Public Issues | Visual Arts

Will a Downtown Arts District Include Visual Arts?

For artists who dream of a living and working environment conducive to creating and selling their work, the “Downtown Rising” visioning process, sponsored by the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Alliance, is an opportunity not to be missed.

Here are two powerful organizations that already have a sense that the arts (in the broadest sense) are important to the economic health of downtown Salt Lake City. As Robert Farrington of the Downtown Alliance told an audience last month, “Arts and cultural activities animate and populate the downtown….[They] engage our city in a communal way.”

And yet, the vision of an “arts district” in the downtown area is far from complete. Therein lies the opportunity for artists who choose to be involved in the process. More about “the process” later.

Farrington and five other panelists were part of a presentation sponsored by the Utah Cultural Alliance, a membership organization that tries to represent a broad spectrum of cultural arts in our community. The other panelists included Soren Simonsen, Salt Lake City Councilman; Anne Ewers, Utah Symphony Opera; Phil Jordan, Salt Lake County; Steve Boulay, Live Nation; and Kandace Steadman, Museum of Utah Art and History. Karen Wikstrom, Wikstrom Economic and Planning Consultants, moderated the panel.

Though the panelists represented diverse parts of the arts spectrum – from performance to visual – as well as local government and business interests, there were some common themes:

;: “If you build facilities that aren’t within shouting distance, you’re wasting your money,” says Steve Boulay, pointing out a lesson learned in Denver’s evolving arts district.

:: “Arts education has dwindled,” says Anne Ewers, pointing out that developing a thriving cultural district is more than putting up buildings; we need to educate current and future audiences to appreciate the arts, particularly the classics.

:: “[Government decision makers] need to hear a strong and unified message,” says Soren Simonsen, encouraging arts organizations to let their wishes and concerns be known.

:: “Visual arts should go hand-in-hand [with performing arts], equally weighted, considered, and supported,” says Kandace Steadman, pointing out that half of the people visiting her Main Street art museum are visitors from out of town who appreciate the opportunity to see local art.

All of this thinking is encouraging. However, in the questions and answers that followed the panel discussion, it became clear how much these influential business, arts, and government leaders need to hear from grass roots artists, gallery owners, and other stakeholders of the proposed downtown arts district. For example, they don’t yet have answers for the following:

:: How will you make downtown rents affordable for small arts businesses until they can be self-sustaining?

:: How will you ensure adequate, reasonably priced (if not free) parking for artists as well as arts patrons?

:: How will you ensure there is adequate space for creating art, holding workshops, lectures, and other space needs for working artists?

We artists may not have the answers either, but we must keep asking the questions. We can also supply planners with models from other cities and regions around the country that are successfully developing arts districts that include visual arts. Most of all, we need to heed Steve Boulay’s advice: “Culture has too many voices. If you had one strong, coordinated voice, you’d be very powerful.”

Someone once told me that coordinating artists is a lot like herding cats. We are much more interested in our individual creative processes and don’t want to spend time on the political process, which is important to making this arts district a reality.

Perhaps the Utah Cultural Alliance is the organization that can be our “one strong, coordinated voice.” It aims for balanced representation of arts and culture in the community; its board includes several representatives of the visual arts, and it counts a number of visual artists among its 120+ members. On October 18, UCA will bring Jay Dick, Americans for the Arts, to Salt Lake City, to conduct a “how to” session for those who want to be effective advocates for the arts in the community planning and political processes. The event will be held at the Salt Lake Main Library, in the Urban room on lower level, from 11:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. The cost is an optional contribution for pizza.

Membership in UCA is just $25 for individual members, which includes discounted lunch prices at monthly meetings and the fancier annual meeting, plus a free, weekly e-newsletter. If you want a link from their web site to yours, pay for the organizational membership for $50. To check out the organization, including the types of program topics presented, or to download a membership application, go to

And don’t forget to visit to submit your suggestions, questions, or concerns for the downtown arts district. Let’s make sure the dreams and concerns of visual artists are well represented in the downtown planning process.

Categories: Public Issues | Visual Arts

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