Current Work, founded by longtime arts advocate Tiffini Porter, raises the contemporary art bar in Salt Lake City. The gallery also fills several sudden gaps in Utah’s creative ecosystem.
SALT LAKE CITY—Tiffini Porter has been an arts lover for as long as she can remember. Though not an artist herself, she has, over the years, volunteered on several art museum and nonprofit boards to bolster support for Utah’s vibrant creative communities. Now, she has fulfilled what she calls a lifelong dream—opening her own gallery in Salt Lake City.
Her venture, Current Work Contemporary Art, is a modest yet vibrant space west of the city center at 826 South 500 West, Suite 2. Its inaugural exhibition, Friends of Friends, adopts a novel concept—selecting one artist who recommends another artist—to share the power of connectedness and community, salient lessons for an art scene still reeling from COVID-19.
“Before the pandemic, we were talking about being overstimulated and once the pandemic hit, we were concerned about isolation. Now [that] we are in this post- or mid-pandemic reality, I became interested in who we are and how are we connected,” Porter says about the gallery’s inaugural exhibition.
It’s perhaps no surprise that Porter, an affable and well-connected figure, has an educational background in psychology. After receiving her degree, she began her career as an arts writer and copywriter, all while diving into Salt Lake City’s art scene.
Friends of Friends, like the gallery itself, is about forging connections. Porter borrowed the idea from her friend, Miami-based artist Cara Despain, who curated a similar exhibition as co-founder of Garfo, a contemporary art space that resided in Salt Lake City’s historic Garfield School from 2009 to 2011.
Despain, a Salt Lake native, is featured in Friends of Friends. Her work tackles the environmental impacts of human intervention, encapsulated by A Broken Shit Picture (Owens Lake) (2017) that imbues humor into a photographic scene of earth ravaged by the toxic aftermath of a lake’s cessation. Despain recommended fellow Miami artist Kelly Breez, whose acrylic paintings of books with playful “how to” titles pokes fun at the gendered advice-column paradigm.
Most of the featured artists have Utah ties—Despain, Michael Ryan Handley, Amber Heaton, and Lane Twitchell—while others are actively working in the state, including Nic Courdy, Colour Maisch, John Sproul, Jared Steffensen, and Utah State University professors Jared Ragland and Fazilat Soukhakian.
The exhibition is grounded in showcasing the range of talent Utah while introducing visitors to compelling artists they may not otherwise experience, including works from national and international figures. Friends of Friends features Charles Edward Williams, a South Carolina-born artist whose oil self-portrait confronts themes of vulnerability within race and gender stereotypes; Mexico City-based Sofía Ortiz, who contributes a large-scale paper work comprised of smaller intricate watercolor studies ruminating on the pandemic’s isolation; and Benny Merris, a Boise native whose work serves as a documentation of his performances.
Current Work arrives during a time of fluctuation for the city’s art scene. Longtime art space Nox Contemporary, run by local artist Sproul, is closing at the beginning of November 2022. Likewise, the state of Utah announced plans to reclaim the Alice Gallery, administered by the Utah Division of Arts and Museums, this fall due to security concerns. Rio Gallery, UA&M’s other flagship exhibition space, is inoperable due to a 2020 earthquake.
Still, there are reasons to be enthusiastic. For one, the city’s population is growing and people are eager to engage with the same types of cultural activities they may have enjoyed elsewhere in the country—Porter recalls a time in 2008 when Salt Lake was similarly awash in arts spaces and opportunities despite the Great Recession. However, art spaces are faced with difficult circumstances today, including inflation and gentrification that have forced artists and administrators to move out of the city’s conventional downtown.
Despite these struggles, Porter is a strong believer in Utah’s need for more commercial art galleries. Her enthusiasm seems to come from a place of deep appreciation for the work created here and a desire to see Utah’s artists thrive. According to her, the key is simply showing up.
“A lot of people perceive barriers in contemporary art that I simply haven’t seen here,” she explains. “What’s happening, I think, is way more interesting than a more saturated market. For me to be able to have a direct impact is really exciting. If you are in a much bigger city with a larger ecosystem, you have to fight to get a little portion. Utah has always been very welcoming. I’ve always found there’s a lot of openness if you’re willing to go out there and connect with people.”
Friends of Friends will run through September 30, 2022, but Porter has scheduled exhibitions through next year. Porter hopes that Current Work’s current and future programming illustrates the depth and breadth of the city’s contemporary art output.
“I like finding things for people to connect over. That’s one of the most beautiful things about art: the relationship between yourself and the object, people who encounter the object in your space. Art is a conversation, and a conversation you are having with the work.”