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In Central Utah, a Contemporary Art Center Puts Community First

The Central Utah Art Center helps artists contextualize their own artwork and build new peer relationships.

Diana Shi

Diana Shi

This article originally appeared on Creators.

In a spacious, lighted venue in the heart of Salt Lake City, groups of artists absorb new perspectives, mediums, and relationships to the local creative community. The lively exhibition space strives not only to bring artistic minds together, but to challenge creatives to step outside of their comfort zone as well as the commercial-art-world limitations.

The Central Utah Art Center, or CUAC, has run its unique center for 14 years. Under the leadership of Kathleen Peterson, the center began as an artist cooperative, catering to disparate parts of the local scene. Slowly, and with a transition from its original location, CUAC fell under the guidance of Adam Bateman and Jared Latimer, both artists. Today, Bateman serves executive director and oft curator of the center.

CUAC, as Bateman shares with Creators, is often a helpful conduit for greener artists, looking to broaden their landscapes with new connections. Similar to a mentorship or even a pen-pal correspondence, Utah-based artists are frequently paired with international or out-of-state artists to foster new connections. Establishing a peer-to-peer relationship helps strengthen the cultural community of Salt Lake City, as well as promoting a more globalized viewpoint throughout the state.

Explains Bateman, "The purpose of being able to connect Utah artists to artists outside of Utah, [is] so they can be contextualized by the viewer and also make connections with peers outside of Utah. We try to bring young but promising artists to represent the non-Utah program, think the Whitney Biennial, among others."

In addition to opening the doors of Center itself, the organization organizes a residency at Birch Creek Ranch in Spring City, Utah for a DIY residency. The getaway serves as a special opportunity for a few artists to take up home in the rural area and craft their art in solitude.

Creators asked Adam Bateman a few questions about CUAC, including how the art scene in Utah shapes up, and what kind of history the Center has:

Creators: When seeking out new artists for CUAC, what certain attributes or styles do tend to look for?

Adam Bateman: I try to apply a multi-year curatorial outlook to my decisions even though we rarely are scheduled a year out. That multi-year perspective allows me to consider the fact that I maybe haven't shown painting for awhile, or sculpture, or video [...] and circle back around to a diverse program, both in terms of the content and format of the work, but also when considering an ever-evolving struggle to question my own perspectives about art— how do I challenge my own ideas? Can I show art that I think is "good" that I might not like? How many women or people of color have had the opportunity to be represented? is another thing I try to be conscious of without it being the driving factor.

Being a low budget, artist-run venue, I usually have a personal relationship with artists who exhibit with me. I usually can't afford to simply 'like' the work of an artist and call their gallery and schedule a show, so I usually start the schedule around opportunities to bring an artist in from outside of Utah as the logistics are more difficult. Those artists are usually artists I know personally from showing with them or meeting them through friends or some other social way, but whose work I believe in and fits in with my overall schedule. I then try to match them with a Utah-based artist who may provide some mutual conversation or context. In Utah, a venue like mine gets lots of social pressure to show local work, but we are also quick to dismiss something as mediocre if it's local and celebrate something if it's coastal. This pairing approach allows me to lend legitimacy to the show by showing a New York-based artist, for example, while simultaneously giving context and legitimacy for a Utah artist. I have rarely exhibited the same artist twice.

Artwork by Adam Bateman

How would you describe the art scene in Utah? What is something that people outside of Utah may not realize about the state's creative community?

The art/creative community is sort of complicated here. There is a ton of support for the arts generally and per capita there are more artists living in Salt Lake City than in most cities. The music scene is good. There are a few professional dance companies that are nationally respected. Theater and especially film are quite strong here. In terms of visual art, there is a ton of support—both in terms of government and foundation support and a strong art market here—but that heavily revolves around a regional movement that is landscape and plein air and religious-art heavy. I personally see that movement as participating in a different conversation than what I'd call contemporary art—which is very under-supported. There is however a growing and strong community of contemporary artists here. Brigham Young University especially and Weber State University and the University of Utah to a lesser degree are producing undergraduate students who are attending top MFA programs and some of them are returning.

Artwork by Adam Bateman

When did it hit you that your city and state could use a place like CUAC?

When I started CUAC in my hometown of Ephraim (5,000 people), there was really only one other venue in the state that showed anything that might be considered contemporary art. That was 12 years ago. At that time I had just returned to Utah after living in NYC. I was one of three artists living in Utah at the time that were exhibiting our work outside of Utah. After eight years in Ephraim, an eviction by Ephraim City, and a First Amendment lawsuit, we moved to SLC. The move has been good for us and for Utah. There are now six venues that focus on contemporary art in the state and another six major institutions that have hired contemporary art curators and now have at least occasional shows of contemporary art. I count 30 artists who live here who have some presence exhibiting outside of Utah and another 100 that could. I opened CUAC because Utah was hemorrhaging good artists. Utah is now doing a much better job at retaining those artists who are now teaching in the high schools and universities and causing our community to grow. I hope that at least, in part, CUAC has something to do with that change.

Learn more about CUAC and see a list of the past artist involvees, here. See artwork from CUAC's executive director, Adam Bateman, here.

All year, we're highlighting 50 States of Art projects around the United States, starting with Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Utah, and Florida. To learn more, click here.