Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

The Old and the New: UMFA Reopens with a Reimagining of the Permanent Collection

Angela Ellsworth’s “Seer Bonnets” frame works in the modern and contemporary gallery.

Perhaps the only constant for venues that show art is change. Exhibits come and go, while curators faced with more objects to show than space to display them rotate often uncompromising objects through necessarily flexible, though usually bland and forgettable, spaces. Yet this approach has practical limits: permanent exhibits can be hard to live with, while those that come and go are generally replaced by more of the same. Two forms of transformation, or to use the term the Utah Museum of Fine Arts has chosen to describe its own two-year renewal, re-imagination, get lost in the shuffle. One is the necessary second-guessing of directors past by the curators of today, in which gradual changes in thinking about cultural values, as well as intervening epochs in the arts themselves, can be better served by a new presentation. The other, more subtle, but no less important change is to reconfigure familiar ensembles to enkindle fresh perspectives. In a few days, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts will awaken from two years slumber and invite its audience back into a cabinet of wonders that, while much the same collection of pleasures, should make them more visible, more exciting, and maybe even more beautiful than ever before.

From its inception, UMFA has had to cope with tension between two different art worlds: the traditional art that the museum system originally came into being to house, and the growing popularity of Contemporary art, which is often deliberately antagonistic, in part or whole, to established practices. Each has its own artists, experts, views of art history, aesthetic principles, and, of course, enthusiastic audience. But each also makes non-negotiable demands on exhibitors and curators that arise from their contrasting materials and techniques. Paintings and sculptures, for the most part, can remain in a room for years with little more care than regular dusting, while a few years ago an artist at UMFA exhibited a fresh banana peel that required replacing each day by the museum’s staff.

In 2001, when the Marcia and John Price Museum Building that is home to UMFA opened, these tensions were arguably approaching a climax. New art was very exciting, very much in the daily news, and it was readily available, which may explain in part why the distribution of space had tilted in its favor. It’s undoubtedly true that the Anderson Family Great Hall, the grand cubical void that occupies much of the museum’s interior, offers the same opportunities (and challenges) to almost any kind of plastic art, but its daunting dimensions make it best suited to works that either resist their context or specifically respond to it: in other words, Contemporary art. Simultaneously, the series of smaller rooms arranged down the left side of the ground floor and behind the Great Room were devoted to special exhibitions that tended, for financial reasons if nothing else, to foreground living artists and recent movements. The grand staircase—a favorite and popular indulgence of architects—ascends through the middle of the building, where those who climbed it earned a breathless introduction to the permanent collection on the second floor.

There were several potential problems with this arrangement. Of course it may have seemed the most satisfying approach to place so much exciting, new, and newsworthy art just inside the door to draw people in. And it may have seemed less important that this put the old standbys out of sight, while confronting traditional art’s large audience with an often bewildering, even alienating gauntlet immediately on entering the building. But the real problem wasn’t the choice of which floor would showcase which art. Rather, it was the whole idea of breaking the history of art into two discontinuous eras: the dead past and the living present.

Marcel Duchamp said that after 50 years, an artwork ceases to be art and becomes a mere antique. Over time, though, Duchamp’s edict has aged faster than the art he so glibly dismissed. The “shock of the new” has lost some of its luster, while a substantial audience feels excluded from the money and power game that art has become. Many have returned to the classics and found them undiminished. Yet even the harshest critics among them have had to admit that much worthwhile art has been, and continues to be, made by later artists, often by lesser-known individuals who excel at reaching an audience eager to hear what they have to say. Sensitive curators, then, now look for ways to adjust the balance between old and new in their collections to the benefit of both.

Two years ago, UMFA’s directors got a chance they may have thought would never come. The Price Building’s outer walls were found to be permeable to moisture, which is probably not the first risk that comes to mind in a desert location. But in order to fix it, they had to remove the interior faces of the outermost walls. This is not the kind of work that can be done around fragile and precious works, and so the entire collection had first to be removed. Replacing the works created not just the opportunity but the obligation to reconsider where they might be shown to best advantage.

The museum has painted galleries showcasing the European collection in Prussian Blue and Verdigris (seen here).

One of the first things to go was the previous generation’s emphasis on the new art downstairs and the old art upstairs. Fans of traditional art, especially that with which they most closely identify, will appreciate finding the entire American collection, including surefire favorites, directly behind the entrance, in that succession of rooms that still will lead back to the special exhibits galleries. Contemporary fans also should welcome this change, which contrary to what might be expected does nothing to diminish the importance of recent and current art. Rather, as will be discovered when it is seen, the new arrangement places Contemporary art not, as it so often is, as if it burst from the head of Zeus without a mother, but firmly ensconces it in the long tradition, not only of Classical and European art, but also with its genuine connection to some of the world’s cultural traditions clearly visible.

