-residency exhibitions to be shown the AIR Space occurred during this window of time as well, with Johnathan Frioux: Polarities, Tatiana Larsen: Art4One4All, Levi Jackson: Bushwacker, Sean Moyer: Persistence/Focus/Matter, Kyle Jorgensen: Parastroke, Aundrea Frahm: We Revolve Ceaseless, Sean Porter: Into the Ether, and Jean Richardson: Every Now and Then I Fall Apart among the inaugural group. 

Jared Steffensen, Curator of Exhibitions at UMOCA, 2016-Present.

Following Maksym in 2016, Jared Steffensen was invited to officially assume the role as Curator of Exhibitions. He had already worked for UMOCA in various capacities since 2011 and background as a sculptor, preparator, facilitator, educator, and skateboard enthusiast made him a refreshing choice. Why not add “curator” to the list of hats he’d come to wear? Steffensen hit the ground running, curating over a dozen exhibitions annually in his thoughtful, light-hearted, engaging, and contemplative signature style. Highlight projects include unprecedented feature and house tours of the Salt Lake architect Jim Williams’s personal home-portrait; Working Hard to Be Useless, a show that examined the underutilized spaces and Situationist International aesthetics where the actual layout of the exhibition imitated the ideologies on display: and, most recently, a retrospective of Alex Caldiero’s interdisciplinary work entitled Baggage, in which Steffensen insightfully recreated the intimacy of the artist’s underground studio space and minds-eye.73 Hesitant as he may have been at first to take on a new curatorial role, Steffensen is now as much a part of the institution as the pedestals he builds, the walls he paints, and the art he installs—his name practically synonymous with UMOCA itself.

Photograph of Jim Williams personal home portrait.
Working Hard to Be Useless exhibition installation view.
UMOCA Press exhibition catalogue of Baggage: Alex Caldiero In Retrospect.

In alignment with its mission, smaller institutional changes have occurred within the building since its 2011 renaming: galleries have shuffled names, locations, and purposes in order to better meet the needs of both the native and visiting public. According to Steffensen, the upper floor galleries serve an important function as an entry point. During the curator’s time at UMOCA, he has strategically showcased installations of local artists in the Projects gallery and shows of a more digestible nature in the Street gallery space. Due to the intimidating and, at times, esoteric nature of contemporary art, visitors may feel trepidation even before walking through the door. “I want people to come in and feel confident,” Steffensen says.74 The idea being that, after having a positive and connective encounter on the upper level, guests will feel more at home braving the more complex works that might await them in other parts of the museum. The CODEC gallery, named after the coding and decoding process required to screen video at high resolution, is dedicated solely to the display of new media works and, as such, may be the first time that an unsuspecting visitor is exposed to video art. Downstairs in its largest gallery, viewers can see not only Utah art legends in conversation with national makers, but emerging artists-in-residence displaying new work. With six rotating galleries in total occupied with the work of living artists year-round, it is no small feat that the staff manages to do so much at such a high caliber. 

CODEC gallery installation featuring Jennet Thomas’s The Unspeakable Freedom Device, 2016
Installation photograph, All Wall, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Aug 6, 2021—Jan 8, 2022, photo by Zachary Norman © UMOCA

Today, the ambition of its vision is on display in its physical building as well as on the museum’s website which includes information about its Artist-in-Residence program, education and outreach, talks and programs, its galleries, and a complete history and documentation with images and texts of art exhibitions from 2011 to the present. This virtual archive, in particular, is a tremendous resource and a historical document of importance to the state and beyond.75 Looking through its many exhibitions—UMOCA mounts over 20 each year—one grasps how exciting the landscape of contemporary art in Utah is. Further, it proves how diverse it is. 

UMOCA acknowledged societal inequalities regarding art education and exposure to art. Still, it is not enough to put art “out there.” Larger questions arise. If people have never been in a museum before, how can art best be presented to them? Can art go to the people rather than the people going to the museum? Art is a two-way communication: Can people in under-served communities make art for others to experience and to tell their own stories? Can art enrich a community? How should exhibitions change to include diversity as an overarching goal of success? What are the possibilities for change—in the ways that students learn about society with the help of the museum, with artists given access to studio and residency programs, and in partnerships between community organizations that had deep ties to diverse populations within the community? How can the museum be fully relevant in the pressing social issues of the day? Can the museum affect positive change? Can a museum give voice to the voiceless? 

A careful consideration of such questions and concerns is a primary driver for its latest Executive Director, Laura Allred Hurtado, who began her tenure in 2019.76 Together with Hurtado’s staff team and board, UMOCA confidently enters into its 10th decade of existence. Despite a past of fluctuating finances and the recent impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the institution finds itself in a state of remarkable stability thanks to Hurtado’s leadership and foresight and tenacity.

Laura Hurtado speaking at press conference for the opening of 90th Anniversary Exhibition—UMOCA: Contemporary Since 1931, photo credit Zachary Norman.

