In the heart of one of the nation’s most conservative states, the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, led by Laura Hurtado and Jared Steffensen, brings groundbreaking contemporary art to the state.
Sitting at the base of a small auditorium, a silver-haired man with dark sunglasses and a black turtleneck answers matter-of-fact questions from those in attendance about what it’s like being Andy Warhol. This individual, actor Allen Midgette, was not, of course, Andy Warhol. He did, however, impersonate the world-famous Pop artist on a 1967 college lecture tour of the Western United States, an iconic if little-known moment within Warhol’s canon. Midgette made a noteworthy return to Utah in 2013 for the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art’s Utah Biennial, a survey of underrecognized and fascinating avant-gardism within the state.
Such memorable sights, not to mention works by groundbreaking figures in modern and contemporary art, have made the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art a beacon of culture in a state perpetually rebelling against its own stereotypes.
Indeed, UMOCA is one of Utah’s preeminent art museums, a striking geometric structure in the center of West Temple, a prominent block within downtown Salt Lake City. As a vital site for community exchange and contextualization of local and national contemporary artistic practices, UMOCA’s value derives from—among other things— hosting exhibitions that no other regional museum would consider and doing so amid the fiscal and political setbacks that befall many institutions aiming to bring cutting-edge art to middle America.
At the museum’s helm are executive director Laura Allred Hurtado and curator of exhibitions Jared Steffensen, a pair recognized for balancing a profound knowledge of international trends within contemporary art while fostering a continued and sincere investment in Utah’s artistic talent.
Laura and I first met in graduate school at University of Utah in the fall of 2009. She would write her thesis on contemporary feminist artists whose works concern the complexities of motherhood, while I entered graduate school to continue a research project on Andy Warhol and performance art. Since this time, Laura has been heavily involved in local arts criticism and curation. While others in our graduate cohort have gone on to receive PhDs in art history and become impressive scholars—Laura stands out as one of the rare examples of a “homegrown” art historian, whose talents and ambitions have thrived in a small and insular arts community.
Hurtado joined UMOCA as executive director in January 2019 after working for six years as the global acquisitions art curator for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints History Museum, where she championed the museum’s collection policy and refocused the collection of contemporary art.
Jared Steffensen, who received his BFA in intermedia sculpture from the University of Utah in 2002 and his MFA in studio art from the University of Texas at Austin in 2006, began his tenure at UMOCA in 2009. Previously, in the summer of 2004, he served as a curatorial intern at Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory, a multidisciplinary art space known for its collaborative focus. The Mattress Factory made an immediate impression on Steffensen, whose curatorial philosophy would be forever marked by the experience.
To date, Steffensen has been with UMOCA for thirteen years, excluding the 2011-2012 academic year he spent teaching. He began as a part-time preparator meant to fill in for another staff member on a temporary basis. Admittedly “under-employed,” he was able to use the skills he developed working construction after graduate school to install exhibitions in UMOCA’s massive and multiple galleries. Indeed, the museum’s current configuration allows for a wide range of programming across six distinct galleries. One of the museum’s striking features is its ample space, divided into two floors.
Founded in 1931, the institution now known as UMOCA began as the Art Barn, a gathering place for artists, authors, poets, sculptors, and musicians, according to UMOCA: Contemporary Since 1931, a remarkable history of the institution authored by Glen Nelson, co-founder of the Center for Latter-day Saint Arts, and art historian Maddie Blonquist Shrum in commemoration of the museum’s ninetieth anniversary.
The Art Barn, born from equal parts creativity and hardship, withstood the difficulties of the Great Depression to become a bohemian staple, replete with daily art events, world-class exhibitions, and art education. In 1958, the Art Barn became the Salt Lake Art Center, two decades before moving from the modest site of its origin to its current location on West Temple. Nelson and Blonquist Shrum’s comprehensive history details the ways in which the financial instability common to many art organizations in the ’70s—which led into the culture wars and budget tzarism of the early Reagan years—initially unsettled the Salt Lake Art Center.<sup>1</sup> Despite these hardships, the institution embarked on collaborative relationships with other community organizations, purchasing artworks for a planned collection, and maintaining an investment in academic-level publishing and research.
In 2011, the Salt Lake Art Center became UMOCA. The institution’s name and venue change brought forth exciting new opportunities for expansion.
Executive director Adam Price, who began his tenure in 2009, is credited with broadening the already community-focused programming of the institution. Notably, Price established the Catherine Doctorow Prize for Contemporary Painting<sup>2</sup> and formalized the museum’s artist-in-residence program, inviting emerging Utah artists to enjoy studio space and a gallery showcase as part of the year-long program.
Price hired Aaron Moulton as senior curator in 2011. Moulton’s ambitious exhibitions and scholarly focus impressed those eager to put Utah on the contemporary art map.
Future UMOCA executive director Laura Hurtado witnessed the museum’s shifting focus during her time as interim curator of education at UMOCA from 2011 to 2012. To Hurtado, this was a “formative time” for the institution.
