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Speakeasy: Utah is Every State: Visibility in an Unseeing American Art System

Each issue, the New Art Examiner will invite a well-known, or not so well-known, art world personality to write a speakeasy essay on a topic of interest.

Darren Jones is an art critic, curator, and educator. His writing has appeared in Artforum, ArtUS, Brooklyn Rail, Artslant and Artsy. He is a contributing editor for New Art Examiner. Curatorial and artistic projects have been covered in The Guardian, Washington Post, Artforum.com, Huffington Post, and Scotland on Sunday. Jones’ book, The Contemporary Art Gallery: Display, Power and Privilege, (co-authored with David Carrier) was published in 2016; in 2018 he was a recipient of an Andy Warhol Foundation Art Writers Grant; in 2020 he will be the critic-in-residence at SPACES in Cleveland. Jones gained a BA from Central Saint Martins College, London, and received his MFA from Hunter College, New York. He currently teaches Curatorial Studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. Jones lives in Fire Island Pines, New York, and Key West, Florida.

Darren Jones

There isn’t a representative American art; nor is there discourse that fully includes art in America. What is meant by these rather disingenuous terms is that fraction of sanctioned art which is shown in New York, Los Angeles, and a few other well regarded provincial museums that fits certain aesthetic tenets; art that has been vetted by a hegemonic critical regime and is funneled through the museum system – from studio to collection – to the satisfaction of fiscal and canonical shareholders.
What is dismissed – or never noticed at all – is the vast creative output of artists across the United States who do not live or work close to the art system’s power centers – what might be considered the New York/Los Angeles Axis of Easel. If you can’t make it there, you can’t make it anywhere, as the song, and the mean arc of what we are told is art history, would have it.

It is to the detriment of every stratum in (or outside of) the art world(s) – geographic, cultural, political, local, environmental – that this is so. Art workers throughout the country, across class, race, gender, and age, struggle to gain traction when the spotlight is fixed so far from them, and so rarely illuminates their own endeavors. The art made and shown in New York is not ‘better’ than that made elsewhere, nor is it more important; but it is marketed as though it were. As that work is seen, it is written about, and then elevated into the public realm. It becomes art history. But it doesn’t represent art history. It represents financial investment, a narrow framework of value, private insistence, and only occasionally, genuinely worthwhile art.

Each state must contend with these predicaments if its artists are to be made visible inside and beyond its boundaries – without having to leave. In this series of articles we look to the American West, and Utah specifically, to explore the Beehive State’s art scene, how it is responding to these outdated mores, what initiatives it has established, and what it might yet do to develop and elevate its position as an art producing region. This endeavor proceeded from a series of critical sessions involving art workers from across Utah, who came together in the summer of 2019 under the auspices of Granary Arts in Ephraim and its co-founder and executive director, Amy Jorgensen. The intention for this mobile think-tank, named ‘Critical Ground’, is to share and act on ideas that will develop the connectivity, efficacy and dissemination of critical and artistic engagement between practitioners and audiences.

Scotti Hill has contributed an in-depth ‘diagnostic’ survey of museums, art galleries, seminal figures, artists, public enterprises and funding sources that underscores the vibrancy of Utah’s scene, along with notes for progression. Christopher Lynn has focused on alternative models for exhibiting art, innovation, and collaborations that are helping to evolve how Utah’s artists reach audiences, while this writer considers Utah’s modern artistic legacy, and how that might guide current art laborers in developing the state’s reputation, and energize its creative potential.

This consideration of how to devolve power across the national art grid, is part of a larger, and terribly urgent conversation that has consumed the United States. We are undergoing an unprecedented reckoning. Utah, like the rest of the United States, is rudderless in the devastating maw of the coronavirus; the raw, tumultuous aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, and the traumatic consequences and reality of racism. However we recover, it is incumbent upon us all that we do so with a restructured cultural, political and civic panorama. In the arts, as in life generally, there has to be a fairer distribution of institutional largesse, decentralized structural influence, and a final assault on the ivory towers of obscene jurisdiction that have prevailed, suppressed and dictated for too long. Only then might we pave a more equitable, inclusive, and sustainable road ahead, that isn’t toll-free for only the few.

Volume 34 no 6 July / August 2020

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Miklos Legrady
21/08/2020 1:43 pm

In 1980 I was an M.F.A. student in Bill Vazan’s class at Concordia in Montreal. Bill was a no-nonsense kind of guy who could have been a lumberjack, but instead achieved a top tier reputation for his deconstructive mosaic photography and his land art. We went on a class tour to to look at the Viking rune-stones near Boston mentioned in America B.C. Then we swung up to Lake Placid to view the art made for that year’s Olympics. Imagine you’re standing on an empty road near an off ramp, with others from the class. Facing you is a guardrail… Read more »

Last edited 3 months ago by Miklos Legrady
John Link
20/09/2020 5:55 am
Reply to  Miklos Legrady

Torches and pitchforks, indeed! That’s “where it is at”, until beautiful things get their notice.

Lars Klingstedt
14/08/2020 12:00 pm

I always love your articles, and your views for emerging artists. I especially find your opinion of the NYC art conglomerate , refreshing , and something truthful they need to hear.

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