On July 17, an article in the Salt Lake Tribune by Ben Fulton broke shocking news: the City Of Ephraim has evicted the Central Utah Art Center, effective August 20. Citing the pervasive economic woes that have hit governments on every level in the US, Ephraim authorities were quoted as saying the CUAC has failed to deliver on its agreement to provide local benefits in art presentation and education in exchange for what it claims was about $30,000 per year in free rent and donations. The Center’s board of directors countered with a claim that it was censorship, pointing to the current show and claiming that some of its exhibits, which contain nudity, had drawn unusual interest from the city’s administrators. 36 public comments followed, all but two attacking the city bureaucrats and promising to rally in support of Free Speech. As an arts writer who has written extensively and lectured frequently at the CUAC, I wish the lines were as clearly drawn as those replies suggest. Sadly, the known facts and comments from Ephraim residents all point in a different direction, and my personal experience with all three of the CUAC’s directors lead me to believe that the First Amendment claims are a smokescreen meant to cover up an intransigent attitude on the part of one man: the two-time director of the CUAC, Adam Bateman.
I have personally witnessed arrant abuse of power by authority many times, beginning in the 1960s when a journal I helped write was seized and burned and a literary journal reprinted to change words that one routinely finds in today’s news. I could go on, but the point is that in not one case did the authorities attempt to disguise their motives. The reasons are simple: it’s a lot easier to get public support for standards of ‘decency’ and propriety than it is to explain the complex conflicts that face a bureaucrat trying to do a challenging job. I imagine the Ephraim City Council would have preferred some outrage on the part of the CUAC that would have galvanized the kind of support for them among citizens that the CUAC failed to generate in twenty years of operation. To convince readers of the Tribune that this was a regretful-but-necessary decision based on fiscal and functional priorities would be a last choice, one only made because, alas, it seems to be true.
Prior to 2005, under the direction of its founder, the popular painter Kathleen Peterson, the CUAC’s mezzanine was reserved for a permanent display of local arts and crafts: I recall painted saw blades being among the merchandise. Downstairs housed rotating exhibitions by well-known artists. Those shows continued under Peterson’s successor—this was the first place I ever saw Brian Kershisnik, Lee Udall Bennion, and many other Utah artists—but Mr. Bateman clearly had another, ambitious but entirely commendable priority, which was bringing what are often styled ‘contemporary’ artists in from out of state. I remember individuals from New York, California, and the Pacific Northwest. It was during this phase, while I was teaching writing and art history at Snow College, that I began writing about CUAC exhibits, encouraged by Bateman, and it was he who introduced me to 15 Bytes and its director, Shawn Rossiter.
From the outset, there were problems with Bateman’s directorial style. His prodigious energies were divided between his own career as an artist and his desire to remake the CUAC as a node on the International Art scene. The disconnect from the Ephraim community began then, often showing up in trivial-seeming but important signs, like the gallery being closed on days when it was posted to be open. Adam Bateman is a powerful, charismatic figure, but he tended to use his personal force bluntly, dividing the arts community into those who supported him and those he had offended. Unfortunately, as time passed the former were increasingly located in Salt Lake, Los Angeles, and Reykjavik, while the latter came to include much of the Snow College faculty and Ephraim’s indigenous art audience.
The salvation of the CUAC arguably came with Bateman’s departure for Park City and his replacement by Jared Latimer. Like Bateman, Latimer is himself an artist as well as a curator. But unlike Bateman’s ambitious sculptures (made from tons of books and sections of modern irrigation equipment), Latimer’s projects didn’t interfere with his operation of the Center. More importantly, his diplomatic approach to public relations and his creative approach to fundraising brought on what was unarguably the golden age of the CUAC. During his years, Utah-wide juried shows produced glossy catalogs, local school programs culminated in exhibitions of student work in the gallery, and openings with pizza and soda for all became well-attended Friday-night events. It was Latimer who secured the grant from the Warhol Foundation that put Ephraim on the radar of distant artists and organizations. The refurbishing of the gallery and the long-overdue completion of the second gallery occurred during this time. Bateman was still part of these changes, having remained on the CUAC board of directors. But there is no arguing that Latimer was not only the face of the board with which the the public dealt, but was also the source of the meticulous research that supported its fundraising program. Of course his virtues and the success of his efforts could not stay secret long, and he, like Bateman, was hired away by a more prestigious art venue.
