Heather Ferrell would like to get to know you. The new director of the Salt Lake Art Center says she’s a very social person, and hopes that as people come to the Art Center they will pop their head into her office and introduce themselves. Ferrell took over in July, filling the vacancy created by Ric Collier’s departure last fall, and she looks forward to the opportunities her new position will give her to engage with individuals and groups in the community.
Ferrell grew up in the Rocky Mountains. She was born in Boise, Idaho and, when her mother married a second time, moved with her to Utah. They lived in the Highland/Alpine area and Ferrell attended American Fork High School. She was the first in her family to go to college and attended Utah State University, a state school where she could afford to pay her own way. Working at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art gave Ferrell her first museum experience. When she graduated from USU with a dual emphasis in Photography and in Art History, Ferrell had two promising graduate school options: continue her studio work in Photography at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Detroit, or pursue an Art History degree at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland.
Ferrell says it was a tough decision, but in the end she decided on Cleveland. “I thought I was fairly good at photography,” she explains, “but there’s something about me that is extremely social. I love to do art, but I also love to talk about it and have people experience it.” While pursuing her Museum Studies degree, with an emphasis in 20th century Modern/Contemporary art, she worked as director of the University’s Mather Gallery and as an Art History Curatorial Assistant in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Contemporary Art and Photography Department. After graduation she left for North Dakota, where she worked as Collections Manager and Registrar at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo. Two years later she came back to the mountains as Associate Curator of Art at the Boise Art Museum. In 2005 she returned to the Midwest to take her first lead role, as Executive Director & Curator of the Salina Art Center in Kansas; a position she stayed in until accepting the Salt Lake Art Center’s offer this summer.
Ferrell lives within walking distance of work, in a building that overlooks the 200 block of Broadway, a place lined with local, independent businesses. While visiting the city earlier this year for her interviews, Ferrell noticed the Gallery Stroll activity along the street and decided this was where she wanted to be. For our interview, she invited us into her home. Lest we jump to any hasty conclusions about how she spends her (relatively little) free time away from her directorial responsibilities, Ferrell pointed out that the mammoth flat screen television that occupies her living room’s north wall was her landlord’s idea. In May, Ferrell’s 2500 square-foot loft in the historic district of Salina was smoked out by a fire two buildings away, and she hasn’t yet replaced all her furniture. She managed to save her art collection, though, and many of her pieces, mostly picked up from artists met during her zigzag between the Rocky Mountains and Midwest, occupy the rest of the walls. A woodblock print by Los Angeles artist Endi Poskovic and a photograph by Salina artist Jan Wilson hold up each side of the hallway. A large oil painting by Jon Rappeleye, who studied with her at USU, fills most of the north wall of her bedroom. Works by two of her professors — a still life lithograph by Chris Terry and a photograph by Craig Law — also date back to her time in Logan. In Boise she picked up an ink piece by local artist Noble Hardesty. Mixed-media Swans, by David Darraugh, a Boise artist now located in Houston, float over her leather couch, where she sat down with us to discuss why she came to Utah and what she hopes to accomplish here.
Though she lived much of her life in the West Ferrell’s decision to come to Salt Lake wasn’t about homecoming. What really brought her here is the Art Center’s mission to encourage contemporary visual art that challenges and engages the public about civil, social and aesthetic issues. “I love contemporary art. I love artists. I love critical thinking. But for me art is about making connections to people and community. And it can happen with contemporary art. Some people think that’s the hardest medium for it to happen in. But I disagree. If you can do cutting-edge contemporary art in a small town in the Bible-belt of Kansas you can do it here in Salt Lake; you can do it anywhere.”