The recent addition of UMOCA’s press arm speaks to the organization’s desire to facilitate academic conversations around Utah artists and chart the trajectory of the local art scene. Visions of a new façade, cohesive branding, and reinforcement of UMOCA’s community values are already coming to fruition through its groundbreaking five-year Strategic Plan. By 2026, the museum plans to increase its visibility, be both local and expansive in its art exhibitions, maintain an open and inclusive attitude in its content, and fully restore its reputation as a fiscally responsible organization. And, of course, it will continue its legacy of being contemporary since 1931.

As UMOCA celebrates its 90th anniversary and honors its founder Alta Rawlins Jensen, the museum continues to realize her vision that “art can be anything it wants to be.” 


  1. 1. “The Art Colony of Carmel-by-the-Sea,”, visited August 4, 2020.
  2. 2. Alta Rawlins Jensen, “The ‘Barn’”, op cit.
  3. 3. Ibid.
  4. 4. Ibid.
  5. 5. “Art Barn to Hire Unemployed Men,” Salt Lake Telegram, February 9, 1931, p. 2.
  6. 6. “Art Barn Talks to Feature C. C. Meet,” Salt Lake Telegram, April 11, 1932, p. 7.
  7. 7. “Business Men Urged to Give Art Barn Backing,” Salt Lake Telegram, April 13, 1932, p. 6.
  8. 8. American Art Annual, vol. XX, (Washington, D.C.: The American Federation of Arts) 1923.
  9. 9. McCormick, John S., “The Great Depression.” Utah History Encyclopedia, 1994.
  10. 10. “Art Barn Work Is Expected to Start by Oct. 1,” Salt Lake Telegram, August 21, 1931, p. 13.
  11. 11. “Commission Gives $1000 to Art Barn,” Salt Lake Telegram, October 13, 1931, p. 11.
  12. 12. “Art Barn Association Is Voted Fund of $1200,” Salt Lake Telegram, April, 7, 1931, p. 11.
  13. 13. Rawlins Jensen, “The ‘Barn’”, op cit.
  14. 14. a
  15. 15. Rawlins Jensen, “The ‘Barn’”, op cit.
  16. 16. “Utah Art Barn to Be Formally Opened Sun.,” Millard County Progress Review, June 9, 1933, p. 1.
  17. 17. The Utah Art Studio (Art Barn), formal opening flyer, June 11, 1933.
  18. 18. Ibid.
  19. 19. “Tea Room Will Help Maintain New Art Barn,” Salt Lake Telegram, February 7, 1931, p. 10.
  20. 20.  “At Last a Real Art Center for Salt Lake City and Utah: An opportunity for Utah artists to come into their own,”  Art Barn Records, 1920-1980s, MS 273, Box 1, Folder 1. Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, The University of Utah.
  21. 21. “Plan Greenwich Village in Salt Lake: Barn on South Temple Street Chosen, Artists, Authors, Musicians to Meet,” Salt Lake Telegram, November 16, 1930, p. 2.
  22. 22. “Museum Director Lauds Art Center,” Salt Lake Telegram , July 10, 1933, p. 5.
  23. 23. Larson, Louis W., “The Art Barn: A Venture Unique,” The New Deal Magazine 9, no. 29 (10 Nov. 1933), pp. 2, 18, cited in Will South, Making and Breaking Tradition: A History of the Salt Lake Art Center (Salt Lake City: Salt Lake Art Center), 1991, p. 8.
  24. 24. Ibid.
  25. 25. Will South, p. 10.
  26. 26. Ibid.
  27. 27. Ibid.
  28. 28. “Art Barn No Prude; Says Nude Not Lewd: Lovely Lady (in Oils) Hangs in Gallery After Art Lovers Decide Petticoats Unnecessary,” Salt Lake Telegram, April 26, 1934.
  29. 29. “…How Far Can Art Go in Utah,” Deseret News, April 12, 1934.
  30. 30. Ibid.
  31. 31. “Note from the Editor,” The Art Barn Bulletin 2, No. 8 (January 1938), p. 4, cited in Will South, p. 11.
  32. 32. See “Art Barn Offers Culture Lovers Intellectual Mecca in S. L.,” Salt Lake Telegram, July 23, 1943, p. 10.
  33. 33. See Will South, p. 12.
  34. 34. Jack Goodman, “Art Is Homeless Orphan,” Salt Lake Tribune, July 18, 1948, cited in Making & Breaking Tradition: A History of the Salt Lake Art Center by Will South, pp. 17-18.
  35. 35. See Will South, p. 18, phone interview with Douglas Snow, August 16, 1991.
  36. 36. Jim Fitzpatrick, “Art Barn Acquires Permanent Art,” Salt Lake Tribune, January 15, 1950. Cited in Will South, p. 18.
  37. 37. Salt Lake Art Center Annual Report 1964, James L. Haseltine, “The Director’s Report.” 
  38. 38. James L. Haseltine, 100 Years of Utah Painting, Salt Lake Art Center, 1965, p. 7.
  39. 39. South, op. cit., p. 24
  40. 40. Bob Halliday, “Salt Lake Art Center, Director Stir Widening Circle of Public Interest,” Salt Lake Tribune, July 11, 1965, cited in South, p. 42.
