Utah Arts Festival 2015 | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly

June 24, 2015 News » Cover Story

Utah Arts Festival 2015 

Art Works: The brains and the brawn behind Utah's citadel of creativity

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For 39 years, the Utah Arts Festival has been providing the state's largest and most diverse showcases for every possible kind of artistic expression: painting, photography, sculpture, crafting of clothing and jewelry, poetry, comedy, dance, film, music and more. An average of 80,000 visitors annually (according to UAF's own statistics) roams through the downtown festival grounds over the course of four days, browsing stalls and watching performances. With all the talent on display, it would not be surprising if a guest's primary takeaway from the experience is, "Well, I could never be part of that world."

It's true that not everyone may be destined for artistic greatness, but it's also important to keep in mind that art isn't magic. Hundreds of staff members and volunteers employ their own unique sets of skills to make sure that the Utah Arts Festival can happen at all. And all artists are people who have taken whatever raw talent was within them and worked diligently at becoming the best they could be in their chosen medium. If you're a lover of the arts, the festival shouldn't be a discouraging experience. Everywhere you look, there are reminders of the sweat involved in getting great work out so people can enjoy it.

This year, City Weekly is turning a spotlight on demystifying the Utah Arts Festival. Check out profiles of several of the individuals who coordinate specific areas of the festival, curating work and dealing with the nuts & bolts logistics of putting the festival together. Learn about all of the hands-on opportunities for festival attendees to make something themselves or learn about the processes that create art. We'll tell you where to go and how to get there, sure—but we'll also make the Utah Arts Festival seem a bit less like a passive experience.

So roll up your sleeves and find out how to get your hands dirty at UAF 2015. Even a work of art starts out with the work of art.

Yes, They Can
A look at some of the people who work behind the scenes make the Utah Arts Festival happen
By Katherine Pioli, Scott Renshaw, Jacob Stringer & Brian Staker

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Putting On the Show: Steve "Doc" Floor
Performing Arts Program coordinator
You typically don't get to choose your own nickname—the one you get stuck with might tell you a lot about what others think of you. Sometimes, nicknames can be characteristically revealing (Big Ed or Angry Anne) or cryptic and insider (Chazzy or Pinky). If you happen to get one as a child that sticks with you into adulthood, it's clearly a nickname that's both well-worn and multi-storied.

Utah Arts Festival performing arts coordinator Steve "Doc" Floor has just such a moniker. When asked for his nickname's origin story, he mentions being called "The Rock & Roll Doctor" when he was at KUER 90.1 in 1979. He'll also tell you that it mutated into "Doctor Dead," because, at one point, he was the resident Grateful Dead DJ. When probed even further, he reveals that the root of "Doc" began much earlier: He reluctantly claims there's no really good story there. "Adolescent teenage boys being boys, and we'll leave it at that."

As far as his current job goes, it's hard work for "Doc" Floor and his five subcommittees—folk & bluegrass (including Americana and Celtic), jazz & classical, rock, pop & hip-hop, blues (R&B), world ethnic ("smallest of all, mainly because we're in Utah")—to program the performing arts every year for more than 80,000 attendees. He's seen both the applicant pool and the program at the festival triple in size during his tenure, and—other than the dance companies that are a mainstay (Ballet West, Repertory Dance Theatre, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company and Virginia Tanner's Children's Dance Theater)—the music consists of 90 percent new acts every year.

"In the beginning, I wasn't adept at evaluating bands," Floor says. "Now, I know more about genres than anybody else, and I go to as many performances as possible—especially dance, to personally see as much as possible. I check it all out; that's what makes it easier. We are evaluating people for a live performance, after all.

"I get [told] all the time, 'I think it would be really cool to be on the committee.' Well, do you frequent the local bar scene? Because that's what I need. I need people that are out there seeing bands live."

At the age of 8 (before "Doc" was "Doc"), Floor saw his Uncle Bill Floor's big band perform at the Terrace Ballroom. He distinctly remembers looking up at the horn section and being enamored—how shiny, how loud, how bombastic. Then his uncle invited him up on stage to join in on a number. Little Steve was sold. At that point, he was simply hooked to music and live performances.

