On Friday, April 21, after 13 eventful years, the Central Utah Art Center—better known as CUAC—will stage a gallery stroll and a closing party for both its current exhibition, Utah Ties, and the gallery itself. CUAC was a significant part of the Salt Lake City arts scene, a fact that's apparent with a simple Facebook search, where dozens of people have been mourning its closing.
CUAC began as a local low-budget art center in Ephraim, Utah—a space that showed local landscape paintings, had a small-town atmosphere, was struggling for revenue and was going to close without immediate intervention. That was when Adam Bateman, executive director of CUAC, stepped in. Bateman was originally from Ephraim, but had lived in New York for five years, and was told that if he did not take over the center, it was shutting its doors. In 2005, he decided to take it. His one stipulation was that things would change—and they did.
Bateman transformed CUAC. He made it a fun place to visit, setting up the Party Bus, which brought people to the gallery from Provo and Salt Lake for $25, showing them video art and giving them free beers during the ride. He got rid of the landscapes and generic paintings, and brought contemporary art to Ephraim. After the center settled a lawsuit over allegations of censorship by the city of Ephraim, they realized they had to leave. They relocated to Salt Lake City in 2013, and began to build a following. Not only did the space bring in high-caliber artists like local Peter Everett and Brooklyn-based Drew Conrad to show concurrently, but such events reflected a central vision of CUAC: To give as much validity to the work of local artists as those from out of state.
During an interview, Bateman mentioned that "Utah's a funny place: We like all of our organizations to support Utah." He went on to explain that in this need for exclusivity, many galleries have two spaces: The main gallery will be for a higher-profile out-of-town artist, and a side room will focus on local artists. This mentality places Utah artists on a different level than the main gallery artists, and physically separates their work.
One of Bateman's missions with CUAC was to create equality between the out-of-state and local artists. He wanted all the artists who came to the gallery to be on the same playing field—to be part of the global conversation. The gallery gave all of them the same promotional push, the same opportunities and displayed their work together, which created inclusivity and familiarity instead of an aura of otherness. This helped form a dialogue between local and out-of-state artists, allowing the pieces to represent the artists instead of their hometown.
Some of the most personally impactful work that Bateman experienced during his time at CUAC was their substantial community outreach. From teaching workshops, to gallery exhibits, to working with universities, CUAC nurtured the development of many young and curious artists, and worked on several collaborative programs throughout the state. Among those projects, they worked with the Salt Lake Film Society to present rotating exhibits in the lobby space of the Broadway Centre Theatre. The center also worked with Weber State University, the University of Utah, BYU, Snow College, MOCA, UMFA and the Guthrie Artist Studios. For the past four years, CUAC sponsored free classes for preschool and elementary-age children at the Salt Lake City Public Library to provide new and exciting experiences with art. Despite uncertainty over the future of funding, he says that the program in the library is expected to continue.
One of the harsher realities about the closing is the fact that, as Bateman points out, "Mathematically, if every person who went into a CUAC show paid $5 once a year, [it] would still be open. CUAC was a significant part of our cultural fabric. If we value having things like a contemporary art gallery, an independent film center, we have to pay the $5 a year to keep it going. It makes our lives better."
As for the future, Bateman wants to take a couple of months to evaluate what's next. He's considering pursuing his own art, or running another nonprofit. In the meantime, he plans to spend May hiking and camping in the desert, and says, "We'll see where it takes me."
The closing party reception begins at 6 p.m. and goes until, Bateman says, "we are all tired of it."