The Utah Arts Fest turns 40 Years Young | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

June 22, 2016 News » Cover Story

The Utah Arts Fest turns 40 Years Young 

The past, present and future of the ever-morphing arts fest.

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Birth of a Festival
Utah Arts Festival's first director Skip Branch recalls the strange journey towards its creation
By Scott Renshaw

Forty years ago, before there was a Utah Arts Festival, there was a Salt Lake City Festival of the Arts. And before there was a Salt Lake City Festival of the Arts, there was a group of people sitting around in a room, drinking wine, dreaming up the crazy idea of putting art in the middle of downtown Salt Lake City streets.

Seated at a table in Oasis Café on a June afternoon, Skip Branch tells the story of that first gathering—and the events that followed—with an infectious enthusiasm and well-deserved pride. "We worked so hard with so little, and that's a real pleasure," Branch says. "It was one of the great things that happened in my life."

Ironically, it happened in large part because of information about how people didn't want to experience art. In the mid-1970s, Branch—whose primary work was in communications and public relations—was a member of the Salt Lake Arts Council. And it wasn't exactly a glamorous position, as Branch recalls it: "You meet once a month, talk about how much money you have, and the budget this year is, oh, $180. Well, that's great."

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It was at one of these meetings that another member of the Arts Council, University of Utah Museum of Fine Arts director Frank Sanguinetti, told the other members about then-recent research regarding people's attitudes about the arts. "People felt intimidated by going to an art gallery," Branch says of the study's findings. "And I think we all have that feeling: You need to know the history of the artist, know about art itself besides 'I like it/I hate it.'" For many of the respondents, a gallery setting "almost felt claustrophobic, more emotionally than physically."

"'God, Frank, that's amazing,'" Branch says of his reaction at the time. "And I don't know which one of us, said, 'You know what we ought to do? Throw it in the street. If people don't like the building, have a big art exhibit out in the street.' And we all laughed, thought it was fun—and had another glass of wine."

Over the course of that evening, the idea started to evolve. It expanded from only visual arts to also including performing arts. There would be a need to feed the attendees, which could be its own "food arts" component; there would need to be activities for kids. "And you can imagine," Branch says, "in this enthusiastic group, drinking wine, 'This is so cool, I think we've got something here. Now what do we do?' You've got this nugget of an idea, and like a lot of good ideas, who's gonna carry this one? So they turned to me, because [then-mayor] Ted Wilson was a friend of mine, they said, 'Skip, talk to Ted.' And I said, 'Oh God ... sure.'"

Wilson, as it turns out, was enthusiastically in favor of the idea—but not quite so enthusiastic about the proposed location in the middle of Main Street, which would require shutting it off to traffic. "Ted said, 'Uh, really? Don't you want to do Liberty Park?' We said, 'It's not like you don't close Main Street once a year for the Days of '47 Parade. And we've got no horseshit. The clean-up is much easier.'"

Branch and the Arts Council were ultimately able to convince Wilson that Main Street was the right location. But once the word got out to Main Street merchants, they wanted to squash the idea. "Ted calls me, says, 'We're done. Can't do it.' ... I didn't know who I knew, the only guy I thought could be accessible was Jack Gallivan, the publisher of the Tribune. So I called Gallivan's office, set up an appointment, and I told Mr. Gallivan the story. He said, 'This has to happen.' I almost burst into tears.

"The next call I get is from Ted, and he says, 'What the hell did you do? The festival is on. We're doing it.'"

Not surprisingly, that was far from the only complication for a start-up venture of this kind. First, the fire department tried to shut down the idea, since the initial plan didn't meet code requirements, requiring a more formalized street plan. And of course there was the matter of that $180-ish budget, which required plenty of creative use of resources that the organizers could get for free.

"[Arts Council member] Lake Churchill was a colonel at Fort Douglas," Branch recalls of one such situation. "Lake says, 'Well, you've got to put it up and take it down, don't you? Let's get the army.' 'The army? You mean, like, the Army army?' The next thing you know, we've got the green trucks you see in the movies and shit, with guys in 'em, bringing stuff down, helping with the construction.

"It really was a case of, we can get chairs from the city, which used them at the Utah State Fairgrounds. We can get some of the temporary outdoor staging that the Symphony and the Shakespearean Festival used. Lighting? Well, it turns out Susan Burrell of Ballet West, her husband, Kay, does all of the lighting for the Ballet, other dance groups. He's gonna light the whole goddamn thing. ... They were making some kind of drink in a sterilized garbage can. It was that funky. And it was marvelous."

It was a massive undertaking for a smaller city, but Branch also believes the close-knit nature of the Salt Lake arts community made it possible to put on an event of this kind, with so many people willing to give of their time for no compensation. The richness of that arts community also made it possible for the event to be attractive, presenting the kind of world-class talent that was available.

"Forty-two years ago, the Utah Symphony was recording for ABC Records," Branch says. "Ballet West was traveling the world. RDT was given a Rockefeller Grant to start their organization. So you weren't dealing with people who were, like ... doing cute little ceramic figures with a bunny face and a couple of eyes and we'd sell that. We're talking well-studied, well-prepared, gifted artists. So grabbing the vision, making it a classy one? That was all available."

The first two years of the Salt Lake City Arts Festival were a tremendous success, but the organizers became even more ambitious. Branch recalls that it was Bruce Spears of Repertory Dance Theater who suggested going to the Utah Legislature and asking for funding. "So Bruce and I went up to talk to them," he says, "and we're 'the arts,' so that makes us Communists, early dope-smokers, just be careful what we say here. We have to talk about the vision of it in a slightly different way.

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"Meanwhile, a pal of mine says to me, 'I don't think there's a state arts festival in the nation.' And you couldn't Google it then; you'd have to write to all 50 states. So I thought, 'I'm going with that. Even if I'm wrong, they've got to prove it. Let them write the letters.'"

The presentation earned $70,000 in funding from the Legislature, and the Utah Arts Festival was born, relocating from Main Street to West Temple, in front of the Salt Palace. Branch became the first chair of the UAF, serving only for a year before moving on. "I didn't want to become Grandfather Festival," he says. "I was the original chair, and that was that. After three years, it was taking too much of my life, and I needed to wean myself from it. The best time to leave is before you wish you had."

Yet Branch still attends every year. He's amazed at what it has grown to become, and credits current director Lisa Sewell with overseeing such a massive annual undertaking. He particularly notes the people-watching element of the festival, and what it says about the way the state has evolved over those 40 years. "You see people there who are nice little conservative Mormon families, and people with their body painted, walking together, and that's astounding," Branch says. "One of the things I've always liked about it, from the start to the present: It really does show the diversity of our state. And welcomes it, and promotes it."

"We had no idea that it would last this long. If anyone had asked us then, I'd have said, 'Oh, absolutely.' But did I really envision that? Not more than a fantasy."

Forty years later, the result of that fantasy still lives in Salt Lake City.

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Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw has been a City Weekly staff member since 1999, including assuming the role of primary film critic in 2001 and Arts & Entertainment Editor in 2003. Scott has covered the Sundance Film Festival for 25 years, and provided coverage of local arts including theater, pop-culture conventions, comedy, literature,... more

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