How a building fix led Utah Museum of Fine Arts curators to ‘reimagine’ how the public connects with art

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Arts of the Pacific at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City . The re-imagined UMFA reopens to the public Saturday, Aug. 26.

After 14 years, Utah’s high desert air was taking a toll on the Utah Museum of Fine Arts’ flagship building.

Museums need 50 percent humidity at all times to preserve the works of art inside. It is no easy task keeping that level of humidity in a building on the University of Utah campus, where the air is thin and dry — and varies with the seasons from freezing cold to blistering hot.

The U.’s experts “were concerned the level of humidity in the building that the art requires … would have, over time, damaged potentially the infrastructure” of the John and Marcia Price Museum Building, said Gretchen Dietrich, UMFA’s executive director.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gretchen Dietrich is executive director of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

What began as a construction project grew into a chance for the curators at Utah’s most important repository of art to rethink the museum’s function — to explore the nearly 20,000 objects in its collections and to re-examine how the public connects to art.

Utahns finally will see the results next weekend, when the Utah Museum of Fine Arts opens its galleries to the public for the first time in 19 months.

The museum will throw a two-day opening party, Saturday and Sunday, with free admission and a schedule of events that includes a dance party, performances, Sunday morning yoga, film screenings, behind-the-scenes tours and a piñata bash.

“We began to ask ourselves, ‘OK, what opportunities does this present to us?’ ” Dietrich said. “To make the UMFA even better, to present our collections even more thoughtfully to the community, and how can we better engage the broader communities that we serve and really make the museum relevant to more people.”

Wear and tear

The wear and tear on the Price building, which opened in 2001, could be seen on the outer walls. As the humid air escaped through the brickwork, mineral deposits — the experts call it “efflorescence” — were visible, especially in a dry winter.

In September 2015, the museum announced it would close in January 2016 to upgrade the systems that maintain the “vapor barrier” — that magic 50 percent humidity level. The project also would retrofit the windows, heating and air conditioning. The state, through its capital budget, ponied up $2.5 million for the renovations.

The construction was done in two halves, first on the building’s north side (where the cafe, auditorium and store are), then the south. This allowed museum curators to store the art in the Price building, rather than taking the more expensive and time-consuming step of moving the collection to another location.

( | courtesy Utah Museum of Fine Arts) Construction workers in the Utah Museum of Fine Arts' Great Hall in March 2016, near the beginning of the museum's closure for building upgrades and remodeling.

The project, Dietrich said, was “incredibly disruptive. We not only had to close — museums don’t like to be closed; we like to be open and dealing with people — but we also had to run the project around the collection.”

The upgrades are largely invisible, and Dietrich has to point out to visitors the window frames that hide heating elements that cut down on condensation. A few new wall panels have been installed — one near the lobby’s welcome desk to create a new pathway to the east-side galleries, another in an upstairs gallery to block direct sunlight from a south-facing window.

A century of art

The museum has a century of history at the U., where it began as a small art gallery on Presidents Circle in 1914. It has had its current name since 1951, and the Utah Legislature declared UMFA the state’s fine-arts museum in 2005.

It is important to the university community and the area at large, said Brooke Horejsi, assistant dean for art and creative engagement in the U.’s College of Fine Arts.

“They serve the university, academically,” Horejsi said. “They also serve the regional community, as a place to come and experience these amazing objects.”

UMFA’s absence over the past 19 months has been felt on campus, Horejsi said.

“The museum is part of our day-to-day life. Not being able to find respite there …, we definitely noticed that,” she said. “It’s like having your favorite restaurant shut down in your neighborhood.”

And, like a neighborhood restaurant, the arts have an economic impact. According to a June study by Americans for the Arts, nonprofit arts and culture organizations in the Salt Lake City area spent $112 million in 2015, and their audiences spent $194 million to visit museums and attend live performances of theater, dance, music and other disciplines.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) European art at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City.

UMFA’s reimagining project is expected to make museums around the country take notice.

“It’s the kind of thing a lot of museums want to do. They obviously want to adapt and change to meet the needs of their communities,” said Joseph Klem, director of public relations for the American Alliance of Museums, a national advocacy group for museums. (In 1972, UMFA was the first museum west of the Mississippi to be accredited by the group.)

