Art Professional Spotlight | Visual Arts

Laura Durham: Joan of Art

Assistant Visual Arts Coordinator.

Rio Gallery Manager.

Art Ops Editor.

15 Bytes Staff Writer.

Vice President, Salt Lake Gallery Association.

ArtSpeak radio host.

All of these sound like incredible jobs for someone interested in working in the art world. These positions however, are all held by one person. Laura Durham.

How is this possible? An amazing amount of energy, passion and a belief in making a mark in the arts in Utah, for starters. Talking to the petite Durham, one immediately senses her huge dedication and belief system regarding the arts. Giving her one all-encompassing title seems impossible. Arts Administrator? That seems too staid. Art Champion is a more apt description. Some people go about their jobs simply for the paycheck, but in Durham’s case, a genuine love of the arts and a desire to help others is the motivating factor in her work with the arts.

Coming from a family of musicians and educators, Durham envisioned herself having a career in the music field when she was younger. She took both piano and violin lessons growing up and music has always been an integral part of her life. But when she attended college and decided to major in art history rather than music, the visual arts became a new passion. She graduated from Brigham Young University in 2000, with a Bachelor’s Degree in Art History. She moved to Portland Oregon for several months after graduation, but after hearing of an opening at the Utah Arts Council, she interviewed for it, got the job and moved back to Utah. Her position was part-time at first but evolved into a full-time position in June of 2001. As the Assistant Visual Arts Coordinator at the Utah Arts Council, she has branched into many varied projects, all interconnected with her job at the Arts Council.

As part of her responsibilities at the Arts Council, Durham is the editor of Art Ops, a quarterly publication that lists much-needed information for artists such as calls-for-entries. It also provides information for artists to get grant money and/or gain recognition. This is for all types of artists, not just visual artists. “My position at the Arts Council is unique because I work in the Visual Arts program, but I work with artists of all disciplines because of Art Ops and the Artist Resource Center.” Durham is also in charge of the Artist Resource Center, which is located in a room adjacent to the Rio Gallery and is available on a daily basis to all artists. Stocked with books, magazines, periodicals, and a computer, it is the perfect place for artists to visit and seek advice about marketing their art.

After being at her job at the Arts Council for less than a year, Durham was given the responsibility of managing the Rio Gallery. The Rio Gallery has been in its space at the Rio Grand Depot for four years. With Durham’s help, it has been transformed into a beautiful gallery with track lighting and movable walls.

Every four to six weeks a group show is put up at the gallery. “We want to help as many artists as we can,” Durham notes. “We’re not a sales gallery, we’re an opportunity gallery.” Because it is a state-funded gallery, the Rio does not take a commission on the artists’ work. The gallery exhibits both emerging and established artists, which is a unique forum since emerging artists get the opportunity to show with an artist who is more recognizable.

Unfortunately, the Rio Gallery will soon cease to exist, at least in its present location. “Because of the renovations up at the state capital, State Archives needs a new building, and that will be just south of ours,” Durham explains. “In order to save money on that building, they are going to utilize part of our building, which is going to be the space the gallery is now in.” Consequently, the State will be renovating the entire Rio Grand Depot, and the spacious gallery will be turned into a reading room for Archives and State History.

Durham’s hard work on the gallery and consequent disappointment at this news are not difficult to notice. “We are being relocated to the lobby of the Rio Grand Depot” she says. The fate of the Rio Gallery is not yet known, as plans for the design of the space change every week. Durham’s understated exuberance shines when she talks of the gallery and the fate of this lovely venue. A true defender of the arts cause, one realizes that if Durham is on their team, change for the good will happen.

Durham also plans workshops for visual artists that are held at the Rio Gallery space four times a year. The workshops generally deal with professional development, and the next workshop in November is about Marketing and Self Promotion. “We think it’s important to do these kinds of professional workshops. These are things the artists don’t want to worry about, but you have to do them. There aren’t a whole lot of galleries in Utah, and there aren’t enough to represent everyone who needs representation.”

