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Art center and Utah town settle lawsuit over eviction and censorship

Published January 4, 2014 4:44 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A small Utah town that evicted a cutting-edge art center has agreed to pay tens of thousands of dollars to resolve the ensuing legal battle.

The Central Utah Art Center will receive $60,000 from Ephraim, in Sanpete County, as part of a settlement announced Friday. The CUAC had occupied a former ZCMI Granary in the town's Pioneer Square for 20 years, but in June 2012 was evicted from the city-owned building. Town leaders also cut off $30,000 in funding to the art center at the time of the eviction.

The eviction prompted a legal battled that dragged on until the opening days of 2014. City officials argued that the CUAC had "failed to perform" in the community by not rolling out art programs. City Manager Regan Bolli reiterated that point Friday, saying the city had asked the CUAC to set up relationships with local schools and colleges, create a street beautification program and reach out to neighboring towns, among other things.

"Those things did not happen," Bolli said.

But CUAC officials argued the real issue was censorship. In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court early in 2013, the CUAC claimed it was evicted for displaying art that some felt was not "Sanpete appropriate." The lawsuit further alleged that the city censored the center because some exhibits in 2011 and 2012 featured depictions of nudity and explored themes of sexuality, gender and identity.

Officials with the CUAC also said they had done considerable outreach, with hundreds of school children enrolling in classes at the center, among other things.

The settlement resolves both the eviction case and the federal lawsuit.

A statement issued Friday by the CUAC continued to argue that the eviction "was due to censorship that constituted a violation of our First Amendment rights."

Director Adam Bateman added Friday he believes the case boiled down to a "branding" issue in the city, with the CUAC's focus on contemporary art clashing with the historically more conservative pieces that were displayed in the town.

"They wanted to see wildlife paintings," Bateman said. "They wanted things that would brand Ephraim as a quaint rural town and I think they saw the CUAC as branding Ephraim as something connected to the big city."

Bateman — a Sanpete native who began running the center in 2005 — said that during his time at the helm, the focus on contemporary art sent attendance numbers soaring from a few hundred people per year to many thousand. About a third of the artists featured in the CUAC during that period were local, Bateman added.

Bolli denied the censorship had anything to do with the CUAC eviction. The city also agreed to issue a statement as part of the settlement, saying the city does "not endorse censorship or repression of artistic freedom."

According to Bolli, the $60,000 going to the CUAC is made up of money already set aside for the arts, as well as matching insurance funds. The CUAC statement adds that the money will be used "to help offset damages caused by the City's actions."

Bateman said that although he felt it was important to pursue the case and stand up against censorship, the decision to settle came down to a desire to focus energy on art rather than lawsuits.

In the aftermath, both Ephraim and the CUAC are moving on. The city plans to put a new art center in the old granary building. The CUAC — which is still run by Bateman — has since moved into a new location in downtown Salt Lake City. According to Bateman, the center also is getting back on track after missing an entire year of grant applications due to the eviction lawsuit.

jdalrymple@sltrib.com

Twitter: @jimmycdii —

Ephraim City statement:

"Ephraim City and its leadership believe that the freedom to create and display artwork, even artwork that may be unpopular or repugnant to some of its audience, is a protected constitutional freedom worthy of respect. The city does not endorse censorship or repression of artistic freedom, and it is committed to protecting the First Amendment rights of its citizens and artists in the community."