The Curating Game | Visual Art | Salt Lake City Weekly

The Curating Game 

UMFA’s Jill Dawsey works to balance celebrating Western art with exploring the world.

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There’s a new girl in town. Well, relatively speaking.

Although she has been in Salt Lake City for more than a year, Jill Dawsey— curator of modern and contemporary art at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts—is now beginning to assert her presence in the local art world. Having studied and worked at various pre-eminent institutions such as Stanford University, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney, The National Gallery of Art and many others, Dawsey has an acute sensibility for art and art history and a refreshing objective to expose Utah to world-class contemporary and emerging artists.

Being in a new city, with a very different and more isolated art scene, and in a new position—in fact, her job title didn’t exist before she was hired—she was understandably a bit disoriented, and it took some adjustment. And now, after a period of acclimation, Dawsey is using her keen, young expertise to introduce the state to her modern and contemporary taste. “Museums in general are moving towards showing more contemporary art,” she says, “[and I would like] to show work of emerging artists—what’s happening right now.”

Just what does this new position entail? In addition to curating special exhibitions, overseeing and reinvigorating the permanent collection, proposing new acquisitions and playing a lead role in the UMFA Young Benefactors group, Dawsey is working with fellow curators to, as she puts it, “re-envision the museum for what it is.” UMFA is not just a contemporary art museum but also a teaching institution whose role is to tell the story of art from ancient times to the present moment. After examining the collection and audience, Dawsey says, two main emphases have come into focus: Utah/Western art and contemporary art.

It is imperative that the intersection of local and global achieves a balance. Many locals would favor the former, but the museum’s slogan declares itself “Utah’s Passport to the World” and, in keeping with this sentiment, it must also maintain an international agenda. It’s extremely important, Dawsey believes, for artists especially to be aware of art from all over.

One of the concepts she hopes to implement by summer 2010 is a project space for global exposure and emerging artists. “I want to put us on the map. I want UMFA to be in [a publication like] Art Forum because of what we show,” she says. Access to important work will help to strengthen the arts program; another endeavor the museum is working on is finding ways to better serve the university community.

This does not mean Dawsey intends to leave local creations high and dry. Although “Western art” can call to mind bad cowboy art reproductions and wrought-iron-fence adornments, the West—Utah in particular—holds much regional-historical import. After all, the Great Salt Lake is home to perhaps the single most important earthwork in modern art, Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty.”

In fact, Smithson’s impact on artists is something Dawsey hopes to explore in a future show. “There are too few institutions of cultural memory as it is,” she says, and she plans on working with UMFA Western/Utah art curator Donna Poulton to put together affective regional exhibitions.

Desert Secrets, a contemporary photo exhibit focused on the strangeness of Western landscapes, is next on the docket, opening on July 9 (see Desert Secrets). A series of provocative, content-related films will accompany the show.

Dawsey has also been freshening up the permanent collection. In addition to digging up some gems—rare Ann Truitt paintings on paper and some noteworthy paintings and drawings by Smithson—and reintroducing them into the rotation, she is also responsible for some exciting loans and acquisitions, the most prized—and pricey, in the midst of a recession—being a Carl Andre sculpture she recently added to the collection. (The funding for the piece was destined; Phyllis Wattis, one of the most charitable art patrons and cultural enablers of the west—and one of Brigham Young’s great-granddaughters— who donated extensively to San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, left an endowment specifically for the acquisition of modern art at UMFA.) “Baghdad Screen Tests,” on special loan from artist Phil Collins—one of Dawsey’s favorite current artists—is a video piece she is particularly excited about displaying in the context of the permanent collection.

Dawsey’s influence is already detectable in Then & Now: Selections from the Permanent Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art, currently on view at UMFA. It’s a fresh look at a long-standing collection, just as her arrival will prove a new take on the region. Her academic, curatorial, teaching, writing and lecturing repertoire has taken her to many major art institutions. Now Salt Lake City has her at its disposal to offer new insight at UMFA.

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About The Author

Cara Despain

Cara Despain is an artist, freelance art writer and curator. She is co-curator of GARFO Art Center and faculty at the Visual Art Institute.

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