Fine Art | Master Pieces: Utah Museum of Fine Arts rolls the dice on its first “blockbuster” exhibition | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City Weekly

Fine Art | Master Pieces: Utah Museum of Fine Arts rolls the dice on its first “blockbuster” exhibition 

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There’s seeing art, and then there’s experiencing it. The two really are not the same, whether you’re talking music, theater, or even essentially two-dimensional visual art.

That’s especially true of Impressionism and the styles it spawned, with their emphasis on brush strokes and light and capturing the essence of a moment. Which makes them the perfect subject for a blockbuster show at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts—the biggest this museum has ever had and one of the most important ever to hit Utah.

Monet to Picasso from the Cleveland Museum of Art, is a chance truly to experience works by the likes of Renoir, Picasso and Monet—and that alone is certainly a good enough reason to go. The show’s 74 works from the 18th into the 20th century represent the most cataclysmic period in the history of art, and include a handful of internationally significant pieces. The paintings and sculptures are traveling the world while their home, the prestigious Cleveland Museum of Art, goes through renovations; the UMFA is its only stop in the Western United States.

The show’s highlight is a room full of Picasso paintings, representing various stages of his career (the Cleveland Museum has the nation’s second-best Picasso collection after the Metropolitan Museum in New York). Van Gogh’s slathered canvas and Salvador Dali’s creepy images, plus sculpture by Auguste Rodin, are also stunning, especially when you get up close.

On any given day since its opening on June 23, the museum gets about four times the usual number of visitors paying the $15 admission fee to see the show, and museum staffers are hoping for even bigger numbers as the summer goes on. Even sales at the gift shop are higher than expected.

This is the first time the UMFA has made such a leap into “blockbuster” territory. Given the response—not to mention the fact that the UMFA is a flagship art museum for both Salt Lake City and the University of Utah—the big question might be why something like this didn’t happen sooner.

The short answer is that although it has hosted a series of moderately sized shows, the museum has never before mustered the resources—financial or otherwise—for a blockbuster. That’s partly because it spent much of the past few years raising money for the new Marcia and John Price building, which was finished in 2001, and laying the groundwork to expand the scope of its mission beyond its roots as a sort of personal calling for founding director Frank Sanguinetti, who ran the UMFA from 1967 until 2001 (he died in 2002). Sanguinetti was most interested in building a quality permanent collection and less concerned about getting people to come see it, current director David Dee says. But in recent years, the UMFA has adopted the idea that an art museum should be more a part of the community—and market itself accordingly.

Dee has fielded questions for years about why the museum didn’t bring in big shows, but with a hefty price tag, uncertain ticket revenue and the possibility of a major financial flop, the UMFA was cautious about jumping onto the blockbuster bandwagon. And before it made the attempt, the museum first had to build the infrastructure—not just the building, but the staff and experience. This show, a cooperative effort by foundations, local governments and the university since early 2007, signifies a coming of age.

“People have been really delighted and amazed and grateful that this community is hosting an exhibition of this caliber,” Dee said, noting that many of the museum’s recent visitors had never come before. “We didn’t know what to expect. The first time out of the chute is always a gamble.”

The gamble was a calculated one. With its long roster of recognizable names, the show is approachable even for those who don’t know much about art. The museum has also developed family-friendly materials specifically for this market, including an audio tour and a treasure-hunt game, as well as lectures and a film series that will run through the summer.

For its part, the Cleveland Museum saw in Salt Lake City an upwardly mobile community with a growing population, as well as a chance to show these works to an audience that might otherwise not get to see them. “It’s done exactly what we hoped it would do, which is reach out to new audiences,” exhibition curator William H. Robinson said while in town for the show’s opening.

While shows like this have come under criticism in other places for placing too much focus on big names (and sometimes becoming crowded zoos in the process), it’s unlikely the UMFA will hear many complaints about bringing in works of this caliber once in a while. Art advocates hope this isn’t the only show people come to see at the museum, but they’re happy if these heavy hitters are enough to entice some who might not ordinarily make the effort.

MONET TO PICASSO Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 410 Campus Center Dr., June 23–Sept. 21.

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Christy Karras

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