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July 2012
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
Page 5    
Karen Krieger, photo by Simon Blundell

Art Professional Profile: Salt Lake City
Parks and Creation
A conversation with Karen Krieger

To someone accustomed to being awakened in the middle of the night with reports of shootings or other serious incidents, the job of Executive Director of the Salt Lake City Arts Council can seem relatively tame. “I couldn’t believe it when my staff said there weren’t any ‘drunk and disorderlies’ to report after the first day of the Living Traditions Festival,” says Karen Krieger, who took over at the Arts Council in March. “I thought they were just protecting me so I wouldn’t have to worry about it.”

Krieger comes to the Arts Council after 18 years with Utah State Parks, the last three of which she spent as Deputy Director. This is when she got phone calls and emails in the middle of the night if something went wrong. “Five million people visits state parks every year, so that’s a lot of people playing in the water, hiking, and using ATV’s or snowmobiles. With that many people outdoors, accidents happen. Dealing with the accidents was always the most challenging part of my job, though luckily we had well-trained personnel on the ground as first responders.”

The accident ratio may be less, but in her new role Krieger still has a lot to tackle. The Arts Council oversees the City Arts Grants, Finch Lane Gallery, Public Arts Programs, and Guest Writers Series. They also put on live events like the Living Traditions Festival, Brown Bag Concert Series and Twilight Concert Series. Krieger comes well-prepared for her new role, not only from her years at Utah State Parks, but also early years in Nebraska, when her cultural curiosity and activism began.

Krieger was trained in both resource management and storytelling. She received her undergraduate degree at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, in outdoor recreation, and in 1992, she received her master’s in folklore from Utah State University. Prior to coming to Utah, she had worked at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming with the Whitney Gallery of Western Art -- a gallery dedicated to encouraging visitors to make connections across culture and time through views of the land, people, and wildlife of the West. She also did a stint as an administrative assistant at the Visual Art Center in Anchorage, Alaska.

When Krieger began at Utah State Parks in 1993 she accepted the newly created role of Heritage Resources Coordinator. “The State was starting to realize they didn’t really have the knowledge or resources available to manage museums from a cultural perspective in a natural resource setting. I was essentially hired to combine art and history into a comprehensive form of storytelling.”

Her portfolio as Hertiage Resources Coordinator, which took her across the entire state, included seven historic state parks and museums (Camp Floyd; Freemont Indian; Edge of the Cedars; Anasazi; Territorial Statehouse; Utah Field House of Natural History; and Frontier Homestead in Cedar City) as well as Antelope Island and the Huber Farm in Heber Valley. Krieger was responsible for overseeing the archeological resources as well as the built resources and the arts and cultural programming. “Archeological sites abound in Utah,” she says, “and most of the sites have cultural resources we need to protect, too.”

As an example, Krieger cites the extensive planning that went into making the Garr Ranch on Antelope Island accessible to the public in the mid-1990’s. The ranch is located on the largest spring on the island and was built in 1848 at the behest of Brigham Young for the purpose of managing the LDS Church’s tithing herds (there is evidence, however, that Native Americans and wildlife were using the area for hundreds of years prior to the arrival of Fielding Garr).

Krieger’s job was to ensure the historic preservation of the ranch structure, while planning ways to make the area “come alive” for visitors through interpretive exhibits and programming. She helped the park staff find performers and storytellers who could re-create the ranch’s recent Mormon history as well as the older Native American history. Folk artists were also invited to the ranch, and sometimes cowboy-related activities were held there, all with the goal of connecting visitors with different kinds of history associated with the same place.

Krieger traces her interest in folklore to growing up in Nebraska. “I lived on a farm and rode my horse to a cemetery by my house that was neglected and covered with weeds. I would read the epitaphs on stones and make up stories about the people because I wondered about their history. I was also really interested in the carvings on the stones, some of which were done by itinerant carvers. They were beautiful, but they were symbolic, too.” When she noticed there were lots of deaths in 1919, she learned about the flu epidemic. “That made history relevant for me, and I was really happy to discover later in life that I could actually make a living through learning and sharing people’s stories.”