After college, Floor studied music more and more, and eventually started a band, Zion Tribe, which played more than 1,000 gigs in 25 years throughout the Intermountain West. In the 1980s, Floor began booking bands around town and doing concert production for KRCL 90.9, even booking weddings and the odd bar mitzvah.

All of it—the love and experience of being a performer, stage manager and producer—helps Floor do what he does best: annually doctoring a great performing-arts lineup for the Utah Arts Festival. —Jacob Stringer

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All About Stories: Adam Love
Literary Arts Program director
A writer since before high school, Salt Laker Adam Love earned an Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Vermont College in 2012. He is currently a coordinator in the Graduate/Adult Low Residency programs at Westminster College. He competed in slam-poetry events at the Utah Arts Festival and other locales for years, and this participation led to his being selected as festival literary arts program director in 2013. On the eve of his third year in that position, he discussed some of the changes taking place, and the challenges and joys of the event.

Among the changes this year, the most noticeable is a new Big Mouth Stage location. "It's bigger, there's more room, and we have surround sound for the entire area to alleviate any bleeding noise that comes from the festival," he explains. "But most importantly, we have so much new talent this year—of course, we still have our individual and team slams. But, this year, we're very excited about ."

Along the lines of National Public Radio's The Moth, The Bee, according to Love, "focuses strictly on the microcosm of Salt Lake. Tellers have five minutes to regale the audience with a true story (some funny, some sad, some just as poignant as a Louie episode). The judges in the audience calculate a score, and at the end of the night, one winner. But that's hardly the point: The point is the stories."

Love is excited about showcasing visiting poets Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Lauren Elma Frament, William James, Corey Zeller and Sean Thomas Dougherty, who will also be teaching a workshop at the Community Writing Center (see "Hands On," p. 19), among multiple interactive experiences available there. He is also interested in the ways literature meshes with other arts, such as music, reflected in several literary performers, including Jonah Matranga, lead of the band FAR, as well as a solo project named onelinedrawing; and Annelyse Gelman, poet and vocalist of the band Shoulder Blades.

Love is pleased to note the number of applicants to literary events this year is larger than ever. "We're hoping this continues to be a trend," he says. "We want to continuously feature new and exciting writers, playwrights, singer-songwriters, cross-disciplinary artists. The sky's the limit."

There are challenges, even when some events are as popular as slam poetry and local comedy. "We know what works, what draws a crowd," Love says. "But the bigger challenge is trying to figure out what's going to surprise the crowd. What's going to keep the stage fresh? And what will keep first-time viewers awe-inspired and wanting to return?"

His vision for the literary arts section of the Utah Arts Festival is expansive, and it helps him meet those challenges: "There is a gold mine of talent in the literary world that most people aren't familiar with. I'd say my vision is to connect the artists to their unknown audience."

Those connections are at the heart of his passion for the literary arts. "I would love to see necessary and important writers [and] songwriters from around the country and the globe come and share their work with an audience that truly appreciates their craft," Love says. "Not only do I want the artists to resonate with the audience, but also I want the audience to show the artists there is a reason to showcase their craft in Salt Lake City." —Brian Staker

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Planting the Artists' Garden: Matt Jacobson
Artist Marketplace co-cordinator
Matt Jacobson—curator of the Utah Arts Festival Gallery and coordinator of the Artist Marketplace at the Utah Arts Festival—is already plenty devoted to the arts in Utah, having volunteered with the festival for 25 years. Now, he's planning his wedding around it.

"We'll do the full wedding after the festival," he told me, just hours before his first small ceremony and reception. "Sometimes, you make sacrifices."

He assured me that putting off the big nuptials party was worth it, especially considering all the exciting things happening at this year's Arts Festival. "Overall, we've seen a consistent improvement in the quality of applications from artists this year," says Jacobson. "So many people want to get their work in, it's becoming much more competitive and applicants are really putting forward their best work."

