About two years ago, I was writing stories about heady times in Utah for contemporary art.

Adam Price, above, was tearing down the walls at the Salt Lake Art Center and pushing edgy, urban, and often hilarious, art into the greater community. He launched programs that called on homeowners to create lawn art, sent out mobile galleries and invited LA's Fallen Fruit cooperative to map SLC's public fruit trees and exhibit “fruit art” from local museums. As key part of it, he brought in a passionate contemporary art curator, Micol Hebron from Los Angeles in 2010.

If anyone had any doubts about where Price was headed, he even changed the center's name to Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA).

Meanwhile, up at the UofU, the Utah Museum of Fine Art had brought on its first contemporary art curator, Jill Dawsey, who was hitting her stride by launching, among many other initiatives, the salt series that brings emerging contemporary artists from around the world to Utah—to exhibit, lecture and create.

Even in rural, isolated Ephraim, the Central Utah Art Center (CUAC) had emerged as a contemporary art destination. They ran an Art Bus, complete with beer and video installations, from the Wasatch Front to Sanpete County.

Utah, I thought, had somehow proven itself fertile ground for foward-leaning art and was on its way to becoming a creative oasis in flyover America.

Whoo-hoo! I said.

Could I have been wrong? Since I wrote that stuff:

  • Hebron returned to LA after less than a year in Zion.
  • Dawsey took a powder for a position in San Diego.
  • Garfo, an important gallery for emerging artists closed.
  • Adam Price left UMOCA to lead the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha.
  • CUAC got tossed from its city owned historic building after a dispute over its edgy programming.
  • Now, Hebron's replacement, Aaron Moulton, after 18 months, has announced he too will abandon UMOCA. Rumor is SLC is again victim to the Left Coast's cultural tractor beam.

UMOCA Interim Director Maggie Willis tells me that UMOCA is going through “exciting times.” (Isn't that a Chinese curse, “May you in exciting times.”) While attendance at UMOCA exploded under Price and has stayed up since he left, Willis says, it didn't turn into increased income because the museum is free. Apparently, all-important benefactors never got the message that great contemporary makes a great city. (BTW, City Creek Center, the self-contained lobster trap across West Temple, has not brought a hoped-for surge in visitors, she says.)

Josh Kanter, a former UMOCA board member, says that UMOCA has developed a popular following, but getting donors "is a different ball game. We have yet to find a development answer."

UMOCA is planning surveys to figure what's going on, Willis says. “We have to consider where we are as a museum and support what the community as a whole wants.”  She acknowledges that not everyone has been delighted with the new direction. “Some people were unsure about the name change,” she says. Tourists, however, are delighted with UMOCA, she says. “They were surprised to find a contemporary art museum in Utah.”

UMOCA will look into charging admission, she says. “We know contemporary art can be scary--having it free meant we can keep our doors as open as possible.”

Kanter says the board and staff remained solidly behind UMOCA's mission in contemporary art.

In explaining the turnover, Willis says art professionals have a hard time adjusting to Salt Lake. “Utah is a hard place to tranistion into if you don't already have a lot of background in Utah.” And in fact, the candidates being interviewed for UMOCA's director position (Willis has no interest in it.) have Utah ties. “Those people are drawn to Utah anyway,” Willis says.

It's not all bad news:

CUAC has opened a gallery in downtown Salt Lake City where it's founders' vision is more appreciated. (The smear opening this blog is from a performance art exhibit at CUAC.)

And the UMFA recommitted itself to contemporary art by bringing Whitney Tassie (above) in from Chicago as curator of modern and contemporary art.

[New addition: I forgot some of the best news in contemporary art--BYU's Museum of Art, where Jeff Lambson was been doing edgy exhibitions—and continues to get away with it.]

Kanter argues that recent events are simply a plateau in a upward curve for contemporary arts. "Utah, while it historically has supported performing arts, has always been a difficult place for visual art and contemporary art."