by Geoff Wichert
My first published writings on art were written in Southern California, and published by a magazine in Portland, Oregon. They were written in the LA area because that was where my stained glass studio was, and the city was then a hot place for glass art. My articles, about glass art in LA and San Francisco were published in Portland because there were only two magazines in the United States at that time interested in glass art, and while the one in Missouri restricted itself to stained glass, the one in Oregon also covered the brand new field of Studio Glass, and even more radical uses of glass in such avant-garde media as Performance and Installation. A few years later, another magazine started up in New York, which was much better funded and had a larger, more sophisticated audience. Its editor urged me to move to New York, because for generations that had been what anyone in the US aspiring to a career in art had done. Here was my dilemma: the market for writing about glass art was increasingly to be found in New York, but the artists I was interested in had drifted northward up the West Coast, and most of them had settled their studios in Seattle.
Today, I see young men and women, about the age I was then, facing a similar dilemma in their ambitions to become artists. There is nothing particularly strange in the idea that a lot of people today live in places that wouldn’t be their first choices: the availability of work, or the desire to be near family, often clash with our desire for a particular urban or rural environment. Still, it’s safe to say that proportionately more residents of Utah are here by choice than is true of some other places. Surely the many landscape painters living in Utah are happy with their location, surrounded by scenic nature and close to museums and galleries whose clients share their taste. It’s different, though, for art students like those I taught at Snow College. Those who want to work in more experimental modes of art making experience the same kind of pressure I felt to move to a large city to pursue their careers. While it’s true that New York no longer commands pride of place in the art world, many of my students moved to Oregon or Washington, places that offer an urban/rural complexion similar to Utah’s. Since they also offer markets only slightly more remunerative than Utah’s, those newly-minted artists have accepted a compromise in their professional prospects: one that they can live with. Similarly, many young Utah artists have connected with computer animation, one of the more powerful growth areas in today’s arts. These are just a couple of the options; no doubt there are others.
There is another segment of the local art scene, however. Although New York no longer dominates what is increasingly thought of as world art, schools like the Pratt Institute, museums like the Guggenheim, and harder to define organizations like the DIA Art Foundation that are located there continue to transmit a siren song to the hinterlands. Utah art students drawn there imbibe a very different image of what it means to be an artist than do their classmates who stayed here. No doubt some of them never come back, while others do, only to eventually move away in pursuit of this vision. One promising alternative, which 15 Bytes followed and encouraged, was the attempt to build a base for today’s new artists in Sanpete County. Under the management of these repatriated artists, the Central Utah Art Center became a democratic showcase where art made in Utah could be seen in alternation with art made in more established world art centers.
Unfortunately, the conditions under which the CUAC operated were never any more certain than those of any other art institution is in the US, and eventually things fell apart for them. Accusations of censorship that followed were, in this writer’s opinion, unfortunate. It’s hard enough in a democracy to get politicians to take the risks associated with public art without having the artists subsequently accuse them of secret motives or dishonest dealing. But it’s time to look ahead; there is nothing to be gained by continually stirring up dust that has already settled where it’s going to remain.
I read with interest, then, that the Directors of the CUAC are looking to raise money and continue operations in Salt Lake, without the support that made their operation possible in Ephraim (see our October 8 post). This could be a good thing; it’s hard to look with disfavor on any attempt to expand the world of art in our comparatively art-poor nation. But there is a difference between an innovative approach to the cultivation of art and just another group knocking at the door of public funding. Central Utah has decisively shown that there is not enough of a constituency there for what the CUAC tried to do. Urban Utah, on the other hand, arguably already has all the New Art venues it needs. UMOCA, UMFA, Finch Lane, and Art Access do a yeoman job of presenting current trends, backed up by any number of private spaces. Perhaps the time has come for taking stock. This may be time for a community discussion of the needs and opportunities for a free-roving arts organization. In glass art, one of the phenomena I covered was a group of young artist-guerrillas who called themselves The B-Team. Eventually, they melted away, but for a time they were guaranteed to appear from time to time and shake things up. Maybe the CUAC is destined to become Utah’s B-Team. Maybe that’s too tame a projection, and they will eventually become the leading force in a Utah renaissance. Or maybe one day we’ll wake up and realize we haven’t heard from them lately.
Whatever happens, the Central Utah Art Center story will always retain elements of satisfaction and disappointment: paths to pleasure and roads not taken. The CUAC owns a piece of Utah’s art history that cannot be erased. Looking back over the years, there can be no question that it’s an authentic bit of Utah lore.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.