Indeed, the location of the primary Contemporary gallery at the top of the stairs nests it between some of its historical sources, each accessible without passing through the others. It also includes the necessarily elastic space set aside for salt, the Museum’s continuing series of installations by international guest artists. salteloquently answers that pesky question: OK, Utah, you have the Spiral Jetty, but what have you done lately? Among the adjacent galleries, one change that particularly pleased me is the new location of the Pacific Island arts, now straight ahead at the top of the stairs. Aside from the scant knowledge most of us have of these arts, the influence of Tahiti, to take one example, on Paul Gauguin, the artist who almost singlehandedly liberated color to become its own expressive vocabulary, makes the Island Nations’ art something everyone should see in person. Furthermore, while the Islanders have flocked to Utah in large numbers, unfortunately their welcome and visibility here are open to question. Here the U of U has taken a significant step toward recognizing their presence and contribution.

Much of Picasso and Braque’s inspiration for Cubism came from African statues they found in Parisian museums, so it’s appropriate that the room next door houses similar works. Some visitors may remember when this room held art of the Pacific Northwest, which has been removed from public display due to a long-standing concern that it inadequately represented the rich and varied expressive styles of those peoples. UMFA’s staff feel their lack of material from the native people of the United States sharply, but if the necessity of relying on donations to build a collection sometimes requires overlooking an area, it can also pay off generously, as happened next door in the China room, which recently benefitted from a gift so large they will have to rotate pieces through the space in order to show it all.

Except for acoustical dampening, visible high in the staircase, few structural changes were made to the interior. Next to the China and South Asia collections, one exception has produced the William H and Wilma T Gibson Photography Gallery. Works on paper, such as these, and the prints hanging nearby, offer institutions with limited means a way not only to hold a collection in a finite space, but also to actively build it. The gallery devoted to prints begins the transition, using several paintings based on prints, into the European galleries that extend across most of the second floor. These have been painted in surprisingly intense colors, each chosen because it was popular when the works were created. Early paintings are still farthest from the stairs, so that viewers essentially walk back into history until they reach the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian works. Their path then crosses the Atlantic to the new Mesoamerican Pre-Colombian gallery, housed in a handsome new array of vitrines in what was formerly a primarily functional space. From here, the view across a sea of space reveals Viola Frey’s tall, colorful ceramic figure.

He still stands on the upper landing of the stairs that ascend the great room. His aerie, until now underutilized, may have found an identity at last as one of several new multimedia-equipped lounges intended to entertain and educate children during family visits. A more substantial outreach effort includes enhanced studios and child-friendly rooms on the ground floor Acme Lab, its name inspired by Warner Brothers’ Roadrunner cartoons, wherein Acme Corporation was an inseparable part of Wile E. Coyote’s ingenious inventions.

The Acme connection was explained by Assistant Security Supervisor Michael Farfel, who took time out from the reinstallation to walk me through the public spaces, each of which he described in much greater detail than I have room for here. His knowledge and enthusiasm typified that of everyone who welcomed me, from Mindy Wilson, Director of Marketing, and Whitney Tassie, Curator of Contemporary and Modern Art, to a volunteer whose name tag read only “Frank.” Together, they made me feel, as every visitor should, that my personal enthusiasms are as valid as anyone’s. To take just two examples, the damaged Filippo Lippi I never pass up has finally completed its progression from a storage room, through restoration, to a dark corner, and finally to a spot suited to the artist’s central role in Renaissance art. Then again, standing in front of one of two masterworks in the collection by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, one of the most fascinating painters of all time, I marvel at how a few sophisticated adjustments in setting and placement have made “Flora” spring to life again. Artists, after all, can keep their work only briefly. After that, it’s up to all of us to keep it alive.

Spencer Finch’s installation in the Great Hall, which has been painted a neutral beige.

The Utah Museum of Fine Arts reopens Saturday, August 26, with a two-day celebration featuring new exhibitions, talks, tours, art making, films, yoga, a dance party and more. Admission is free.The Reopening Party will showcase the Museum’s reimagined permanent exhibition galleries and two new temporary shows. HERE, HERE, an interactive project by Las Hermanas Iglesias, debuts in the UMFA’s new ACME Lab, and world-renowned contemporary artist Spencer Finch has created Great Salt Lake and Vicinity, a new site-specific installation in the Great Hall.

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