- Utah Museum of Contemporary Art Collection
Imagine trying to distill the 90-year history of an arts organization into an exhibition. Now imagine that you have to fit that exhibition into one room.
That's the unique set of challenges that faced Utah Museum of Contemporary Art curator of exhibitions Jared Steffenson and guest curator Frank McEntire as they collaborated on UMOCA: Contemporary Since 1931. Now on display at UMOCA, it's a chronicle of the organization's role in the local arts community from its inception as the Art Barn in 1931, through the new home and re-naming as Salt Lake Art Center, and its most recent re-creation in 2012.
With so much ground to cover, Steffenson looked to bring in someone who could fill in the gaps in his own historical knowledge. "Early on in the conversations, what we wanted to do, as with any retrospective, was look back at the history of the institution," Steffenson says. "I could probably tell you about 2012-2021, but before that [my knowledge] was lacking. As we talked about it, the name that kept coming up was Frank: He was an artist, and he has been a big part of the community [in earlier years], so he might know the exhibitions or the artists of that time."
For McEntire's part, he recognized that it wouldn't be easy taking all of that institutional knowledge and finding a way to narrow down the focus. "One of the challenges," he says, "was that UMOCA and its previous incarnations have shown thousands of artists. The biggest challenge was representing artists who perhaps haven't received notoriety, in addition to those who had. You could probably name 100 artists, and they would all be 'favorites,' so to get rid of that prejudice was a challenge so we could have work representative of that time, and have it work in the exhibit."
"We could do an entire show of just work from the '30s, or work from the '40s," Steffenson adds, "so there were a lot of tough choices we had to make. ... Ninety years is clearly a long time, and I think what's interesting about this show is, instead of doing a show about 1930s or 1940s artists, is it allows the viewer to see the different styles and influences throughout that 90 years. You can see how art changed, not just nationally and internationally, but here in town."
Making the choices even tougher was the reality of the space available for the exhibition. While a 75th anniversary exhibition in 2006 was able to use the entire gallery, UMOCA: Contemporary Since 1931 would need to share the building with five other exhibits all opening on the same day. As a result, that 90 years would need to be represented by just 30 pieces.
Steffenson says that finding a focus for the selection process began with organizing the exhibition around three periods in the institution's history: the Art Barn era (1931-1957), the Salt Lake Art Center era (1958-2011) and the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art era (2012-present). Steffenson and McEntire worked together with UMOCA executive director Laura Hurtado in what Steffenson describes as having "a core vision, then a May Pole around that with the three of us weaving a story about the history of the institution."
And that story, according to McEntire, has to do with the core mission of supporting local contemporary art, and the participation of artists in work beyond the walls of any specific building that housed it. "You can look at almost any of these artists, and they have a relationship with what's happening beyond the gallery itself," McEntire says. "Lenka Konopasek, for example, has been involved in arts education. As an institution, the outreach is enormous. There's arts education out in the community. In terms of, 'what is the core vision for 90 years,' it really does come back to community."
"Something that underpins what we do, there's a quote by Alta Rollins Jensen, one of the founders," Steffenson adds. "The quote was for a specific exhibition, but I think it applies generally: 'We will never develop any art that is real or great in Utah until art is anything that it wants to be.' That speaks to how the museum has been able to reinvent itself based on what is around it. We believe in the power of the art of our time, and we believe previous incarnations felt the same way."
McEntire emphasizes that the community support has been evident going back to the construction of the initial Art Barn facility during the height of the Great Depression. "There were enough supporters in the community during that stressful time to create an institution like this," he says. "Part of the bulletin that went out said, 'This art center belongs to you,' and that's still true."
"Our hope is that even though there are specific artists that have been chosen," Steffenson adds, "the show is about the institution, and the institution supporting the community, and the community supporting the institution."