Historical Artists | In Memoriam

Whispers, Legends and Utah Art: Remembering Tom Alder (1950 – 2018)

Tom Alder, in his Salt Lake City home, stands in front of a painting by Lewis Ramsey he received from his mother along with the story of a stolen wedding ring.

Tom Alder, in his Salt Lake City home, stands in front of a painting by Lewis Ramsey he received from his mother along with the story of a stolen wedding ring.

Early on in our relationship, Tom Alder had to convince me on an important point: a lack of evidence should not get in the way of a good story. Evidence should be sought, Tom conceded, arguments for plausibility laid out, but ultimately, if nothing disproved a story or rendered it completely implausible, then it should be told, should be allowed to hang in the air, a suggestive aura left to float around an artist or work. Future generations, with access to more documents, could grapple with its veracity, but it had to be there in the first place for them to get their hands on. That was the thrust behind Alder’s Accounts, the column Tom wrote for these pages over a five-year span.

Tom Alder, who died in July, was a collector. Of stamps. And stones. And humorous anecdotes. But one of his greatest passions was collecting Utah art and the stories that came with them. They were the type of stories one might pick up sitting around a table at lunch with the Art Nurdz, the informal group of historians and art aficionados whose names appear on the covers of most of our books on Utah art history. But not all stories make it into books of these sort, where sources and footnotes are required; and these were the type of stories Tom was attracted to. After all, they were one of the principal reasons he collected a piece of art, he told us in his first article: he must respect an artist and like an individual work, but an interesting story or provenance connected to a work would frequently be the final argument that convinced him to pull out his checkbook.

Tom was a banker by profession. It’s a sensible profession, where the accounts must balance. And he did it well, at Zions and at Chase, rising to the level of Vice President. But, like Gauguin leaving behind the stock market, Tom was seduced away from the world of finance by art (though he never shed his suits). In 2004, middle-aged and financially comfortable, he decided to pursue a degree in art history at the University of Utah, where he became the state’s expert on Henri Moser. A dalliance in art history wasn’t enough, however. In fact, it was more like a gateway drug. He soon went into partnership with Clayton Williams, when Williams Gallery was at the Utah First Business Center and you might peek over the koi ponds and catch Tom’s eye before going into the gallery, and, where, during Gallery Stroll, you would find one of the best spreads in town. He eventually went on his own, and moved the gallery, which became Alderwood Fine Art, further along South Temple, where for years he was a champion of Utah artists. And not just the deceased ones.

Along the way, he began writing his column. It wasn’t all about stories. Tom would lay down the facts, tease out the relationships between artists and institutions, remark on style and influence. But he was continually drawn to the personal, to tales of intrigue or simply oddity, like the professor at the U who fitted out a piano as her bed. His columns frequently touched on personal anecdotes, like the Lewis Ramsey painting that came to him from his mother and brought with it a tale of friendship, betrayal, and redemption. Or his trip with his wife, Linda, to see Mount Rushmore, an excuse to talk about Gutzon Borglum, who wasn’t actually a Utah artist (he was born in Idaho and raised in the Midwest), but who came from a polygamous Mormon family.

In his research, Tom enlisted the help of friends, associates, and artist family members he met along the way, bringing to light new material and not simply rehashing old tales. Luckily, most of his good stories were hard to disprove. While you might be able to find a court record that demonstrated that LeConte Stewart had indeed cheated the tax man by painting his own motor vehicle registration, as Tom recounted in one article, the lack of a record wouldn’t disprove the story — it might have been he simply wasn’t caught. And if there were two possible explanations for a story, Tom was willing to lay them both out, as he did regarding the mural in a Cache Valley wardhouse Henri Moser had to paint over. Tom, though, would lean toward the juicier version. Who could blame him.

In his article on Ranch Kimball, he gave us a sense of what he was after in the column: “This kind of shabby folklore reporting would have never cut muster in my thesis, but then I’m not working on another master’s degree and so I can use urban legends, whispers, and age-induced stories. I’m hopeful that someone out there will solve the mystery … or at least contribute more to the folklore.”

After a run of five years, the column petered out. Partly because Tom had investigated most of the artists he was interested in, but also because the gallery took up a lot of his time. He learned that the art world could be a tough business (processing mortgages, he once said, was child’s play in comparison). And along the way he added his own bits to the annals of Utah art folklore. Some of these have yet to be told, but the most prominent and public one was his decision to take on the LDS Church, when he felt he had been cheated out of a commission on a Minerva Teichert painting. It was a small art dealer against the lawyers of a multibillion-dollar corporation, lawyers who fought him until just before they were due in court, and then decided to settle.

This story is made more poignant when you know something you’ll readily glean from his column: Tom was a lifelong Mormon. He was also a lifelong Democrat, a tension embodied in the “CTL” ring he liked to wear — for “Choose the Left,” — a sassy response to the “CTR” rings — after an LDS children’s hymn “Choose the Right” — popular among some Mormons. Tom liked a rebel and the stories that surrounded them because he was one himself, and regardless of the setting was unabashed about his support for issues like LGBT rights, economic equality, universal healthcare.

Tom was a good friend, the type who always wanted to hear your story rather than tell you his. And he was a lover of life, in all its intricacies, which made it difficult to see, in the end, what frontotemporal degeneration did to the smart, witty, fun-loving individual who had charmed many.

His love for art lives on: in the collection of his wife, Linda; in his son, Nick, an art director, illustrator, and painter, in New York; in the careers of artists he assisted along the way; and in the stories he left behind. However true they may be.


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