In certain respects the spaces couldn’t be more different. The one is a wide, dimly-lit, makeshift sort of space, tucked away in an untrafficked area on the second floor of the University Place Mall in Orem. The other is a sprawling mansion, perched on a hill, surrounded by lush grounds, its rooms full of light. And yet, there are similarities: both are removed from the campus they serve and neither was custom-made to the purpose — to be the art museum for one of Utah’s largest universities. The Woodbury is no more; long-live Lakemount, which heralds a new era for Utah Valley University’s Museum of Art. It’s a grand piece of property that offers many possibilities. It’s also a bit odd.
The property was built by Melanie Laycock-Bastian, former wife of Wordperfect co-founder Bruce Bastian, around the time when Wordperfect was being sold to Novell and the couple were going through a divorce. It was the early ‘90s, the heyday of McMansions, and this is what all those mass-produced, densely packed properties aspired to: the 30,000 square-foot home sits on 8 acres, includes tennis courts, a pool and an indoor basketball court. The architecture is Latinate in style. There’s a beautiful view of Utah Lake (hence the name: Lakemount Manor). It’s as if William Randolph Hearst were resurrected and decided to relocate to Utah County, though on a reduced budget. The lake view, though lovely, is marred somewhat by the passing freight trucks and the hum of I-15. The property was plopped in the middle of much more modest neighbors: middle to upper middle-class, to be sure, but fairly nondescript. Access to the property goes through one of two ways: the first, from above, through a much older and even more modest neighborhood, along Orem’s Main Street; or from below, just off the highway, where one drives past the Walmart, a series of apartment buildings and a business park.
For more than two decades Lakemount served as a luxurious oasis for Laycock-Bastian and her children and grandchildren. After she died from leukemia in 2016, her four sons decided to gift the property to Utah Valley University. The gift was announced in November 2018, with a prospective opening of 2020, but the project was delayed multiple times.
After a four-year transformation, UVU opened the doors to its new museum in May. Most spaces have been transformed into clean, white galleries illuminated by track lighting. No singular room is particularly large. The ceilings are tall— at least ten feet — but not exceedingly so. Doors have been left in place, providing the possibility to close off individual spaces (at present, though, they feel in the way). As a home it is spacious, as a museum, less so: curators will be limited, somewhat, in what they can show in a structure not originally meant to display large works of art or entertain large crowds. Hints of the taste of the former inhabitants remain: some ornate scrolling in the plaster; the ornate mirror and fireplace in the front room; the large crystal chandelier that hangs in the entry above a gold-inlay double staircase.
The museum opens with an initial three exhibits presented under the general rubric of The Art of Belonging. On the ground floor, Jorge Rojas’ exhibition of minimalist works, Material Meditations, contrasts well with the ornate mirror and fireplace. (Similarly successful juxtapositions in the future may prove difficult.) Rojas’ work occupies two additional rooms upstairs: a video piece in one and his fabulous corn mandala installation in the other. These are part of The Art of Belonging juried exhibition he curated with Artes de México en Utah director Fanny Guadalupe Blauer. It flows through several rooms and hallways, though in an uneven way: a room each is given to two video pieces and another 17 works occupy three other spaces (former rooms and hallways); but the other half of the exhibit is packed into one final room. A much more successful installation is Maruch Santíz Gómez: Beliefs of our Forebears, a combination of photography and textile installations that sits comfortably in its space, even managing to deal with the fireplace that divides it. The whole collection of exhibitions is not signed particularly well so that it is hard to tell where one ends and another begins. Downstairs, a back hallway displays several large landscapes: are they part of The Art of Belonging? Works from a permanent collection? The confusion leads to the general sense that, even if the doors are open, the space is not quite finished.
We find Lakemount, at its opening, in a period of transition. Lisa Bendino-Anderson, director of the UVU museum while it was still at University Place Mall (and known as the Woodbury) as well as during the time of acquisition and remodeling of Lakemount, has since taken a job at the Baseball Hall of Fame. Stephen Pullen, dean of UVU’s School of the Arts during the bequest, stepped down to become a full-time professor in 2021. Rita Wright, former director of the Springville Museum of Art, has come out of retirement to act as interim director for the museum, but that title implies a waiting period: we still do not know who will set the course for Lakemount. What type of museum will it be? A collecting museum? Host to national traveling exhibitions? Home to the university’s visual art departments?
Like a remodel where the contractors have left but there are still dozens of tasks to be completed, the museum is occupied, though not finished. A room off the front entrance, which with its wood inlay and bookshelves might have been the home’s office, seems poised to become a reception area and/or gift shop. For now there are a few bottles of water. Outside the main building, there are entire spaces that haven’t been opened. Might the pool house act as an artist residency? In keeping with the current trend for mural art, will the cement walls flanking the tennis courts be given over to artists? Two pieces of sculpture already occupy niches in the green space around the pool (which has been filled in): a sculpture garden, here, or perhaps across the sloping green grounds, seems an obvious next step. (Considering the water sink these acres of Kentucky bluegrass represent, curators, for now, might want to avoid exhibitions on drought or the climate crisis.) This lush setting will likely provide important revenue for the facility, as host to wedding receptions and other events. There are plenty of interesting possibilities, dependent on funds and on the restrictions of the bequest.
One doesn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. But one should consider the cost of livery, grooms, feed. Going from a makeshift space with minimal staff to this large piece of property signifies a considerable investment on the part of the university. They will need to scale up considerably: even if the doors were never to open, Lakemount might prove more expensive to staff than the Woodbury. It could become a large, unwieldy piece of property. It could also become something fabulous.
The Art of Belonging, Utah Valley University Museum of Art at Lakemount, Orem, through Sep. 16.
Heartland Collective launches The Art of Belonging Performance Art Series Saturday, June 3, 1:00 – 3:30 pm.
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.