Every museum or community art center needs a really big room. At the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, the biggest gallery extends like an atrium up through the floor above, so when they wanted to showcase Salt Lake’s explosive mural art movement, which has decorated buildings of every sort with original art ranging from the gigantic and public to intimate and personal, they were able to invite half a dozen artists and art teams to circle the gallery with original, full-sized murals. The Utah Museum of Fine Arts used their great room to showcase the many large canvases of Brian Kershisnik, which could never have been shown together anywhere else, then fifty landscapes featuring Mt. Olympus, and most recently, to house their own mural exhibit. The Bountiful Davis Art Center’s main room isn’t quite as grand as these, but it allows artists like Sue Bradford and Brian Boulton to display works that are taller (Bradford) or more expansive (Boulton) than would fit in any lesser space.
Of course there’s a challenge for those fortunate enough to have so much room: what do to with it when they have nothing that can properly fill it, or have many smaller works that don’t sit well together. In addition, it should probably be admitted that the art world has come to be dominated by fundamentally repetitive and what’s worse, while sincerely felt, predictable political messaging. In response, the small but imaginative staff of UMOCA has come up with a fresh idea, probably borrowed from commercial sources but presented in an innovative, non-commercial fashion. In essence, what they’ve created is a First Amendment boutique: properly scaled presentations arranged around the large gallery so they both complement and reinforce each other, harmonizIng while maintaining their individual integrity, all without pressuring viewers to feel they must try to take in every bit of what turns out to be an encyclopedic array of visual and verbal arguments for positive values and constructive change.
Key to the success of this approach are the resources and experience of For Freedom, an artist-led organization founded in 2016 by four artists. The number four reverberates here, given that the movement they started took its name from President Franklin D Roosevelt’s historical 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech, in which he identified the essential rights of all people everywhere: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. It’s unlikely that anyone reading this has not at some time, somewhere, been exposed to Norman Rockwell’s now-ubiquitous paintings of these essential freedoms, which are among his best and most widely reproduced works. The goals of For Freedom, which they describe as “to encourage social engagement and spark civic joy,” are distinct from those of most powerful interest groups that intend to bring about specific social and political changes, but anyone anxious about visiting an art exhibit admittedly devoted to current events should be satisfied within a few minutes spent viewing these displays, which will dispel any anxiety about For Freedoms’ genuine desire to help restore cultural cohesion to a badly frayed social network.
A splendid example are the DIY lawn signs, for which materials and finished examples are provided. Judging by the signs created by anonymous audience members, most people want more than anything else for life to be more fair than they find it now, rather than more to their personal advantage. It’s possible to conclude from this that, as we may already suspect, a minority of ill-informed or non-empathetic citizens, however ardent, are responsible for much of the ill will we witness these days. Near the lawn signs, a series of four posters list The Rules of Play, including this former professor’s favorite: “Everything you need to know, you don’t.” It’s like that old bumper sticker that advised us “Don’t believe everything you think.”
History buffs like to recall the Know Nothings, a colloquial name for the American Party, which arose in the 1850s and bore an uncanny resemblance to those groups and politicians who support nationalist principles today. But For Freedoms would rather focus on the Wide Awakes, who were contemporary with the Know Nothings, but supported Abe Lincoln and the radical Republicans. Like so many things, the rekindled Wide Awake organization has had to struggle with the pandemic, but some of their activities also have a place in the gallery. Other areas have been set aside for assisted meditation and a library with a reading room. QR codes throughout offer further materials for those with cell phones, which these days is almost everyone. In effect, this show, like most art exhibits, offers an introduction to alternate ways of looking at the world.
Quilts made from prison uniforms and US flags may challenge some viewers, while a non-profit design lab called “Amplifier” has filled a room with visually striking and engaging poster images that demonstrate that not all of the ideas and claims on our attention that circulate today are overstated. In fact, what their work argues for is the belief that good ideas are often under-represented, and that amplifying positive messages will do more to balance the nation’s discourse than would turning down the volume on these signals, in the naive hope that the sources broadcasting distortions and damage will then turn theirs down as well.
Overall, Wake Up Call For Freedoms proffers a wonderland of visuals treats and alternative satisfactions in a fresh presentation that can entertain and energize at the same time. At the risk of sounding like an idiot, it resembles an amusement park, but instead of being for those fleeing the real world, this is for those who love their planet and want to engage with its reality like their lives depended on it.
Our Wake Up Call for Freedoms, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City, through June 4. Reception Friday, February 18, 6 – 9 pm.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.