Durham’s enthusiasm for her job at the Arts Council rarely wanes, although as with any job, there are definite challenges. “I have so many different areas of my job, but the most challenging is the need to defend our presence in Utah to the legislature,” says Durham. “Since it is a state-run entity, they need numbers, they want results, graphs and charts. Such as how the money that they are putting into the Utah Arts Council is directly benefiting our constituency. It’s hard with the arts since we don’t see the effects right away. Communicating to them the importance of what we do is difficult, and we are asked to do that a lot.”

Whatever the challenges, it is obvious that the rewards of the job are great for Durham. It seems to be part of her nature to want to help others — her own subtle crusade of sorts. “I just like helping people. Every job I’ve done has been service oriented. I like being able to be that person who can be the one to help people when they need it.”

Dispensing information — especially giving it to artists freely — seems to appeal to the philanthropic part of her personality. To truly enjoy your job is one thing, but Durham also has a great deal of affection and respect for the people she works with, which is a rarity in our often impersonal work environments. Durham says, “I don’t think you will find another group of people as dedicated as the Arts Council. We truly care about the people we serve, and that is unique.”

Another project of Durham’s is her involvement with the Salt Lake Gallery Association. After she began managing the Rio Gallery, she began to attend the SLGA meetings. There was a need for someone to step up and do some administrative busy work, and with her usual enthusiasm, Durham was able to provide that service.

After volunteering her time as the Public Relations Director, she was elected as one of three Vice Presidents at the SLGA’s last meeting. Durham is in charge of Advertising and Program Development, which involves putting out press releases for Gallery Stroll, as well as being the contact person for anyone with questions about Gallery Stroll.

Durham’s exuberance is contagious as she talks about the arts, despite the obvious consumption of her limited time. “I think it’s important that there is an organization like the Salt Lake Gallery Association, because when you organize into a unified entity, it makes everyone more visible.” Pooling money together to advertise and do programs such as Gallery stroll is vital to our arts community, and Durham is an intrinsic part of making this happen.

Last year, Durham started receiving information via emails regarding the online magazine 15 Bytes, and saw the e-zine as the perfect venue to plug Arts Council events. Relaying information to Artists of Utah editor Shawn Rossiter morphed into writing full time for the e-zine. This is a volunteer project that she loves, since writing is another of her passions. Again, it’s part of her nature to help others, and writing articles for Artists of Utah is yet another opportunity for her to impart much needed information to the arts community.

For close to two years Durham also successfully hosted Artspeak on KRCL. Though it was intimidating, she dove in with her usual fervor. “That was really scary for me because I’ve never done anything like that. Suddenly I was supposed to interview artists on important issues. But somehow I got the hang of it.” One half-hour show once a month gave her the perfect opportunity for one-on-one time with various artists in their studios. Though it was time consuming, the rewards were great and Durham notes that she’s made some important art contacts through that project. Durham left the program shortly before it was cancelled by KRCL in July.

Durham has a quote from her father that she likes, “You can’t go to every weenie roast.” Yet somehow Durham has managed to participate in most of the proverbial weenie roasts in the arts community.

“I love taking all these opportunities as they come.” Durham says. And since her many jobs and projects are diverse, so are the people she deals with. Durham has met and established relationships with artists, teachers, professors, politicians, and administrators. “This is the hardest job I’ve had to train for, because there is no instruction manual. You learn information from experience.” But she manages to juggle all of this with grace and an earnestness that is rare.

When asked about her future plans, Durham sees her future as wide open regarding the arts. “My job, as a public servant, is to help every artist find their niche in Utah and be as successful as they can possibly be.” She seems to be well on her way to making a sizable difference in the Utah arts community.

Many people, when hearing about her job ask Durham if she is an artist. “No, I’m not. But I feel like I should be with all of this knowledge at my fingertips. So I just dispense it for everyone else.” With a refreshing sense of humility Durham says, “Once I get the hang of everything I’m doing now I’ll find something else to add to it. I love a challenge.” Spoken like a true champion.

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