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What Is a Masterpiece?

Artworks on loan to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts allow visitors to consider what earns such a title.

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COURTESY SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTE
  • Courtesy Smithsonian Institute

Even illustrious museums such as the Louvre in Paris have a tough time defining a "masterpiece," yet the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA) offers visitors a rare opportunity to get up close and personal with exclusive loans from national collections and decide for themselves what deserves the designation.

"Conventional thinking tells us that masterpieces are works of art that have received great critical praise," says Whitney Tassie, UMFA senior curator and curator of modern and contemporary art. "But we must ask whose perspectives, opinions and criteria have been historically valued, and whose voices have not been heard? ... Well-known works of art, or art made by well-known artists, tend to come with existing reputations. The challenge is to think beyond those hero legends and publicized auction results."

Made possible by two collection-sharing programs, four paintings make a rare appearance this fall at the museum for The Lay of the Land: Landscape Paintings from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The collection celebrates the work of notable American artists Thomas Moran ("Mist in Kanab Canyon, Utah"), Georgia O'Keeffe ("Manhattan") and Alma Thomas ("Red Sunset, Old Pond Concerto"). The fourth painting, Diego Rivera's "La ofrenda," on loan from Art Bridges, showcases the artist's skillful depiction of the indigenous traditions of his home region in Mexico in a modernist idiom.

Landing loans of this kind can be as much of an achievement as the paintings themselves. According to director of marketing and communications Mindy Wilson, UMFA is one of only five institutions selected by the Smithsonian American Art Museum for a five-year partnership. Made possible by a nearly $2-million grant from Art Bridges and the Terra Foundation for American Art, the four cohorts in the partnership are collectively known as the American West Consortium, and includes a two-part exhibition program and professional exchange sessions.

However, hanging the valuable masterpieces is even more of a challenge. Besides meeting specific security and environmental conditions, the staff at UMFA typically makes digital scale models of the galleries with all the art on view.

"The paintings on loan from the Smithsonian require that we unpack and install them with a qualified person from the Smithsonian, who will fly out here to oversee and document our handling of their artworks," Tassie says. "And this time, we will completely install the galleries with full scale mock-ups of the canvases prior to their arrival. This assures that all the other works and gallery signage are in the right place, so we won't have to shift anything and the installation of the Smithsonian paintings can be smooth and straightforward."

Still, once those works are installed, there remains the question of how to approach the "masterpiece" designation. Generally, the term is attributed to works given high critical praise—such as those considered the greatest of a person's career or ones of outstanding creativity, skill or workmanship. But with the emergence of new artistic methods, should qualifications for the esteemed title change? Where would the trailblazers of modern art be if they were intimidated by another's "masterpiece?"

For many laypeople, the term "art" itself can evoke images of revered pieces, mostly by long-dead people, chosen by strangers and placed in imposing museums halls. Nevertheless, UMFA's exhibit is designed to allow visitors to contemplate their own definition of a masterpiece. Considering the significance of great artwork in all forms, you don't have to be an art major or collector to appreciate it for its form, expression, content and meaning.

"We are excited to pose this question to our visitors, to get them thinking and talking about what they consider 'masterpieces'—not only among these special loans and the many treasures in the museum's own collection, but also among their favorite creations of any kind," Wilson says. "We're also inviting folks to share opinions and ideas through the hashtag #umfa_masterpiece." Visitors can also check out the UMFA website throughout the run of the exhibition for a variety of related art talks, lectures and art-making experiences

"The O'Keeffe is really incredible. It's towering and dizzying like the city it represents. I think it's incredibly successful," Tassie adds. "The Thomas is really special, too. The abstract connection between landscape and music is unique and wonderful."

"The interpretation of 'masterpiece' lies in the eye of the beholder," local artist and instructor Alane Sleight says. "When I get to observe a work that captures my attention and stops me in my tracks, it may not be a work of great prize or merit, but when it speaks to my being, it is a masterpiece."

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