Wish list

The prospect of closing the museum for a year or more got Dietrich and UMFA’s curators making wish lists for what could be improved. The staff also solicited public comments about what they wanted from an art museum. The museum has raised $2.3 million, so far, from private donations for repainting galleries, getting long-unseen works into condition to exhibit and other additions. The museum also is raising the admission price from $9 for adults to $12.95.

“I remember when I first came to Utah, and I visited the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, I didn’t really see work from Utah,” Dietrich said. The museum’s old floor plan was a traditional one, hiding away American and regional art on the second floor, while giving the more walked-through first-floor galleries to the old European masters.

In the new plan, the American and regional galleries have moved to that high-traffic first floor. The first of these gallery rooms features works by artists from the American West, including Utahns such as Leconte Stewart and Minerva Teichert — one of three women artists represented in this gallery.

The regional art also is integrated more into the works in the American galleries, from the Midwest and East Coast, said Leslie Anderson, UMFA’s curator of European, American and regional art.

“The major theme running throughout the installation is westward migration,” Anderson said, ”and it looks at that foundation myth of Manifest Destiny and how artists really disseminated that.”

Art interactions

Also downstairs, as part of the Emma Eccles Jones Education Center, is the new ACME Lab, which grew out of the community discussions museum staff had during the building’s closure. (ACME is an acronym that stands for “art, community, museum, experience.”) The ACME Lab will house two exhibitions a year for patrons to interact with art.

“They’re meant to be a little more interdisciplinary, a little more innovative, a little more flexible,” Dietrich said.

For museum directors, Klem said, programs like ACME can be “risky, because you’re relinquishing a little bit of control.”

Next to the American galleries is the Great Hall, an imposing two-story-high room where the museum hosts gala events and rents out to wedding receptions and the like. A suspended ceiling and new flooring have been installed to cut down on the echo that made the room a cacophonous nightmare whenever a crowd gathered.

The Great Hall “has always been challenging, for both art and people — when we had 200 people in here, nobody could hear anything,” Dietrich said. The room’s dimensions can swallow up ordinary-sized paintings.

The hall will be devoted to performance space and site-specific installation works. The first installation is being mounted by Brooklyn-based artist Spencer Finch, in which Pantone color samples will capture the colors he encountered around the Great Salt Lake.

Shake it up

As visitors climb up the Price building’s grand staircase, the first stop is the modern and contemporary gallery, where senior curator Whitney Tassie is shaking up the status quo.

“It’s not a chronological hang,” said Tassie, UMFA’s curator of modern and contemporary art. “It’s meant to reach across media, across cultures, across generations. We’ve got young artists next to older artists, unknown artists next to really well-known artists.”

And, for the next year at least, all the works in this gallery are by women.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A bonnet by Angela Ellsworth at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City.

“We do want to engage people in this larger story and point out the inequity and the lack of representation of women and people of color often have in museum collections,” Dietrich said.

Tassie cited Utah-based artist Jann Haworth as “a great example of how recent research and attention to women Pop artists has changed the way we understand Pop art, which has usually been understood as a male-driven movement in the U.K. and the U.S. But when we start to look a little bit closer, and look at what these women were producing alongside these men, we see some subversive threads that haven’t really been part of that narrative.”

The British-born Haworth, who now lives in Salt Lake City, is best known for creating The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album cover with then-husband Peter Blake. She is one of three Utah artists with works in the modern and contemporary gallery. Arizona-based Angela Ellsworth, a descendant of 19th-century LDS Church President Lorenzo Snow, and the late Anna Campbell Bliss are the other two.

Behind the modern galleries are the Art of the Pacific gallery and the Art of Africa gallery — the first time in years African art has had a dedicated space at UMFA. Along the eastern side of the second floor, the rest of the world is represented: China, South Asia, several rooms of European art, the ancient Mediterranean (Greece, Rome and Egypt) and Mesoamerica (Central and South America, before Christopher Columbus’ voyages).

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) High Talking Chief Namulauulu Tavan joins members of Salt Lake City's Pacific Islander community as he blesses the Arts of the Pacific gallery in the newly renovated Utah Museum of Fine Arts on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City Tuesday August 8, 2017. Elders from the local Maori and Samoan communities performed ceremonial dances, chants and oration to welcome the objects back on view and to thank Museum staff for continued care of their cultural objects.