  41. 41. See South, p. 28.
  42. 42. Undated letter (circa 1978) by Paul M. Dougan in the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art archives.
  43. 43. See South, p. 38.
  44. 44. Ibid.
  45. 45. Open letter to the public by Governor Scott M. Matheson, undated, circa 1979. In the archives of the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art.
  46. 46. Terry Orme, “How Now, S.L. Art Center?” Salt Lake Tribune, April 29, 1984, cited in South, p. 42.
  47. 47. See South, p. 40.
  48. 48. “Salt Lake Art Center Permanent Collection: A Visual History of Utah Landscape,” Salt Lake Art Center, July 1 through September 1, 1992, mission statement, back page.
  49. 49. “Things about the Salt Lake Art Center You Should Know,” undated, in the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art archives.
  50. 50. “’Day Without Art’ will focus on AIDS as it affects the creative community,” Deseret News, November 25, 1990, p. E1.
  51. 51. Royden G. Derrick, “Utah-Bolivia Relationships: Summary of Activities,” September 1966 letter, in the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art archives.
  52. 52. South, p. 34.
  53. 53. “S.L. Art Center Names Director; Pianist’s Work Picked for Exhibit,” Deseret News, November 1, 1992, accessed online July 8, 2021.
  54. 54. Sam Gappmayer (former SLAC executive director)  in discussion with the author, July 2021.
  55. 55. “April at the Center,” Monthly Newsletter, Salt Lake Art Center, April 1, 1997, accessed online August 5, 2021,
  56. 56. Brandon Griggs, “For 75 Years, Salt Lake City’s Temple of Art,” Salt Lake Tribune, June 18, 2006, accessed online July 8, 2021.
  57. 57. Ibid.
  58. 58. Ibid.
  59. 59. “Looking Back: 75 Years at the Salt Lake Art Center,” Salt Lake Art Center, June 24-October 14, 2006, in the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art archives.
  60. 60. Brandon Griggs, “The 337 Project,” Salt Lake Tribune, May 13, 2007, accessed online October 26, 2020.
  61. 61. The Art Truck and its schedule is available on the UMOCA website: and “Tag: 337 Project, New Urban Gallery at Neighborhood House,” 15 Bytes, September 22, 2011, accessed online October 26, 2020.
  62. 62. Resonance and Return: Social Documentary Photography 1935-Present, Salt Lake Art Center, March 17-May 19, 2007, mission statement, back cover.
  63. 63. Glen Warchol, “New name, new curator in Salt Lake Art Center’s New Year,” The Salt Lake Tribune, December 6, 2011, accessed online July 21, 2021.
  64. 64. Aaron Moulton (former Senior Curator of Exhibitions), in discussion with the author, July 2021.
  65. 65. Ibid.
  66. 66. “Out Loud,” Utah Museum of Contemporary Art website,, accessed online July 28, 2021.
  67. 67. “Art Fitness,” Utah Museum of Contemporary Art website,, accessed online July 28, 2021.
  68. 68. “Artist-In-Residence,” Utah Museum of Contemporary Art website,, accessed online July 28, 2021.
  69. 69. “Kristian Anderson Appointed Executive Director of UMOCA,” Utah Museum of Contemporary Art website,, accessed July 28, 2021
  70. 70. Taylor Stevens, “Strapped for cash, the Utah Museum of Contemporary Arts has quietly sold off ‘a substantial portion’ of its collection,” The Salt Lake Tribune, July 1, 2019, accessed July 28, 2021.
  71. 71. Val Antczak (UMOCA Board President), in discussion with the author, July 2021.
  72. 72. “Robert Smithson: Hotel Palenque,” Utah Museum of Contemporary Art website,, accessed July 28, 2021;  Scotti Hill, “The Monitoring Gaze: Panopticon at UMOCA,” 15 Bytes, March 24, 2015, accessed July 28, 2021; “Grandma’s Cupboard: Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler, and Mel Ziegler,” Utah Museum of Contemporary Art website,, accessed July 28, 2021; “.GIF Shop,” Utah Museum of Contemporary Art website,, accessed July 28, 2021;  “Baggage: Alex Caldiero in Retrospect,” Utah Museum of Contemporary Art website,, accessed July 28, 2021.
  73. 73. “Exhibitions,” Utah Museum of Contemporary Art website,, accessed online October 26, 2020.
  74. 74. Jared Steffensen (Curator of Exhibitions), in discussion with the author, July 2021.
  75. 75.  Laura Allred Hurtado, “Executive Summary,” Utah Museum of Contemporary Art Strategic Plan 2020,, accessed October 26, 2020