Moulton’s departure saw art historian Rebecca Maksym take the lead curatorial role in 2013, ushering in equally critically acclaimed programming. A year later, Kristian Anderson took the reins as executive director, inheriting what Nelson and Blonquist Shrum call the “high cost” of Price’s “visionary programs, strategic modernizations, world-class personnel, and revolutionary displays.”<sup>3</sup>
Amid budgetary setbacks and the distinct visions of various executive directors, however, UMOCA has maintained dedicated donors, staff, and public who have maintained a steady commitment to the institution. In July of 2019, the Salt Lake Tribune accused the museum of “quietly” selling off its art collection, a charge that Hurtado claims is misleading.<sup>4</sup> At the beginning of his tenure, Anderson, the former director of the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries, indeed used deaccession as a strategy to solidify funding for museum operations. But the move was in line with the museum’s overall mission of contemporary art exhibitions and community programming, rather than collections. The museum was also ill-equipped for long-term maintenance efforts and sold artworks to area institutions better situated for such preservation.
Since taking over the helm of UMOCA from Anderson in 2019, Hurtado has taken extensive steps to amend preexisting policy and expand the museum’s tactical operations, which perhaps most importantly have included the implementation of a five-year strategic plan and dramatically improving the financial health of the organization to resolve long-term debt and construct a significant operating surplus. She has also been instrumental in launching a complete brand overhaul while emphasizing digital outreach and expanded marketing efforts, as well as the revival of UMOCA Press with in-house publishing of exhibition catalogues after a two-decade hiatus. Meanwhile, Hurtado has collaborated with key government, corporate, and artist shareholders on a masterplan for the museum’s exterior façade while also focusing on outreach to at-risk populations through community programming—all while deftly navigating the organization through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As a leader, it’s important to build consensus and you’re not going to do that if staff don’t feel that they have buy-in,” Hurtado told me in a recent interview.
For his part, Steffensen has been a steadying force amid big structural change. Steffensen became curator of education in 2013, bringing with him the skills honed from working as a practicing artist. While the majority of museum curators are educated in art history or curatorial studies, Steffensen and UMOCA’s leaders saw his artistic background as an asset.
After Maksym’s parting, Steffensen took over as curator of exhibitions in 2016. “When I was offered the job of curator, I initially said no because I wasn’t sure I had the necessary training,” he says. “At that time, Kristian really believed in me. I eventually conceded and I thought ok, I can try it for a little while and if I completely fail, at least I tried,” Steffensen says.
“Having a curatorial background,” Hurtado says, “what I find so impressive about Jared as a curator is that he is really by nature a collaborator and wants to hear the artist’s mission forefront and support their vision. There’s a reason why I have been in this field for so long and no one has ever said anything bad about Jared. Artists see him as a champion.”
Steffensen maintains that it’s the curator’s job to be supportive of the artist’s vision, rather than mold the artistic process to suit a preconceived idea. Collaboration is at the heart of this process.
“I feel like Laura is an equal collaborator in that; even before she started the job, she was a sounding board for my ideas,” Steffensen said.
“So, now to have her as a director and to be able to walk across the room to discuss these ideas with [her] has strengthened my practice.”
Others in the art world have taken notice of this dual commitment.
“The fact that Jared Steffensen is an artist as well as a curator has been a real strength for UMOCA. He understands what it means to be an artist and supports the creative process and brings this openness to the programming at the museum. He is open minded, flexible and a great problem solver,” says Peter Everett, artist and professor at Brigham Young University. “Artists trust him, and he brings a depth of understanding to the museum.”
“You could think of Laura and Jared as bilingual, fluent in international and in local contemporary art, and they have nourished both dialects. As a result, UMOCA is a much better and more important institution than our demographics and geographic isolation would suggest Salt Lake City should have,” says Shawn Rossiter, creator and editor-in-chief of the state’s flagship art publication 15 Bytes.
While UMOCA has solidified its reputation as an institutional harbinger of contemporary artistic trends, the museum is perpetually juggling the dual perceptions of those within the art world while inviting non-traditional art-goers into the fold. Such is the task of the non-coastal contemporary art space.
“UMOCA has always been a hidden gem, [which is] pretty remarkable for a market like Salt Lake City,” says Josh Kanter, founder and executive chairman of Alliance for a Better Utah, who served on UMOCA’s board for more than a decade starting in 2002.
Despite being in the heart of downtown however, UMOCA still suffers from the problem of visibility. “I am a big believer in downtown as a cultural hub, so UMOCA has this flagship role as the downtown visual art beacon, [which is] such an important piece of any significant city’s cultural fabric,” Kanter told me.
While Steffensen aims to be the sort of curator artists relish working with, Hurtado has demonstrated her commitment to art historical and curatorial complexity while navigating the ever-evolving expectations of intersecting bureaucracies. As a result, UMOCA has become a regional stalwart, providing unparalleled institutional support for artists and world-class programming for Salt Lake audiences.