PROVO — With its marvelous mountain ranges, sprawling deserts and rich history, Utah has inspired countless artists to attempt to capture the state’s unique spirit. Sumptuous landscapes and educational illustrations of Utah’s Native American and pioneer heritage abound in the canon of recognizable Utah art. Utah’s contemporary art scene, however, may be a bit elusive to casual art observers.
In response to the challenging yet intellectually relevant nexus of contemporary artistic practice in the modern world, the Brigham Young University Museum of Art hired Jeff Lambson as the museum’s first curator of contemporary art in 2008. Since then, Lambson’s work has contributed greatly to the appreciation of contemporary art in Utah and to Utah’s art scene as a whole.
“Jeff Lambson has had a profound and hopefully lasting impact on contemporary art in Utah,” said Gretchen Dietrich, executive director of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. “He’s curated numerous thought-provoking exhibitions, brought many amazing contemporary artists from around the world to BYU and Utah, and done much to support and promote artists working in our state.”
Now, after eight years, Lambson is relocating to Denver. The move comes as his wife, celebrated art educator Ann Lambson, has accepted a position as the senior educator for art and design at the Denver Art Museum.
Born in Utah, Jeff Lambson spent time in St. Louis before returning to Provo to receive his master's of art in art history and curatorial studies from BYU. Lambson met Ann while in St. Louis, and their shared passion for art propelled them to pursue simultaneous graduate degrees in art history and to eventually work alongside each other at the BYU MOA.
Among Lambson’s accomplishments has been helping BYU students and other visitors to the BYU MOA get on board with contemporary art.
“The university has been overwhelmingly positive about contemporary art and creating a space where we can have a dialogue,” Lambson said.
For many people, art embodies the skill of the artist through recognizable visual representations, such as portraits, landscapes and religious narratives. Contemporary art, however, often bucks tradition in favor of aesthetic and intellectual experimentation, and interpreting a piece of abstract art can prove difficult for some.
Lambson recognizes the difficulty in presenting contemporary art to general audiences. Prior to his time at BYU, he worked at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum. His experience there was foundational as it inspired him to devise successful strategies for educating people about contemporary art.
“I had a profound experience while I worked at the Smithsonian,” Lambson said. “I visited the national zoo, where I witnessed a father and son discussing an exhibit about African frogs. The son asked about the frog, to which the father read to him the information on the wall plaque next to the display.
“Later, at the Hirshhorn, I saw another father and son pairing moving around the gallery. They settled on a piece of contemporary art. This time, the son asked his father about the painting, and after looking at the informational plaque, the father could tell his son nothing about the artwork, and the two left looking disappointed. From this moment on, I made it my mission to give people the proper tools to understand contemporary art, and to curate shows that demonstrate its importance and significance.”
For Lambson, it’s not about forcing a reading of contemporary art but is instead about giving viewers the tools necessary to decide for themselves.
Whitney Tassie, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, can attest to Lambson’s success: “Jeff had a way of making his work approachable and relevant, something we all strive to do but isn’t easy.”
The BYU MOA is the most attended university art museum in North America, with 350,000 visitors annually. With considerable effort dedicated to new and emerging artists, the museum’s contemporary art shows have been some of its best-attended.
“Jeff Lambson has enticed luminaries of the contemporary art world to present their best ideas at BYU, and after their immersion in our campus, these artists and curators have returned to their domains praising the caliber of our students and the relevance of our exhibition program,” said Mark Magleby, director of the BYU MOA.
In addition to introducing a new generation to contemporary art, Lambson has facilitated important connections with the local art community. His exhibitions have often represented a dynamic combination of nationally acclaimed artists and local talents.
“There is just really incredible, thoughtful art being made in Utah that people are driving from their experience within the community, and I think the more we can show here, the better,” he said.
While Lambson’s departure spells the end of an era for BYU MOA, his last exhibition, “No Place Like Home,” is one of his proudest achievements to date. Featuring works from the collection of Sue and John Wieland, the exhibition comprises some of the most famous names in contemporary art, including Louise Bourgeois, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Gregory Crewdson, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Barbara Kruger.
The show, which ends Saturday, Dec. 5, examines the impact of home and the psychological rituals and relationships that accompany such an integral space.
Scotti Hill is an art historian based in Salt Lake City. She has taught courses in art history at Westminster College and the University of Utah, and she works as a writer and curator.