Editor’s note: This is the first article in a three-part series that looks at how smaller arts groups along the Wasatch Front and Utah create a name for themselves and find success.
SALT LAKE CITY — It’s no secret that Utahns love the arts.
Take a walk in downtown Salt Lake City and within a few blocks radius you’ll run into the home of the Utah Symphony, Ballet West, Utah Opera and the Eccles Theater, Utah’s home for Broadway Across America shows.
But the state’s dedication to the arts goes even deeper than these large, big-name organizations.
Take that same walk downtown and you’ll come across even more small, niche groups. Perhaps you’ll find Wasatch Theatre Company preparing its new home at the Gateway, Sackerson theatre performing a play at varying locations around town or Plan-B Theatre Company taking the stage at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. Or, depending on the time of year, the Rose may offer performances by dance groups as varying as Salt Contemporary Dance, Tablado Dance Company and WOFA Afro Fusion Dance.
The list goes on and on as hundreds of smaller arts groups such as these provide diverse, specialized artistic experiences along the Wasatch Front and across the state.
“One unique thing about Utah and something that a lot of people don’t realize is how much art we actually have here,” Cami Munk, Salt Lake County Center for the Arts’ communication manager, said in an interview with the Deseret News. “These small arts groups are a huge proportion of the arts that we offer.”
According to a 2015 National Endowment for the Arts poll, Utah tops the country with 51 percent of adults who attend live music, theater or dance performances. But even with half the state’s adults attending live performance events, Utah's small arts groups have to work to remain relevant, secure funding and create a name for themselves for a chance to survive and thrive.
“When I look at Utah, I’m incredibly proud of our performing arts scene, especially in the last few years,” said Jason Bowcutt, community arts manager for the Utah Division of Arts & Museums. “I think we’ve seen the growth of some really interesting and different kinds of organizations in the performing arts, people who are starting to decide that the old model of how to do it is something to challenge and are doing things in new, different ways that I think are pretty exciting.”
Over the course of our three-part series, "Beyond Abravanel Hall," we’ll examine how these smaller arts groups take a different approach to bring unique voices to the arts community, discuss how the groups find funding and how they find physical spaces in which to build a future.
The power of different voices
Salt Contemporary Dance founder and artistic director Michelle Nielsen saw a need in Utah’s dance community and decided to fill it.
According to Lexie Corbett, the company’s executive director, Nielsen took a deep look five years ago at longstanding dance companies like Ballet West, Repertory Dance Theatre, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company and Odyssey Dance Theatre. While she saw that each company targeted a specific part of the dance world, Nielsen also felt contemporary dance needed a stronger voice in Utah.
“(Utah) didn’t really have a place for emerging artists that are in contemporary dance,” Corbett said in an interview. “The newest form of dance that have evolved is contemporary dance, so Salt has jumped into the ring and they’re now serving as the professional dance company in Utah for contemporary dance.”
“Salt is meeting a need for the community and is here to stay,” Nielsen added via email. “We started Salt in an effort to provide more opportunities for the many talented dancers we have in Utah and provide a complementary addition to our state’s existing dance companies.”
Salt’s story is similar to many small arts groups in Utah. Bowcutt — whose work for the Division of Arts & Museums includes managing the state’s performing arts programs through professional development and the statewide Mountain West Arts Conference — said the mission of many of Utah’s smaller arts groups is to provide a forum for new perspectives.
“(These people) realize there are other voices that need to be heard,” he said.
Bowcutt spent several years working professionally as an actor and director in New York City before joining the Utah Division of Arts & Museums and sees parallels between New York’s “off-off-Broadway” independent theater scene and Utah’s small performing arts groups. Unlike major arts organizations with sizable budgets, smaller arts group often operate with limited funding — which, by necessity, can lead them to greater experimentation.
“There is a place of true artistry in that dangerous space,” he said. “I feel like that is the value of some of (Utah’s) smaller arts organizations: They are a voice that might not otherwise be heard in these communities.”
Shaping an identity
Among the emerging voices are new types of art, as well as culture-specific groups.
“We’re seeing new performance trends like the aerial arts in addition to more traditional cultural groups producing cultural celebrations and dances at the Rose Wagner,” said Melinda Cavallaro, Salt Lake County Center for the Arts’ associate division director over event services, who works with small arts groups as she oversees the events at Salt Lake County Center for the Arts’ venues, including the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.
Carving out room for these new voices is not only the reason these groups exist, but also how they survive. Jim Martin, artistic director and one of the founders of Wasatch Theatre Company, said finding a unique voice can be a challenge and admitted it is something WTC has struggled with over its 20-year history. The group performed at the Rose Wagner for more than a decade, and at times found it hard to differentiate itself from the other theater companies performing there.
“I think one of the hardest things is just really having an identity that gets a consistent audience base to commit to us,” he said, adding that he feels the company has found its stride by focusing on stories about human relationships.
Yet, at the same time, being one of many voices in the artistic community is something Martin believes has also helped the company grow.Comment on this story
“I don’t think we can oversaturate the theater or arts market in Salt Lake. There’s a lot of it, but that’s a good thing because there’s a lot of talent,” he said, adding that performers often “cross-pollinate” and perform for multiple companies in town. “I think (the different groups) can build each other up and support each other … (because) the more we can build up theater in general, the more we benefit too. It’s a very thriving artistic community, a very supportive artistic community.”
Part Two of our series, "Beyond Abravanel Hall," will examine how Utah's smaller arts groups find the funding to survive. It will be available Sunday, Aug. 5.