The Salt Lake Art Center will be 60 years old on October 19 and the celebration has already begun. Festivities include two new exhibitions, a reception, art-lunch and evening lectures and a dinner/dance.
However, one of the most exciting things about this anniversary is the fascinating catalog "Making and Breaking Tradition." It was written by artist/art historian Will South.During a year of research, South left no stone unturned. He begins by talking about the efforts of Alta Rawlins Jensen (1884-1980) to organize the art association and raise funds to build a home for it.
The cornerstone for the foundation of the Art Barn (previous name of the SLAC) was laid by Governor George Dern in 1931. But, at first, the center was no "light upon the hill." In fact, board members had to rely on candlelight during their first meeting on June 6, 1932, since there was no electricity in the unfinished building.
One of the exhibits, "Timeline Exhibit: The First 60 Years of the Salt Lake Art Center" is already on display in the Upstairs Gallery. Focusing on pivotal moments, the show retraces the history of the Art Center through photographs, newspaper clippings, correspondence and other pertinent information.
Initially, the aesthetics of the exhibit attract the viewer. But the real enjoyment comes when reading some of the reports, clippings, reviews, etc.
The viewer will discover that the Art Barn was renamed the Salt Lake Art Center in 1958 and that the center remained on Finch Lane for 48 years before moving to a new home at 20 S. West Temple.
It wasn't until 30 years after it was organized that the first full-time director was hired. James L. Haseltine remained director for seven years. Directors who followed were Joseph P. Stuart, Roger Bailey, Allen Dodworth, Robert Doherty, Richard Johnston, Dan Burke and Allison South.
Agonies and ecstasies have been experienced by the center over the years. There have been many memorable exhibitions. There have also been times when financial crises almost closed its doors.
Other events that also caught my eye while viewing this exhibit:
- In 1934, the public protested when a painting of two nudes by Franz Brasz was exhibited. Jensen told the press, "It's time to find out if Utah is a bit of a backwash, remote from the main current in progress, or if culture here has grown to maturity, where truth and beauty can be seen in the nude as well as other art . . . "
- A copy of the treasurer's report of the 1935 Beaux Art Ball is also on display. The receipts column reads: $230 from tickets sold and money received at door. $11.70 net from the checkroom. Included in the expense column: $143.85 for concessions (roulette, dice game and bar.); $3 for the bartender; $1 a night for each waitress; and $.80 to the Coca-Cola Bottling Company.
- Although many impressive exhibitions have been shown at the center over the years, the most significant opened in August, 1941. It consisted of 14 original oil paintings by Vincent Van Gogh.
- A newspaper clipping from the 1940's asks the question, "Is photography a fine art? Members of the Art Barn's Photographic Print Society were quick to defend the medium. They reported that the association was "endeavoring to prove that the same basic principles (point of interest, line, mass and balance) apply equally to art and photography.
In 1964, three emerging artists in Utah - Earl Jones, Denis Phillips and F. Anthony Smith - installed a joint exhibition in the University of Utah's Union building. Hanging among their landscapes were also a number of nude paintings. The University's Board of Regents ordered it removed. James L. Haseltine, director of the Salt Lake Art Center, rescued the censored paintings and exhibited them at the center. The show became one of the most attended exhibits in the Center's history.
However, as South points out in the catalog, "The issue was not one of controversy for controversy's sake. The issue was the necessity of artistic freedom, which remains of great importance to the center today."
The perception held by many Utahns is that the art center has been only interested in showing abstract art. But, according to South, this is incorrect. "Even a cursory review of the Salt Lake Art Center's exhibition history demonstrates that it never showed only one kind of art. One actually discovers the opposite: a blend of old and new has always been their formula."
While exhibits there have explored the ideas of tradition, they also focus on change and experimentation. SLAC directors from past to present have felt that the resulting push and pull of these opposites are at the very impetus behind growth.
When Allison South (Will's wife) was appointed as director in 1989, she expressed her commitment to experimental and contemporary art. She defines contemporary art as "that which responds to the conditions and concerns of modern life and which discovers and defines new forms."
That commitment will definitely be seen in a second exhibition now being installed in the center's Main Gallery. Titled "Making and Breaking Tradition," it opens Friday, Oct. 4 and will consists of approximately 90 works painted during this century by Utah artists. One of the earliest works is J.T. Harwood's highly representational painting "Silver Service" (1891). Other striking paintings are Florence Ware's "Portrait on the Beach" (1927); Berger Sandzen's "Bear Lake" (1930); and E.Z. Bird's "The Gossips" (1940).
More recent works include Alvin Gittins' oil painting of his son Christopher (1980) and Susan Makov's photograph/painting "San Xavier del Bac" (1991).
The artwork in this exhibition has been selected carefully to reflect the qualities the SLAC has nurtured over the years. They include "the virtue of openmindedness, the wisdom of flexibility and the courage to address problems creatively."