September 28, 2016

The SLC Arts Council

by Heidi Grieser

On the east side of Reservoir Park sits a blue building called The Art Barn, home to our city arts council. You may know of the council through some of the excellent programming they do for Salt Lake City- The Summer Concert Series and Brown Bag Concerts, The Gallery Stroll, The Living Traditions Festival, or maybe you took your first art class as a child at The Art Barn in Reservoir Park.

The Salt Lake City Arts Council began in 1931 and built what is now affectionately called “the Art Barn”..

If you know the building in question then you may wonder how did it get such a name? Executive Director of the Council, Nancy Boskoff, says “it’s kind of funny” because the building was built exclusively for the Arts Council and it was never designed to look like a barn, just called one. In the 1930’s, “A group of people wanted a place to put up exhibits and paint. They were going to use a barn in the avenues. That fell through, so they went to the city to be in the park. They decided to still call it the Art Barn even though it’s not a barn. They built this building and the doors opened in the Great Depression” (in 1933).

The Art Barn not only houses the offices of the council and serves as a class space, but it also has a small gallery with 2-3 artists on exhibit at a time. From the size of the gallery one might not imagine the huge artists who display their work there. The current show, running through April 29, showcases Susan Beck, whose paintings most recently appeared on The Huffington Post and Weber State University Faculty Exhibit, Bonnie Sucec, whose last one-person exhibit was held in the Great Hall at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, and Ryan Peterson, who utilizes his professional background in film, animation, and television creatures/characters for his sculptures on display at The Art Barn after having done special make-up and visual effects for such projects as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Men In Black, The Grinch and Jumanji.

1940’s Salt Lake Tribune Society article on the art barn

Nancy says, “We have such a rich arts community. People from other places are surprised. They have preconceived notions about Utah, but it’s pretty breath-taking. Surprisingly, on any given night there’s so much to do, you have to make choices.” She said that her, “reputation of the Mormons is that the first building Brigham Young built was the theater- the Salt Lake Theater.”

“In 1899 Utah was the first state in the country to start an Arts Council. And the Native Americans here before the pioneers had a strong arts tradition. In the 1940’s the Symphony was started. To have such a strong commitment to the arts is remarkable. Every 10 years it seems like there is a creative burst. A Ford Foundation grant started the dance companies here- Utah is the center for dance.”

Part of the Arts Council funding comes from Zoo, Arts, and Parks, which was put together to keep organizations from going out of business. “Voters have to approve funding on a ballot every 10 years and the last time it was on the ballot it was approved 2 to 1,” says Nancy. “We have come to the brink, but we have not lost many of our major arts organizations. I think it’s tenacity. We’re our own worst enemies, because we grit our teeth and just do it with less and less. There’s a lot of passion in our arts.”

While Nancy wouldn’t reveal much about the much anticipated Summer Concert Series schedule for this year, their upcoming Living Traditions Festival is worth attending. Nancy says, “It’s a folk life festival coming up on it’s 26th year. It brings together all the ethnic groups that make Salt Lake their home. We hire folklorists to make sure it’s authentic- everything from the food vendors, the arts and crafts, and exhibits.”

“When the festival started, this community was very homogeneous. before it was, ‘Wow, really” now there is a pride in our diversity and the event raises funds for cultural programming. We also bring in bands- this year from Mali, Africa and Haiti. It’s a way to introduce new and celebrate who we are.”

Like the Summer Concert Series, the Living Traditions Festival has an outdoor alcohol permit. The revenue from alcohol sales has been a big factor in the Council’s ability to host such large scale events. “Everyone says the laws here are terrible, but it’s like that everywhere, everywhere except New Orleans,” jokes Nancy. Her favorite example of the culture in Salt Lake is, “when Salt Lake Acting Company first produced Angels in America in the 80’s, people here went to see it and it was fine. A lot of people didn’t understand gay issues and AIDS at the time and when it was produced in other places, like down South, there were picket lines and protesters. Other people might say it’s restrictive here, but I think people just don’t go if they don’t like something. It’s live and let live.”

The Salt Lake Arts Council’s dedication and hard work providing venues, outdoor events and festivals is a big factor in Salt Lake City’s recent inclusion in the “Top 25 Arts Destinations” by American Style magazine’s reader poll (#13 of Mid-Sized Cities). Nancy says, “there’s a great spirit about this place, and we want to take care of it. We’re fortunate to be here and that people have great memories here.”

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