Sarah Longoria: Art is being priced out of Salt Lake City

(Jon Burkholz | photo courtesy Municipal Ballet Co.) Members of Salt Lake City's Municipal Ballet Co. performing on a downtown Salt Lake City sidewalk in 2013.

As the director of a nonprofit ballet company, I tend to dream a lot. Sometimes I peruse commercial real estate listings, and imagine that our little company could have a permanent home.

In the summer of last year, I noticed that a beautiful historic church, the 5th Ward meetinghouse, which was most recently a Buddhist temple, was for sale. On the ground level of the temple was a movement space, equipped with a dance floor and mirrors. Not only was it a beautiful old building, but it also was already ready for us to dance there. I imagined students dancing downstairs, and company members rehearsing upstairs, and taking good care of this lovely building.

Of course, it was listed for $1 million, which was impossible.

The property sold in fall 2019 and sat empty. In spring 2020, some of the windows had been broken out of the building and homeless people were starting to gather there. The owner of a neighboring business boarded up the broken windows to try to discourage people from entering the vacant building. When I peered between the boards into the movement studio, I noticed that the floors were warped and there were leaves and twigs scattered about.

I called the city to find out whom the owners were, and then called them to inquire about the building. Perhaps it would be better for some small nonprofit ballet company to occupy it, even temporarily, rather than just let it sit empty?

After promises of returning my call, no one ever did. Recently, I saw that the building has been listed for sale, again, almost exactly one year after it was purchased. It is now listed for $2.35 million.

It seems to me like an unconscionable act to purchase a historic building, allow it to sit empty and deteriorate for a year, and to be rewarded with over a million dollars, at the end of it all. Of course, everything the owners did was perfectly legal. Many people might consider them “smart” for investing at the right time. They probably even received some sort of tax breaks for buying it. It is my opinion, however, that this is evidence of a broken system. It is evidence that our city doesn’t have its priorities straight.

Visit Salt Lake recently used images of Municipal Ballet Company, from one of our street performances, for its Ski City advertising campaign. After eight years of creating ballets with local dancers, choreographers, musicians and other artists, I believe our art really does represent our city. It was always meant to be ballet by and for the people of this community that we love.

What I don’t see in the advertisements for Salt Lake City are photos of bulldozers destroying our historic buildings in order to build nondescript condominiums. But that seems to be much more representative of our current city than a street performance that we did in 2014.

I think I speak for a lot of our city’s artists and small local businesses when I say that we’re being priced out. If Salt Lake City doesn’t step in and create regulations, like fining landlords who keep commercial properties vacant, prioritizing historic preservation, recognizing businesses and organizations as cultural landmarks and ensuring affordable housing, we will lose our artists, who will have to focus on making money instead of art, and our small-business owners, who are already struggling to survive a pandemic that has failed to weaken our real estate market.

It is up to the city to make regulations that reflect what it values. When you value art in your advertising, you must value art in your policies. If you understand that Salt Lake City’s artists and small business make it unique from any other city in the world, then you have to fight to help them survive.

And to whoever will be the next owner of the 5th Ward meetinghouse: Municipal Ballet Company will happily dance there, and take care of it for you, while you sit back and make money. Although, unfortunately, at $2.35 million, your only option for making money might be to tear it down and build condominiums.

Sarah Longoria

Sarah Longoria, Salt Lake City, is director of the nonprofit Municipal Ballet Company, which she founded in 2012.

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