Ferrell is excited to be in Salt Lake, which she says is “really different” from the Utah she has known in Highland and Logan. “It’s like going to a whole new place for me.” Because of her past, she does come equipped with an understanding of Utah’s particular culture. “I think it’s safe to say that I’m culturally Mormon,” she says about her upbringing in Utah County. Her time away from Utah has taught her that even though the state may be distinct it’s not all that different. “I don’t see [the local culture] as an obstacle.” Kansas, she points out, is a conservative state where most people go to church on Sunday. “It brought out the fact that Utah — that Mormonism — isn’t that crazy from other places. You just call it something else. It’s all Americana.”
For the past four months Ferrell’s exposure to this piece of Americana has been confined mostly to getting to know her duties and staff at the Art Center and visiting with other colleagues and players in Utah’s art world as well as members of the larger community. Having only been here a few months, she says she hasn’t had enough time to really get to know the local art scene. “I honestly can’t say I have a good sense of it.” She doesn’t think most people outside the state have much better of an idea. “I don’t know that people really have an impression [of the local art scene]. I don’t know that they know what we do as an art community.” The Art Center, on the other hand, is very well respected outside the state, she says, but little known within. And it is within the ambit of this paradox that Ferrell sees her new role.
“My strength is in building partnerships, engaging community with contemporary art.” Under Ric Collier the Art Center developed a fine tradition of excellently curated shows, she explains, and she hopes to use that core of exhibitions and programming and expand its influence into the larger community. She also wants to make sure that Salt Lake’s local art scene has a chance to engage in a dialogue with the international art community. “You have to embrace your difference but also overcome it. You have to establish your identity [as a community] but not isolate yourself. Otherwise you can’t have a larger dialogue.”
How to accomplish these two goals is something that is still on the drafting table. A number of possible ideas come up during our conversation. Exhibition exchanges with other cities would allow Salt Lake to establish a voice and share it with the rest of the country. A symposium of critics and thinkers would bring the international dialogue to our local community. She also hopes to help introduce artists to collectors, and to invite critics to write on local artists. She wants to bring new community groups into the Art Center and engage in school outreach programs. And she likes a good party. One of her first events in Salt Lake was the Present Tense post-Gallery Stroll party in September. She hopes to host similar events in the future and even throws out the idea of a neighborhood barbecue in the open-air alcove between the Art Center and Abravenal Hall.
Ferrel’s role as community organizer will occupy the majority of her attention for the immediate future so it’s a good thing that she has a larger staff in Salt Lake than she had in Salina. The Art Center’s Curator Jay Heuman allows Ferrell to shed one of the official hats she donned in Kansas. She enjoys the curatorial process, though, and says she’ll still have a voice in what is shown at the Center. She’d like to see some of their activity break outside their official space. And every once in a while she’ll probably curate a show. She mentions a couple of Indian artists she’d like to bring in if the funds become available. Closer to home she thinks Utah’s unique situation could provide ideas for interesting shows. Whether they go to church or participate in an alternative culture, everyone here seems to have a sense of spirituality. “There’s a polarity here that is distinctive that I think sometimes can be a negative but … sometimes can be really rich and positive; and that’s kind of what’s percolating in my mind: how can you visually engage that? … How could you ask some tough questions about who we are — not in a critical, bashing way — but ask, ‘Why do we like it here?’ I mean I feel a connection here, but I’m not religious. But there’s a spirituality in this community.”
These curatorial ideas may need to sit on the back burner for now, as Ferrell has many more practical matters to attend to. The financial crisis is affecting arts institutions all over the state. Also, Ferrell must fill two important staff positions. The Art Center is looking for a new Development Director, to replace Leslie Peterson, who left earlier this fall after serving as the Interim Director; and Roni Thomas, longtime Communications Director, left last month to take up the new position of Public Art Program Manager at the Salt Lake City Arts Council (to learn about both positions visit www.slartcenter.org).
So, if you decide you want to stop in and say hello you may find Heather Ferrell busy, but she would still like to meet you. “I really am sincere, come down, if you’re an artist, come down, poke your head in the door and say ‘Hey, we haven’t met.’ I want you to feel welcome — feel like it’s your art center.”
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.