The interaction between galleries is lively. The Greek statue of Aphrodite, at one end of a long hall, stares the length of the building at the tangled black mass of Chakaia Booker’s “Discarded Memories” in the contemporary gallery, with four millennia of art history in between.

On paper

Near the modern gallery is a small room dedicated to works on paper, which will open with an exhibition of German-born art photographer Ilse Bing.

Many of the works in UMFA’s collection, Dietrich said, are on paper — watercolors, lithographs, etchings, photography and the like. They don’t get displayed often because of their delicacy; for every six months a work is shown, it must be rested for 18 months.

That was a challenge Dietrich and the curators were willing to take in many of the galleries, and they already have in mind what works will be rotated to replace the paper works going up this week. (Installation for some works is being pushed as close to the opening as possible.)

“I would have people say, ‘The Utah Museum of Fine Arts? Oh, I’ve been there.’ Almost like, ‘I never need to go there again,’ ” Dietrich said. “We definitely want people to understand that there‘s so much more work from the permanent collection that will be moving through these permanent installations. … We want to make our community think differently about what ‘permanent’ means.”

UMFA, in fact, doesn’t use the old-school term “permanent exhibit.” The preferred phrase now is “ongoing exhibit.”

In context

Another old-school museum practice that’s getting an update: how the art is labeled.

The identifying information posted by artworks don’t just list the artist, the name of the piece and the person who gave it to the museum. Now, the curators have worked to write informative bullet points for each work, to give museumgoers a little context about how or when the art was made.

“Every word on the walls is new,” Dietrich said. “We’ve taken the opportunity to really rethink all the writing that’s happening in the museum, and argued about pretty much every word.”

In three galleries — the Mesoamerican, the American and regional, and the modern and contemporary — those words are in English and Spanish.

The museum also is incorporating interactive kiosks in some of the galleries. Patrons of any age can learn more about Egyptian mummies, or Chinese porcelain, or symbolism in modern art.

And patrons can take a break from looking at art at three new gathering places around the museum. The first, called Trailhead, is near the cafe and will focus on Utah’s land art — specifically Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” and Nancy Holt’s “Sun Tunnels,” works over which UMFA has stewardship. Two on the second floor, Basecamp (behind the African art gallery) and Lookout (near the Mesoamerican gallery), will feature interactive elements and comfortable couches.

Klem, from the American Alliance of Museums, is impressed by these conversation areas, which will allow visitors to “engage in some additional dialogue and experience the objects in new ways.”

Also, the museum will have a sculpture terrace outside the cafe. The centerpiece will be a 6-foot-wide bronze by the American sculptor Paul Manship, “The Moods of Time: Morning,” which was first displayed at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.

Surprises around every corner

Walking through the galleries a week before the reopening, Dietrich and her curators find surprises around every corner: paintings that have just been hung, lighting that wasn’t installed a day ago, interactive elements being programmed.

They’re excited for Utahns to see their handiwork. After all, showing art is their business, and they haven’t shown any in the Price building for more than a year and half.

“It’s been an incredible experience,” Dietrich said of the 19-month reboot. “We’ve really thought very deeply about the strengths of … the museum and its collections, but also the ways in which we matter and make a difference in people’s lives.”

It all goes back, though, to the Price building, and upgrading the humidity controls that preserve the 20,000 works in UMFA’s collection.

“Our first obligation is to the collection,” Dietrich said. “But we love this building. Now we’re better able to care for the building, as it cares for the collection.”

UMFA information<br>Address • 410 Campus Center Drive, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City<br>Regular hours • Starting Aug. 29: Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; open until 9 p.m. Wednesdays; closed Mondays<br>Admission • $12.95 for adults; $9.95 for seniors (65 and older) and youth (6 to 18); free for children (up to age 5), UMFA members, University of Utah students, staff and faculty, students at public Utah universities, Utah Horizon/EBT cardholders and active-duty military families (prices may vary for special ticketed exhibitions)<br>Free days • Free admission on the first Wednesday and third Saturday of the month (free access may vary for special ticketed exhibitions)