As an art collector and gallery owner, Diane Stewart wouldn’t dare attempt to distill the breadth of modern art in the American West into a single work — but if pressed, Jean Richardson’s “Tumbleweed” might do the trick.
“This tumbleweed represents, in many ways, the new West, and what’s happening to the West, in good and bad ways,” Stewart said of the artwork, the first one a visitor sees when entering Modern West Fine Art’s new location on downtown Salt Lake City’s western edge.
It’s the work of a transplant: Richardson is Scottish, now living in Utah. It bridges the natural, a tumbleweed, with the human-made, in the form of bits of pink plastic-foam packing material.
And, like the gallery, it’s on the move.
After living for its first five years in “a fishbowl” at 200 South and 200 East, Stewart said, Modern West has found a new home at 412 S. 700 West, in the shadow of the 400 South overpass that links the city to the Interstate 15 onramp.
To celebrate the new digs, the gallery is opening a group show, “The New West,” now through June 8. (An opening reception is set for Friday, April 19, from 7 to 9 p.m., as part of the monthly Salt Lake Gallery Stroll.)
The title is a play on words, Stewart said, denoting both the gallery’s move a mile-and-a-half west of its former location, and its focus on works by 30 artists who represent modern art from the western United States.
“We’ve never been a cowboy-and-Indian gallery,” Stewart said. “We’ve always been about an interpretation of the West, in a contemporary way, by artists who have been inspired by [the West], who have lived by [the West], or the West has impacted them in some way.”
Some of the exhibition’s works are quite serious, such as Day Christensen’s bronze renderings of aspen tree trunks, or John Bell’s “You Are Here,” which took 12 years for Bell to place some 150,000 white-tipped pushpins in patterns that reflect the ups and downs in his life, including a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.
Other pieces are more whimsical. Another work by Richardson is a five-foot-wide soccer ball made of umbrellas. Helper painter Ben Steele’s “Mormon Rockwell” parodies a classic Norman Rockwell illustration of a sailor getting his latest girlfriend’s name tattooed on his bicep — but here the figure is Brigham Young, early leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the tattooed names are those of his plural wives.
The exhibition also showcases Stewart’s gallery itself, and its role in a changing art world.
“Brick-and-mortar galleries have really evolved,” Stewart said.
Galleries on the coasts, she said, have had to contend with the rising popularity of art fairs, pop-up events where artists turn their exhibitions into Instagram-friendly happenings. Fine-art galleries like Modern West have to compete with such events to attract art collectors, just as major coastal galleries do. (Stewart acknowledged that the bulk of the collectors who pay the thousands of dollars for her artists’ works are from out of state.)
At the same time, Stewart said, her gallery is part of Salt Lake City’s cultural scene. “We are not on a coast, we’re grounded in our community,” she said, adding that she has invited an array of nonprofit groups to use the space. “We want the community here. ... We throw a pretty good party.”
The building boasts 10,000 square feet on two floors, about 50% more than the old location, Stewart said. There’s a sculpture courtyard in the back that can be used for events in fair weather. And there’s a living room-like space with a library of books by Taschen, a high-end publisher of art books; Stewart boasts it’s the only such space for Taschen books not on the coasts.
A key to attracting younger art patrons is to cater to social media, said Katherine Hébert, publisher of Gallery Fuel, a web publication that advises fine-art dealers.
“As a marketing strategy, it is essential to get people in the gallery to see art in person,” Hébert said in an email interview. “If their events offer a unique, fun experience then, of course, having attendees share it on Instagram is gold.”
Stewart thinks moving west will bring other business along. “Artists change areas,” she said. “When you support art, what you’re actually doing is supporting the economic driver of a city."
Hébert agreed. “As the saying goes, there is strength in numbers,” Hébert said. “These districts offer variety and convenience for art lovers and for galleries. Being part of an art district community creates greater opportunity for collaborations and to share resources.”
Stewart points to thriving art-centric cities like Denver, Portland, Seattle and Austin. Hébert adds to that list Atlanta, where the Castleberry Hills Arts District has grown from a run-down industrial area to a home for galleries, artists’ studios, music venues, restaurants and art happenings.
That’s starting to happen around Modern West. Stewart has opened the second floor to The Foundry SLC, a co-working spot for artists that includes conference rooms, a photo studio and desk space. Next door, Saltgrass Printmakers has opened a studio, and several artists are renting space. Kings Peak Coffee Roasters is serving hot and cold drinks. And Stewart has met the gallery’s neighbors at FFKR Architects.
“We are really building this as a destination,” Stewart said, adding that she would like to attract a restaurant or two to the block. “Once people find us, we’ll be a natural stop for people who are coming through Salt Lake and people who live in Salt Lake. ... People are now saying that something is happening on the west side of Salt Lake.”
Modern West, farther west
Modern West Fine Art opens at its new location, with the group exhibition “The New West.”
Where • Modern West Fine Art, 412 S. 700 West, Salt Lake City.
When • The exhibit runs through June 8.
Opening • A private ribbon-cutting happens Friday, April 19, from 6 to 7 p.m. A public reception runs from 7 to 9 p.m., as part of the monthly Salt Lake Gallery Stroll.
Hours • Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; or by appointment.