The Contemporary Utah Arts Center in Ephraim.
Recent years have produced an alternative avenue for experiencing the art world in Utah. In much the same way one could hitch the party bus to Wendover, one could hop aboard the Contemporary Utah Arts Center (CUAC—pronounced “quack”) pARTy bus and enjoy a boozey transport to the unlikely town of Ephraim. In contrast to Wendover, this final destination was devoid of tacky casinos, drunken forfeitures and glittering slot machines. Instead, the destination featured artwork. After a scenic excursion through mountains and quaint farmlands sprinkled with an abundance of livestock, the bus would arrive at the CUAC gallery. The pastoral world of cows and rolling hills would open up, quite abruptly, to the progressive realm of contemporary art.
On the day of each monthly CUAC opening, the colossal bus would depart from Salt Lake’s Ballpark Station around 5 p.m. and usually make a pit stop in Provo to pick up more art enthusiasts before completing the two-hour journey to Ephraim. Alcoholic beverages would be readily consumed as the bus jerked its way down construction-riddled I-15 during rush hour. Musical accompaniment for the journey was in the form of a mixed cd, compliments of a different local DJ every trip, and guests would arrive in the quiet town around 8 p.m. After perusing the new exhibit at CUAC and enjoying live music from a Utah musician, patrons would reconvene at 10 p.m. to make the journey back to the big city. During the return expedition, the bucolic landscape would be blanketed in darkness; attention would be diverted to monitors where video art from national, international and Utah artists was featured.
Lumbering through canyons in a tour bus to a little town in the middle of nowhere may not sound like an enlightening contemporary art experience, but it was. However, art patrons will be disappointed to learn that the pARTy Bus’s days are numbered. This art phenomenon is scheduled for its final voyage in light of a sudden and unexpected eviction notice. A letter from the Ephraim City Council claiming lack of funding was sent to CUAC requesting that the organization vacate their historic Ephraim location. In fact, when this article was first drafted, the center was completely unaware of the impending eviction and was looking forward to many a pARTy Bus to come.
CUAC board member, Mikell Stringham, who has worked on outreach projects for the center and has helped organize the pARTy Bus explained that the pARTy Bus was originally developed as an attempt to reach residents of SLC and Utah County who may not follow the events at the Ephraim location two hours away. Although the bus could seem scantily populated during some summer months, most trips would cater to a healthy 20-25 participants, Stringham said.
As another attempt at outreach, the center has also presented “CUACtails,” gatherings held at pop-up locations around SLC a week before each exhibit, arranged so that patrons could meet featured artists and curators.
The center also has offered an artist residency program, has connected visiting artists to different institutions for art lectures, and has presented educational opportunities. However, these additions to CUAC are fairly recent. Through the years, the center has undergone a metamorphosis—birthed as a cooperative gallery for local landscape art in the early ’90s, it has only begun showcasing contemporary art in the last seven years under the direction of Adam Bateman, CUAC board chair and nationally known sculptor. Recently, the center has strived to be a progressive influence and, furthermore, align Utah artists with artists around the world. “I feel like a lot of places, they have this special Utah space and then they have this place for their ‘real’ artists. And we really try to say Utah artists are as good as anyone else,” said Bateman.
Their mission seemed a positive one for any community, yet the expulsion stands. And, the question remains, why did board members choose to locate this progressive art center in the not-so-progressive town of Ephraim in the first place? The town is certainly not a beacon of contemporary art; one might expect to find an exhibit featuring hand-sewn quilts, not contentious work by more contemporary artists like, say, Andres Serrano or even Andy Warhol. As it turns out, Bateman is an Ephraim native, himself, and when the space and money became available to make CUAC a contemporary venue, he embraced the opportunity to curate in his hometown. He was willing to take a chance on introducing Sanpete County to true artistic debate.
It seems Ephraim just wasn’t up for the challenge. Bateman invested countless hours into the project and made a concerted attempt at community outreach, but was ultimately rejected. Although the eviction is disheartening, Bateman believes that the center has positively impacted the economy and culture of Ephraim. “I think that CUAC has helped to create a fundamental shift in the way a few people see art and the world. I think the very fact of our eviction is evidence that we are affecting change—if we weren't having an influence, no one would complain,” he says.
Only two weeks prior to the eviction notice, Bateman says, Ephraim City voted to renew the center’s funding, as usual. However, in the weeks following the renewal, city councilmen, the city manager, and the city mayor visited the current exhibition. These viewings, Bateman believes, may have been the catalyst for the city’s funding withdrawal. Although he doubts one show is solely to blame for the eviction, Bateman expected that photographs of exposed breasts featured in the current exhibition contributed to their disapproval.
Aside from their occasional rated-PG13 content, the CUAC buildings are not flashy or imposing. Their presence is subtle, and they blend seamlessly with the other buildings in Ephraim. The primary gallery building looks kind of like an old church and is, in fact, a renovated roller mill originally built in 1876 and run by the Relief Society of the local Mormons. The smaller one-room gallery space behind the roller mill was once home to Norwegian pioneer artist, C.C.A. Christensen. The buildings were renovated with preservation in mind, leaving limestone bricks and old rafters exposed.
They’re charming. Nevertheless, the artwork inside has produced controversy. “We’re really clear with our funders that we’re here to show the very best art that we can, and then we let our audience decide how they feel about it. We never censor anything and are proud of it,” Bateman said, just weeks before the eviction. Post-eviction, he echoed this sentiment with even more conviction. “We don’t pretend that every visitor will like the art we show––we simply believe that they’ll consider it honestly. I think that at the heart of censorship lies the notion that one person presumes to know what is best for everyone––at the heart of what we do is the idea that people are smart enough to decide for themselves,” he says.
A farewell party is scheduled for 8 p.m. on August 18 in Ephraim. A final pARTy Bus will be heading to the gathering featuring a DJ, dancing and a screening of, quite appropriately, Footloose. For more information and tickets, check out cuartcenter.org.