- Courtesy Photo
On Monday, July 19, Gabriella Huggins begins her tenure as the Executive Director of Art Access, the 37-year-old organization dedicated to providing arts opportunities to people with disabilities and other marginalized communities. The life-long Salt Lake City resident, whose previous non-profit work has included stops at Youth City and SpyHop, spoke to City Weekly about her background and her vision for the organization's future. [Edited for space and clarity]
City Weekly: When do you first recall knowing you wanted to make art your life's work?
Gabriella Huggins: I've always really struggled to define myself as an artist ... I have a have a complex relationship with defining myself that way. I love music, I love film, I sew, I've been dancing pretty consistently since I was 12. [A teacher at West High], besides creating an intrinsic appreciation for art, taught me about the importance of mentors. While I was working at a Costco, I ran into my old mentor staff from SpyHop, and they pulled me on to work with them. I often reflect that, if not for that, I never would have thought of working in the arts. My focus is people-focused, and art has been the way of pulling together community. It's an access point to communicate and connect with people.
CW: Do you find there's a common thread in art that really moves you, when you really know "this is working?"
GH: There are two pillars for me. One is authenticity. I've never about getting kids to create something super-flashy or most aesthetically profound, but just representative of their voice. And also, I've always appreciated the kind of work that hasn't often been shared. The arts can be a really elitist space, so it's been great working ... with people have been marginalized for any reason: the foster care system, the incarcerated, rural youth. It's great to work with students who don't immediately understand that their voice might matter.
CW: What is an aspect of being an arts organization administrator that someone from the outside might not be aware of?
GH: Regardless of whether you're an artist yourself, having a passion for the people and their access to make things, believing in the power of mediums. What you need for it to work is a true appreciation of the possibilities that creative spaces allow people to access—for their self-worth, for a platform, for creating cultural value more broadly. You have to have a deep appreciation for wide human experience.
CW: Why did you feel like Art Access in particular was the right fit for you?
GH: Personally, I really wanted to step more into a role of power-brokering within this arts community. A lot of organizations here can be really well-intentioned, but still inaccessible. I have to think about someone who loves art, but from a social justice and equity standpoint, how do I work for change? We think about art as being experimental, but too often you have to have clout, credentials or financial support that locks a lot of people out, and then when you add disability on top of that? We learned a lot from the COVID pandemic about language that is used about who is considered disposable. ... I wanted to have the opportunity to work for an organization centering those people's experience and stories—not just giving them a space at the table, but giving them their own tables.
CW: Last year, the decision was made to close Art Access's own physical gallery space. Are there plans in place for ways to present the work of artists you work with to the public?
GH: That's something I've really been meditating on. ... Running a gallery is a really difficult thing to do as a small organization. I'd been to the [Art Access] gallery before, but didn't know it was run by an organization that did disability/accessibility work. I'm hoping to build community connections with other galleries, to take that art into communities where it isn't always seen or shown—libraries, community centers—so we don't have to have just one siloed gallery space.
CW: If there were a couple of bullet points that might define your vision for Art Access going forward, what would they be?
GH: We want to really get clear on what our programs are and what we do in the community. There are a lot of arts organizations [in Utah], and we're all doing workshops. What need is that fulfilling? What is the niche we're entering into, and are we doing that work really well? Secondly, expanding the Partners program, where established artists are partnered with emerging artists with disabilities, and they work together over the course of a year in a mentorship program. And I would love to grow the organization by making sure we have full-time artists on staff. How can we provide employment, the ability to climb the ladder within the arts world itself. [Art] can be a hobby, but how do we give people the tools to make a living in the arts? ... I want to put the Art Access name out there.