This year, the festival received 615 applicants in the categories of mixed media, ceramics, digital, drawing, fiber, glass, graphics, jewelry, metalwork, painting, photography, sculpture, wearable art and woodworking. Of the 169 artists chosen by a blind jury—artist names and the cost of their work are withheld—48 are local artists from Utah, and 59 will be showing their work at the festival for the first time.

During most of the year, from September to May, Jacobson personally picks artists for monthly rotating shows at the Utah Arts Festival Gallery, a gallery for emerging artists in the community. But when it comes time for the summer arts festival, Jacobson takes off his curator hat and lets others do the judging. An eight-member panel reviews applications—each artist submits four images of their work along with a description of their process and artist statement—and decides who will be invited to show at the festival. When it comes to choosing best-of-show awards, 24 jurors—comprised of board members, sponsors and members of the Salt Lake Gallery Association—make the final decision.

In the meantime, Jacobson is designing the overall festival experience, making sure everything is in place and running smoothly. Planning the marketplace, says Jacobson, is like putting together a large puzzle. While some arts festivals like to group artists together based on their medium, Jacobson prefers to mix things up, putting big sculpture pieces next to a booth with mixed media, and that booth next to jewelry. "Visually, it makes for a more interesting experience," explains Jacobson. "And putting all one medium in a single place can do a disservice to the artists. If we didn't mix art forms, people might bypass other things and just focus on, say, the photography section."

This year, with the live performance stage moved onto the street, the "artist garden" (as Jacobson prefers to call it) will be pleasantly located in a new area under the trees, where artists and patrons will have more space and more welcome shade. "I think the public will like the new setup," says Jacobson. "They'll be able to get a beverage and go peruse the art." —Katherine Pioli

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The Film Pusher: Topher Horman
Fear No Film Festival coordinator
Topher Horman never really planned on running a film festival. That seems only fitting, since even when he made a film himself, he wasn't really planning to be a filmmaker.

The Salt Lake City native grew up as part of a theater family—"really, the only nonperformer in my family," he says. "My mom would take me to rehearsals [and I was] always watching the director's choices, what would work one night, and not work the next night. ... I'm so interested in audience reaction."

Horman took that interest in audience reaction to a degree in public communications, which he eventually applied to becoming a special-events coordinator directing pre-game and halftime shows for events like the Orange Bowl, the Sugar Bowl and the Indianapolis 500 parade. "At the same time, I'm also a product of Sundance and Slamdance [film festivals]," he says, "and seeing the envelope being pushed. But I didn't understand how much independent film was pushing me."

With no background in film production whatsoever, Horman dove into making his own independent feature film in 2002, called Thanksgiving, This Year. The two-year production process was intended, he says, as a calling card for his occupation as an event coordinator: "If you want to produce big events on just pennies, here's my example."

As he was getting feedback on the film, he showed it to many of the people he already knew in the Utah arts community, including Utah Arts Festival director Lisa Sewell. "Her response was, 'How would you like to run my film festival?'" Horman recalls.

That was 2007, at a time when the Utah Arts Festival's film component was a much more modest presentation focused around films of contemporary dance. Now, he fields around 500 submissions every year, devoting between 700 and 1,000 hours per year from January till the end of the festival to curating the accepted entries, organizing them into thematic programs and soliciting input from ad hoc individuals when he's just not sure about whether a specific applicant is right. "It's easy to eliminate bad ones, and there are also those I can immediately watch and think, this is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," Horman says. "Everything else in that gray area, I start bringing them to people who have expertise in that area. If I have a comedy and I'm not laughing, I'll take it to someone who's much funnier than I am. Or if the cadence, editing of the film is wrong, I'll take it to musicians and say, 'Tell me if the rhythm is off on this film.'"

This year, Horman has taken that fascination with audience response and organized Fear No Film's various short-film programs around the theme of "impulses"—the reactions that we may not even be aware of consciously. "We're encouraged to let [film] be a solitary art form," Horman says, referring to the way most people experience movies. "I'm trying to encourage [viewers] to interact with it—to remind them that they're part of an audience." —Scott Renshaw

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About The Authors

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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