Salt Lake City competing for $1 million for public art about the Great Salt Lake

The grant program, from media tycoon Michael Bloomberg’s charity, is aimed at boosting art for a cause.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Great Salt Lake shows signs of improvement on Wednesday, April 12, 2023, near the outflow of the Weber River where areas that used to be bone-dry just weeks before have been covered with a few inches of water improving bird habitat and reducing dust.

Salt Lake City is in the running for a $1 million grant for a public art project that draws attention to the plight of the Great Salt Lake.

The city is one of 17 finalists, chosen from more than 150 entries from across the country, for the Public Art Challenge, funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charity started by media tycoon and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The charity will choose up to 10 cities from the 17 finalists, with each receiving a $1 million grant to help fund “temporary public art projects that address an urgent civic issue,” a news release Bloomberg Philanthropies release said.

The finalists will be asked to submit more detailed plans for their projects. Winners will be announced later this year.

Salt Lake City’s project is one of five aimed at addressing climate change. Specifically, the drought that is threatening the Great Salt Lake, which Felicia Baca, director of the Salt Lake City Arts Council, called one of the “most visible and critical” issues Utah faces.

The project is called “Wake the Great Salt Lake.” Baca said the title was chosen because of the different meanings of the word “wake.”

“First, there’s kind of a literal reference to a wave pattern as a result of a disturbance or displacement,” Baca said. “Second, ‘wake’ is kind of a hopeful term, a waking up or a rousing of consciousness. And then, third, it was kind of a reference to the many calls to action.”

The Great Salt Lake, said Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, is “a microcosm of the climate crisis that’s playing out across the planet.”

Mendenhall told The Tribune that “it’s an exciting idea that we could receive such a phenomenal investment in connecting our own residents’ notions of our relationship with the lake across the city.”

The project, as proposed, would include visual art installations in each of Salt Lake City’s seven city council districts. Baca said the project would not be restricted to visual arts, but would incorporate objects and other interdisciplinary media, such as audio.

The project will use local artists, Baca said, but there is a chance of bringing in national and international artists, too.

“I support the expansion of arts in the city wholeheartedly,” Mendenhall said, “because it tells it both tells the story of who we are as the people of this community and who we have been and who we’re becoming.”

If Salt Lake City is among the grant recipients, Mendenhall said she hopes the art project will inspire and educate residents and visitors to take action.

Baca said one goal of the art project is to show people that the issues facing the Great Salt Lake go beyond the water itself — and that the intersections of the areas and people affected make it bigger than one city or even the state.

“The flora and fauna of the lake, all the ecosystems … issues at hand, such as agriculture, industry … Indigenous issues, this is an area where the Shonsone and Paiute used to utilize and live,” Baca said.

The grant doesn’t require cities to raise matching funds, Baca said, but “some local foundations have offered verbal support to the project.” If the Great Salt Lake project is chosen, she said, city officials anticipate other sources of financial support.

If the Bloomberg charity doesn’t choose Salt Lake City’s proposal, Baca said, “we’ve already funded projects on this topic. We do have public art projects on the horizon that will undoubtedly intersect with this topic. It’s really something that’s front of mind for us, and we anticipate that to continue in the future.”