After 15 years of working with heritage resources, Krieger moved to the administrative arm of State Parks and became the Deputy Director. She helped manage the $30 million budget and worked with legislators to keep the interests of the parks protected. She says, “You know an organization really well when you know their budget. I had a whole new perspective on the park system and I could see what it cost to manage everything. If I was confused, I would dig, dig, dig into the financials, and then I would think, ‘This is cool! Now I get it.’”

Although Krieger was primarily occupied with administrative duties the last few years, she made considerable effort to maintain her ties to the local arts community. For six years she served on the Salt Lake County Center for the Arts board, which oversees Abravanel Hall, Capitol Theatre, and Rose Wagner. She says this is where she got to know the demands of the performing arts and how they work. “It’s much more complex than visual arts,” she says. “You have to know the different kinds of floors, acoustics and sound systems, and backstage accommodations in addition to tech crews and performers.”

Krieger was also part of the Utah Cultural Alliance in the early days, where she met other arts champions like Vicki Bourns, Cynthia Buckingham, Cary Stevens Jones, and Nancy Boskoff, former director of the Salt Lake City Arts Council. “We put in a lot of hours together at the Legislature,” says Krieger. “We’d be up there on the last night rooting for each other’s bills and commiserating with each other when the bills didn’t make it through the session.”

It was Krieger’s friendship with Nancy Boskoff that prompted her to first think about the director position at the Arts Council. When Boskoff first said she was retiring Krieger didn’t feel ready to leave Parks. “I loved working for our director and still felt I had a lot to offer.” Over the next couple of months, however, Krieger’s boss ended up retiring, and the Arts Council was unable to find a qualified candidate, so the Executive Director position was reopened. “I started thinking about it again and figured that if I were ever going to change jobs, this might be the time to do it.” She adds with a laugh, “I realized that the Arts Council job hadn’t been open for 25 years, so I had better grab it!”

Krieger left her successful tenure at Utah State Parks in February 2012 with a one-year park pass as a going away gift. “The law enforcement officers get to take their weapons with them when they leave,” she jokes, “and since my weapon was my computer, I opted for the pass.”

Krieger has been the Executive Director of the Arts Council now for just four months. She says the first few weeks were difficult because everything was new. “You know, I sat at the same desk and in the same chair for 18 years and I didn’t even think about it. Then when I got to my office at the Arts Council, I couldn’t get the chair adjusted right, I couldn’t figure out how to print from my computer, and I didn’t know any of the procedures. I’d go home exhausted every night.”

Krieger expects to spend the rest of her first year trying to see how things work. She spends most of her time listening and learning – and trying to keep herself organized. She laughs, “I’ve already reorganized myself several times as I see what I need to know, what I need to be informed about, and who I need to talk to.” She’s also trying to assess what she can do to help the staff do their jobs, determine what else the Arts Council can do to engage the community, and navigate her way through a new set of political personas. “Luckily,” she adds, “I have really good staff and I have a lot of respect for what they’ve done all these years.”

When she’s not working, Krieger says she enjoys exploring the outdoors through camping, gardening, and hiking. She also has a “lovely” cat and a husband who likes to cook dinner for her at the end of each day. “Overall, I’m pretty lucky,” she says with a smile.

Art Professional Profile: Springville
Swan Song
The Springville Museum of Art Loses a Director, Gains a History

In 1848 a man named Philo Dibble was on the Plains of Iowa pulling a wagon full of his paintings, heading to Utah, thinking to himself, “When I get to Utah I’m going to have an exhibit for all of my artwork.” He arrived in Springville, stuck his cane in the ground where the Springville Museum of Art now stands and said “This is the Place.” Or something like that...

