LOGAN — According to one local art expert, the American West rarely gets the credit it deserves for its contributions to modern art.
"With perceptions of the American West, when you talk about art, I think people go to thinking about men on horses, or Native Americans and white men, those kinds of images," said Katie Lee-Koven, the executive director of Utah State University’s Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art.
That narrow perspective is exactly what NEHMA intends to rectify with its new renovation and exhibition. After a two-year renovation and $5 million project to update the building’s facilities, the museum reopened on Sept. 15. The renovation gives the museum and its patrons a chance to see a different side of Western art, according to Lee-Koven.
"Our goal and our primary interest is to surprise our visitors in terms of reconsidering how rich the artistic traditions of the American West have been," Lee-Koven said.
As patrons explore the newly restored space, she hopes they will find the museum’s new layout more intuitive and navigable.
“You’re experiencing the museum in a different way,” Lee-Koven said. “You now have a circular experience, if you will. … But there are also elements of surprise where you’re not expecting what’s next. So you come around the corners like, ‘Oh, what is this?’”
The renovated building features a roomy lobby, a study lounge, a cafe and a small museum store spotlighting ceramic works from Logan artists. Even more importantly, the renovation provides more basement-level storage, which will allow NEHMA to continue acquiring artwork.
NEHMA kicked off its first post-renovation year with “Collecting on the Edge: Part I,” an exhibition featuring 172 paintings, sculptures and installations intended to showcase the best contemporary art produced in the American West.
“Modern and contemporary art history tends to focus more on the East Coast,” Lee-Koven said. “But there has been a very rich tradition in the American West — we define the American West as west of the Mississippi. … If you think about the diversity of places, geographies and people, and the creative output by artists, it’s pretty extraordinary.”
Bolton Colburn, a museum professional who serves as a guest curator for NEHMA, said the exhibit has been three years in the making.
“We could probably do another exhibition of the same nature and scale and size with the works that we cut out in one of the last passes of editing for the show,” he said. “So what we’re looking at really are what (we) believe are the main highlights.”
Even after extensive editing, though, the museum still doesn’t have the space to showcase the entire exhibit in one semester. Instead, the museum’s curators have decided to split the collection into two halves. Part I will run until Dec. 15, while Part II will run from Jan. 17, 2019 to May 4, 2019. Both halves are intended to deliver the same message, but the second will showcase more installation artworks than the first.
The installation process itself poses its own unique challenges, especially when showcasing some of the museum’s more avant-garde pieces. For example, California conceptual artist Paul Kos’ installation piece “rEVOLUTION: Notes for the Invasion — mar mar march” required that the USU facilities team build a temporary hallway and install special lighting. Museum employees began working in June to finish setting up the exhibit in time for September’s reopening ceremony.
According to Colburn, the exhibit is especially unique in the fact that most of the collection’s pieces came from purchases rather than gifts.
“That represents a huge difference in terms of the quality of the collection,” he said. “Because when you’re able to acquire something by purchase, it’s usually something that you really, really need, versus a gift, which is usually something you don’t have much control over and you just kind of get what you get. So this is a much more focused collection for that reason.”
While creating the collection, Colburn and Lee-Koven also worked together to edit and produce a book of essays on each piece in the “Collecting on the Edge” exhibit. The book is the first exhibition catalog NEHMA has ever produced.
“One of the ideas that came up early in that pursuit was that we should have as many voices as possible writing essays on each particular work,” Colburn said. “So one of my big duties early on was to find authors that would be appropriate for each piece that was selected.”
The "Collecting on the Edge" book is available for sale both online and in the museum's store. But, Lee-Koven said, the best way to appreciate the art is to visit NEHMA and see it in person.Comment on this story
“We really hope that people will walk away with a new appreciation for modern and contemporary art and rethink their assumptions about it,” Lee-Koven said. “And to really think about how art and artists are truly — whether they want to be and whether they’re conscious of it or not — products of their time and space. These artworks are telling stories about the United States, and I think if you look at it through that lens, it can sometimes help you engage with and understand the work in a different way.”
If you go …
What: “Collecting on the Edge: Part I”
When: Tuesday-Wednesday and Friday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday
Where: Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, 650 N. 1100 East, Logan
How much: Free, suggested donation $5