Latimer’s departure left a vacancy, and Bateman—whose departure to Park City had ended abruptly—stepped in to fill it. At this point the story becomes murky, with publicly verifiable facts unavailable and different sides emerging from meetings with very different versions of what took place. The board of directors at CUAC have chosen to stand together behind the accusation that they are being censored, though no verifiable evidence supports their version. While there is a written comment by City Manager Regan Bolli that ‘no one appreciated’ the work on display, it’s naive to think that government employees don’t routinely hold their noses and vote for things they don’t ‘appreciate,’ but which are supported by others. Meanwhile, sources in Ephraim describe a city bureaucracy in which no one has seen a raise in almost a decade and some employees have taken cuts. They say that when Adam Bateman approached them this year, his request wasn’t just for the customary support of the city, but for an increase. They also say that when he was challenged on the question of the Center’s relevance to the residents of Ephraim and its original mandate, his non-responsive reply argued that the unsophisticated audience in Ephraim didn’t deserve what the CUAC is offering.
I hope it’s clear what’s wrong with this picture. But consider this, too. One of the more vehement emails sent to the Tribune suggested that Ephraim City must have preferred another tenant, and urged readers to watch to see who moves into this valuable commercial property. Would it could be so. Over the last decade, many properties along Ephraim’s primary street (Highway 89) have stood empty, while the businesses that have opened have often shut again. So far as culture is concerned things are mixed: the movie theaters both survive on G and PG-rated features, while an upscale Italian restaurant failed. One of the most attractive properties, an LDS bishop’s office resembling a Craftsman-style bungalow, was used for a while as a bank’s loan office, but again sits empty. The building that houses the CUAC particularly challenges a potential tenant. Necessarily unmodifiable due to its historical status, its single room, with a mezzanine surrounding an atrium-like central space, isn’t appropriate for the scale or type of business that is likely in Ephraim. The minor refurbishing that took place recently was only grudgingly agreed to by its defenders. It is likely that an art gallery was the best solution to the civic dilemma posed by this large, prominently located, charming, and irreplaceable structure. And it’s sad that after the city and the surrounding community made a heroic effort to save this treasure from the immigrant past from demolition, their efforts fell victim to forces determined to hijack what they created for very different purposes.
The truth is that Ephraim wants what the CUAC was supposed to provide, but has little interest in what it primarily delivers. Few who do have that interest make the long journey there. Openings are often attended by a handful of enthusiasts, and whole days go by without a visitor, other than Snow College’s art majors. If there is an audience for recent art by little-known international artists, it’s in Salt Lake City or Park City, where UMOCA and the Kimball, among other venues, do a lively business. What supports the CUAC most is the unspoken understanding that there is not enough art in the US and that any effort to produce more must be encouraged. While I am among those in line to sign that pledge, I have not drunk the kool-aid and I will not. Scarce resources need to be allocated, not used for self-indulgence or to inflate individual resumes. Faith in a small town that has built a dynamic arts center, and the resources that make it possible, should be carefully fostered by sensitive management. This has not happened in Ephraim. Instead, the divisive attitudes and behaviors that have become endemic across the US have found another place to batten themselves. I wish the CUAC all success, having enjoyed what they brought to my community, and I can only hope the people of Ephraim can restore the lively resource that used to be the CUAC.
For a reasoned overview of opinion on this matter, see Whitney Kimball’s blog, Art Fag City. For a not-so-reasoned opinion, see the replies below.