To get the history of Utah’s oldest museum, you’ll have to read the new book that comes out this Christmas. The 424-page book has been eight years in the making. Director Vern Swanson and Associate Curator of Education Jessica Weiss had many conversations about publishing a permanent collection catalog (the most recent publication was in 1972), and because the collection is so integrated with the Museum’s history, they felt it was high time to record that as well. “This book is so exciting,” says Swanson. “For the first time we’re really telling the story of the museum.” Springville Museum of Art: History and Collection is a poignant way to bid a fond farewell to Swanson, who will retire in August having served as the Museum’s director for 32 years.

The book has four authors: Vern Swanson, Jessica Weiss, Ashlee Whitaker and Nicole Romney. Weiss is proud to say most of the major players in historic Utah art have a presence in the book. The Museum’s critics point out their collection is deficient in contemporary art and the staff will not deny that their collection leans heavily on the traditional side; but that is because the Museum follows a strict values and standards document that reflects the desires of the community and the art it supports. The strong connection with Springville’s community is a tradition that began with Springville High School -- the institution that established the collection and the Springville Salon in 1903. The students raised funds to purchase art and the students voted on the pieces they wanted to buy. In the 1930’s the collection became too big to manage, so under the Works Progress Administration the Springville Museum of Art was finally built to house and display the artwork.

Even with a strong vow to tradition, Weiss points out the Museum isn’t totally traditional in their acquisitions. “The Community Values and Standards (there is actually a document) leans toward traditional art, but I think people will be surprised at some of the more modern and conceptual pieces we have in the collection.” For specifics, you’ll have to wait until December when the book is available.

All the writers contributed greatly to the text, but the Museum’s history was primarily the responsibility of Swanson, who had already written a yet to be published 300-400 page history of the Museum. The history is something he holds near and dear so he took on the task of editing his history down to 40 pages for the purposes of this book. In the book you’ll find a comprehensive overview of the Museum’s collection of Utah Art, American Art and Soviet Art. “Once we began the book we realized we were weak in certain areas when it came to the collection” admits Swanson, “so there were some acquisitions made specifically for the purpose of including them in the book. You never know how glaringly good or bad you are until you start to take a comprehensive look. Now you see the warts when all you saw before were the roses.”

Anyone who talks to Swanson quickly learns all the reasons why the Springville Museum of Art is a Utah treasure. It is the oldest museum in Utah and the second oldest museum (next to Denver) in the Intermountain West. Swanson will point out Denver is on the Plains so it doesn’t really count. He also points out that their museum exhibits more Utah art than all the other Utah museums combined. After 32 devoted years to the Museum, Swanson has the right to be proud. When asked what the greatest accomplishment of his career was, he had a definitive answer: “We made the living Utah artist the central hero of this museum.” How, you might ask? Swanson’s answer was simple: “We just decided they were.” Springville kept that core value in mind with every publication, program, acquisition and competition they administered. They truly care about the artist as a person and make an effort to consult with all those who not only get into their exhibitions, but also those who get juried out. “We like to sit down with everyone and consult with them and answer any questions they have or provide any advice we can.”

Accomplishments are one thing, but what about failures? Even those who have highly successful careers fail with their ideas, programs and management. Vern Swanson claims one of his failures was his attempt to establish an Artist General Benevolent Fund (AGBF). The Royal Academy in Britain has one for all working artists, meaning if they were able to get into an exhibit they were eligible to apply for money. “As a part of putting the artist as the central hero I wanted to start a fund that would help with health insurance or getting them out of a financial bind.” In the end, his board wouldn’t let him do it. Naturally, they wanted him to focus on the museum.

Now that retirement is one month away, Vern Swanson is looking forward to being as good a volunteer at the museum as he’s been a director. “The board has asked me to be Director Emeritus. I just hope I don’t hover.” For those who know Vern Swanson the fact that he shows no sign of slowing down after retirement won’t come as a surprise. He’s in the middle of finishing several books and he has an expedition to Israel in the works. In his words, “I’ve got to retire so I can get some work done.”

Vern Swanson, courtesy Springville Museum of Art
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