On June 25th, one of the few nonprofit contemporary art institutions in Utah was forced to suspend its mission when, after programming disputes, the town served it a surprise eviction notice. The Central Utah Art Center (CUAC) now claims censorship.
In exchange for providing arts education to the town of Ephraim, the CUAC collected $30,000 annually in town funding and operated rent-free in a historic granary in the town’s Pioneer Square— ample resources for a space which, according to current director Adam Bateman, began with an annual attendance of only 450 people.
Bateman claims that that number has risen to 9,000 since he began to implement a “contemporary” mission in 2003, remodelling the volunteer co-op into a professional contemporary art space and shifting the programming from locally-painted landscape shows to travelling exhibitions of internationally-renowned artists.
In the eviction letter, Ephraim Mayor David Parrish and all five City Council members cited limited town funding and the CUAC’s unfulfilled promise to bring art education to local schools and work with nearby Snow College:
The City’s involvement in an art center must be predicated upon the benefit provided to its residents … Ephraim City is committed to providing a space where local artists can show their work and where art education is the driving force behind the center.
But “limited town funding” doesn’t accurately describe the city’s current financial resources. Bateman said that last year, the town reported a $500,000 dollar surplus, and according to last month’s City Council minutes, Ephraim is “healthy and doing well” financially.
The letter follows an exhibition “superHUMAN,” which, along with extremely well-known artists such as William Pope.L and Kerry James Marshall, featured a few bare breasts in photographs by New York-based artists Xaviera Simmons and Chitra Ganesh. According to Bateman, City Manager Regan Bolli told him in an email that “the art depicted was not appreciated.”
Bateman tells AFC in a phone call that he feels the issue is linked to last year’s “Camera Vivant,” a travelling exhibition which included excerpts from Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures. That show came at a time when a new mayor and City Council were elected; soon after, the CUAC was subjected to a year-long review—hence the set of conditions that the space was required to meet. The show attracted complaints from local artists and “created an uneasy relationship,” says Bateman, and according to the CUAC, Council members have claimed that recent exhibits are not “Sanpete [County] appropriate.” In protest, the CUAC’s closing party will screen Footloose, a story about a city kid who shakes up an Oklahoma town where rock and roll has been banned.
Footloose, though, isn’t a perfect match. As a town of 6,000 located in a county with a 79% Mormon population, we’re primed to believe censorship, but the question remains why a rural town of 6,000 should support a “professional-level” contemporary art center at all. From the looks of their websites, “SuperHUMAN” includes no local artists, and most of those exhibited already have gallery representation. Bolli maintains that CUAC didn’t adequately involve the local community. “The CUAC has done more art education for artists outside the community than in it, yet out of all of our communities, we’re funding CUAC,” said Bolli in a phone call with AFC. He continued:
We gave them $30,000 a year in funding and a free lease of $20,000. They needed to account for taxpayer dollars they were spending, and that didn’t happen. We wanted more local artists involved, both amateur and professional, and that didn’t happen.
Surplus or not, $50,000 is a lot of free money; nonprofit art centers in New York with presumably higher operational costs spend months scraping for half that.
Though thirty-two percent of artists shown at CUAC are from Sanpete County, taxpayers are paying to exhibit the other sixty-eight percent, too. [Edit 7/31: Though the town does provide $30,000 in funding and a rent-free space, most of CUAC’s $130,000 annual budget comes from outside funding. See the comment below.]
Bolli and Bateman fundamentally disagree on definitions of “open community center” and “contemporary art.” “In general, I don’t think they want to have contemporary art,” said Bateman. “They want local elementary and high school kids. There has been more general concern that we don’t include those kinds of people in our exhibitions, and in general, concerns with ideas about contemporary and highly-professional art.” CUAC’s mission echoes this sentiment, specifying Sanpete artists with a “high level of professionalism” and those who are “exemplary of important trends” elsewhere.
Whatever Ephraim’s landscape painters’ role in the contemporary art narrative, Bateman believes that they’re helped by being shown alongside the work of known artists. “Bringing that most contemporary of vision to a regional scene,” Bateman told us in an email, “provides the opportunity to start to contextualize Utah artists with household names from coastal art markets.” This has proven effective in other art communities; AFC editor Paddy Johnson points to the São Paulo Biennial, or Canada’s percentage requirements for Canadian content on TV and radio. CUAC believes that on those terms, it’s done well, touting thirty-two percent as a high mark— another sign that City Council failed to clarify its terms.
And bringing in outside ideas does, in part, fulfill an educational objective, said Bateman. Whether or not they were local, he said, the content was always sensitive to the locale, like experimental video which uses rodeo footage or a contemporary dialogue about landscape. “I tried to challenge people in a way that is educational and helps them to understand what artists are doing, instead of challenging people’s moral or political beliefs,” he tells us.
Bateman continues, “In an April 2011 council meeting we identified seven programs, have completed six out of seven, and have set into motion the last program this fall.” Bolli mentioned expanding the town sculpture garden and the “CUAC Bus,” a mobile arts education classroom, as examples of incomplete projects. “That’s why we call it a censorship issue, because the reasons we were given don’t add up.”
While Bolli mentioned that CUAC had failed to “approach other communities, local school districts, and Snow College for funding,” the center did secure outside funding in 2010: a grant of $97,500 in 2010 from the Warhol Foundation, a sign that the center provides services to the local community while challenging the public. In addition to bringing arts education to 500 students, Bateman reminds us that CUAC is one of the few organizations which is truly expanding contemporary art activity in the area. “Since we started operating,” says Bateman, “art museums in Utah have hired contemporary curators. The Salt Lake Art Center has changed its name to the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. I don’t want to take credit for that, but our presence in the state has shown that contemporary art is a viable thing that people want to experience.”
Even if it will no longer be supported by the town of Ephraim, CUAC is already entertaining several offers for other spaces. In the meantime, the center has created a petition, is fundraising on its site, plans to host pop-up shows, and will pick up next year— with or without Ephraim.
UPDATE 8/1: An anonymous reader has directed AFC to a blog post titled “The End of the Central Utah Art Center — at last?”
A longtime CUAC visitor notes the lack of proof for censorship claims:
While there is a written comment by City Manager Regan Bolli that ‘no one appreciated’ the work on display, it’s naive to think that government employees don’t routinely hold their noses and vote for things they don’t ‘appreciate,’ but which are supported by others.
It goes on, in reference to current director Adam Bateman:
What supports the CUAC most is the unspoken understanding that there is not enough art in the US and that any effort to produce more must be encouraged. While I am among those in line to sign that pledge, I have not drunk the kool-aid and I will not. Scarce resources need to allocated, not used for self-indulgence or to inflate individual resumes.
For the full piece, click here.