Currently, Salt Lake City is undergoing significant shifts within its art community. After nearly 12 years, Ric Collier—former director of the Salt Lake Art Center—resigned last October, leaving the city’s main resource for contemporary art in search of a successor. The search was neither simple nor short; the search committee faced a challenge in assessing candidates for the position, and Collier would be difficult to replace. Since this change provided an opportunity to start a new chapter in the art center’s history—coincidently just as Utah’s art scene is widening its scope—it was a particularly weighty decision. An influential, approachable, savvy person would be necessary to make this change a pivotal one.
After months of searching, the center made a selection in early May. Coming to Salt Lake City from Salina, Kan.—where she was executive director and curator of the Salina Art Center—Heather Ferrell is no stranger to the dichotomy created when there is a strong arts culture embedded in another more-dominant culture. “Salina is worth a Google,” Ferrell says. “It’s right in the center of the U.S., [with a population of about 48,000, predominantly Christian and white] and yet you have this vibrant culture, with a cutting-edge contemporary art center.”
Although about four times the size of Salina, Salt Lake City bears some resemblance in terms of a sort of cultural divide. And Ferrell also is no stranger to Utah or to the West. With more than 11 years of related experience, including serving as associate curator at the Boise Art Museum and working both at the Utah Arts Council and the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art in Logan, Ferrell brings regional knowledge in addition to national acclaim. This puts her at an advantageous starting point to plug into what’s happening in Salt Lake City.
It’s not difficult to detect change in the art scene in Utah, especially in Salt Lake City, over the past few years. The emergence of indie art spaces like Kayo Gallery, the 337 Project and the brand new Sego Art Center contributed to an increased exchange between younger artists and patrons and the older, more established art crowd—and, just as importantly, non-art types. Despite the strides, however, Salt Lake City still has a ways to go before being on par with other nearby metropolises. Art institutions like art centers and modern- and contemporary-art museums—in addition to galleries—are an instrumental part of this process.
Much of the success of the Salina Art Center, Ferrell believes, was that “somehow it was accessible, and that made it matter. … I want to make that relevant to Salt Lake, to bring in that attitude. Nothing’s mutually exclusive.” The art center isn’t just for artists and collectors, she says. There needs to be something for everyone.
Ferrell believes that there are three mainstays: exhibitions, programming/education and vision with the ambition to shape it. One of an art center’s major roles is to bring in outside work and expose the community to something other than itself. Ferrell feels there should be a balance between bringing in new ideas and showing “what’s in our own backyard.”
One of her most exciting plans is an artist-in-residence program. This would involve bringing nationally established artists to the Art Center, and linking them with local artists. Emerging and established artists can then open up a dialogue with each other—and begin to put Salt Lake City on the map as an art destination. “I want to be the place that fosters that,” Ferrell says, and it’s mostly just a matter of writing things into the budget and getting them here. This is where vision and programming coalesce.
In keeping with the “something for everyone” mission, Ferrell also hopes to implement and maintain a community advisory committee. This would involve discussing potential exhibitions, scheduling and even just talking about art. Making it accessible means provoking questions. It’s important, Ferrell says, to ask, “Why are we doing this?” and to use art as a lens to view ourselves.
“You have to have the community involved,” she says, “to build representation, to build relationships and exposure. I’m not a purist, I’m not an elitist.” This attests to her sentiment: It’s good to put your ego aside a little. This attitude seems fairly humble for a young and eminent art director. By involving the people who are to benefit from the art center as a resource, she hopes to have the art community itself contribute to creating a more cohesive vision.
Ferrell wants to provide an opportunity for folks to get involved and connected with what the art center has to offer. It can mean more cutting-edge, exciting and challenging artists and artwork coming to Utah. Although there are always growing pains that accompany spurts, it’s worth it in the end to step it up and stand a little taller. tttt