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Seeking the right balance: Utah Arts Council director Margaret Hunt draws doubt and support

By Ben Fulton

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published May 16, 2009 6:00 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
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Margaret Hunt became the proud new face of the nation's oldest statewide agency funding the arts when she was appointed executive director of the Utah Arts Council in 2005.

Hunt's initial efforts garnered little, if any, attention.

She gathered all council divisions under a uniform computer system, and then in 2005, embarked on a statewide "listening tour" of town-hall meetings to discover what Utah's smaller communities expected from the state agency.

She collaborated with Salt Lake County's Zoo, Arts & Parks program and Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau to launch http://www.nowplayingutah.com" Target="_BLANK">http://www.nowplayingutah.com, a online schedule of arts and other entertainment events.

Her management ethic is the same today as it was through 23 years of community and economic development work for Utah Power, now Rocky Mountain Power, said the longtime Utahn, who moved with her family from Minnesota to the Beehive State when she was in the fifth grade. It's a governing style that makes her almost impervious to capture.

"I am not the Utah Arts Council," she said in lengthy interviews about the Utah Arts Council. "I'm a facilitator and convener. I've learned, over the years, that it's not about the position, or the person in the position. It's the work. That's what matters."

Then came last year's economic meltdown, and budget pressures that have made Hunt a lighting rod among the state's beleaguered arts activists.

In the funding tug-of-wars during this year's legislative session, talk of the arts seemed less weighty than that of prisoners being let out on furlough. To make the cuts required by each government agency, Hunt proposed shaving $145,000 from her agency's Folk Arts Program and outsourcing the work of its two-person staff. The move alarmed and rallied state folklorists and program advocates. Staff of Utah Office of Museum Services, created in 2006, also found itself under proposed cuts and reorganization.

"Budget cuts have taken over the conversation," Hunt said during the session. "We've looked at everything programmatically."

Of course, longtime arts promoters understand the council's job of securing, overseeing and distributing grant money to arts groups statewide wasn't going to be easy given the financial climate. But three months after the dustup during the legislative session, advocates of the state's renown folk arts program are still voicing their dismay.

Hunt's supervisor, Palmer De Paulis, executive director of the Utah Department of Community and Culture, directed one-time money through the 2010 budget year toward the Folk Arts program and the Utah Division of Museum Services while discussions continued. Some feared that this might be the last year the Utah Folk Arts Center helped organize the Salt Lake City-sponsored Living Traditions Festival, which wraps up today at the Salt Lake City-County Building.

In interviews, Hunt points out that she never advocated eliminating Utah Folk Arts, but a reorganization of the program. The threat of budget cuts still lingers, though. Staff at the Folk Arts program Office of Museum Services declined comment, but observers continue to express bewilderment over the future of the nationally successful programs.

"I was really disappointed when I heard this was the chosen way to meet budget," said Hal Cannon, founding director of Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nev. who also serves on the Utah Arts Council's board. "On the other hand, I'm guardedly optimistic of the way Palmer has stepped forward to say he wants to preserve this program."

Bonnie Stephens, who until 2002 directed the Utah Arts Council, said that while Hunt's leadership has been good for the public arts programs, she questions her rush to modernize. "I think perhaps in Margaret's enthusiasm she has gone a little too fast," Stephens said. "Gov. Leavitt pushed for online efforts as well, but we have subjective and objective things in the world. You have to know the difference."

Now that this year's legislative battles are over, Hunt is looking forward. At the council's Mountain West Conference On the Arts earlier this month, Hunt spoke about the technological challenges facing arts organizations. Those who care about the future of the arts, she told conference attendees, must "give up our mental models and realize the facts of our situation."

Hunt said she's most interested and impressed by organizations that arise by finding strength in a loyal following first, before seeking grant money. She cited the recent emergence of Salt Lake Ctiy's 337 Project, a nonprofit promoting modern art through educational and community activities.

At the conference, several workshop leaders affirmed Hunt's imperative that arts nonprofits develop technological skills, and network as if their organization's lives depended on it.

Quoting Charles Darwin's stress of adaptation over strength and intelligence, Holly Sidford, president of New York City-based arts nonprofit consulting group Helicon Collaborative, admonished administrators to humble themselves and make connections within their communities in order to remain resilient and relevant. Marketing consultant Pete Codella and nonprofit consultant Brian Seethaler, leading the seminar "Social Media and the Arts," warned that arts leaders will lose the next generation of arts patrons if they ignore Twitter, Facebook and other online social networking tools.

Codella commended Hunt on her prescience after the workshop. "If she were to ignore it [these developments], the arts in Utah would be in trouble down the road," he said. "Progress and tradition both have their place, but the way we communicate is changing regardless of what the traditionalists say."

The verdict is still out among arts advocates on the success of Hunt's stint as the state's highest-profile arts advocate, even while state officials seem to have made up their minds.

DePaulis, Hunt's boss, likens her challenge to his own at the Department of Community and Culture: finding the most efficient ways to deliver government services critical to taxpayers and communities. "Once you understand the backdrop and context, it's easier to understand where she's going and how she's going to do this," he said. "Margaret gets it."

Living Traditions winds up Sunday

The Living Traditions Festival, a cultural-apolooza featuring Utah's ethnic diversity in food, music, arts and dance, continues Sunday from noon to 7 p.m. at the City-County Building, 451 S. State St., Salt Lake City. The event is free.



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