The Salt Lake City Arts Council has taken center stage in the city’s cultural life — it funds the Living Traditions Festival, the Twilight Concert Series, Finch Lane Gallery in Reservoir Park, public art and the summer Brown Bag Concert Series downtown.
It supports the city’s theaters, museums, festivals, dance and film groups — from Ballet West to Sambo Fogo Music and Dance, from Pioneer Theatre to Spy Hop — and more, with scores of annual grants.
But four decades after its founding, the Arts Council is re-examining its role in Salt Lake City’s arts scene.
At the prompting of Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s office, the council is requesting bids from outside contractors to look for gaps in the city’s arts offerings and ways to boost recognition of Salt Lake City as an arts destination.
It’s an effort to improve the organization, not an attempt to fix something that’s broken, said Lia Summers, Biskupski’s senior adviser for arts and culture. The city also is looking for a new executive director for the council; the job is scheduled to be posted soon.
Summers, acting Arts Council director Kelsey Ellis and board chair Katherine Potter all point to how the arts community has “changed dramatically” over the past four decades and the need to re-evaluate what the council does and how it operates.
Potter, who took over as chair in June, said the gap study will help ensure the council “is relevant in supporting the organizations in the community. That we are providing that role that a local arts agency should be filling.”
The council’s budget for the current fiscal year totals $1.682 million; $355,000 of that goes out in grants to arts organizations in the city.
The nearly 100 grants range from $1,350 to the Off Broadway Theatre and $2,000 to each of five elementary schools for artist-in-residence programs on the lower end, to $7,250 to Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, $8,100 to Brazilian dance company Samba Fogo, and $9,500 to the Heart & Soul music festival in Sugar House on the upper end.
The gap analysis may change how the council spends its money, perhaps sending it in new directions, but Potter said she does not foresee changes to the council’s goals.
“There might be tweaks to the way that we support the arts community and the programming that we do,” she said. “We might see new opportunities that we could be more involved in. But, overall, we are there as a support to our amazing arts community.”
The gap study will also look at the way the council itself is structured — it is both part of the city’s Economic Development department and a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization; the board acts in both an advisory role to the city and as the board of the nonprofit.
“It’s not a completely unique arrangement, but it is rare,” Potter said. The goal is to learn how other cities “do what they do successfully” and “learn from the those comparisons,” Ellis said.
According to Summers, the review will focus on more than just art. She said Biskupski “very purposely” placed the council in the Department of Economic Development.
“The mayor has always been aware of what a huge economic driver the arts are," Summers said, “and she wants to continue to see arts and culture play that kind of a role in the growth of our city.”
Declaring Arts Days in Salt Lake City in June 2017, Biskupski noted an Americans for the Arts study that showed “over $306 million is generated by the city’s nonprofit arts and culture sector” — including providing “over 10,000 jobs” and acting as an “important factor” in why businesses locate and expand in the city.
At the Arts Council, all that is seen as a fortunate byproduct.
“We’re art for art’s sake, and that’s very important to us,” Ellis said, “but we also understand the opportunities for economic development. If there are opportunities to align some of that, great.”
The plan is to have the gap study completed by the end of 2018, Potter said.
It will draw mostly on data already collected. “We have a lot of master plans that have been adopted over the last decade,” Summers said, “and as part of many of them, there are little snippets about what community would like to see in terms of arts and culture throughout the city.”
According to Potter, the study will include “some additional roundtable discussions … that will involve the arts community. It won’t be simply someone sitting at a desk and reviewing files.”