In Salt Lake City, more than 50 people board a "party bus" that will haul them two hours south to Ephraim, where, in a 130-year-old grain mill, they will see what is probably the edgiest art in Utah.
That the Central Utah Art Center has dreamed up using a tour bus, complete with beer and video art onboard, to lure Utahns to its gallery is evidence of the isolation of the CUAC and its creative drive.
"It's about creating critical mass," says Adam Bateman, CUAC's board president, Ephraim native and nationally known sculptor. In 2004, Bateman returned from New York City to his Sanpete County hometown population 4,500 and took over CUAC (pronounced "Quack"), which had been a local art cooperative mostly showing landscapes.
"Salt Lakers have trouble seeing beyond the edge of the valley, north or south," Bateman says. "It surprises me that people aren't willing to drive short distances to see this caliber of art."
Hence, the big pink-and-blue Le Bus rolls out of Salt Lake City afternoons the second Friday of every month, stopping in Provo to pick up another half-dozen contemporary-art lovers. On the bus, patrons are greeted by board members Jorge Rojas and Mikell Stringham, who want to make the two-hour monthly trip a rolling salon.
Passengers, who appear mostly young and hip, are treated to a local microbrew beer and can bring their own wine and dinner. Besides the gallery opening, a low-key concert awaits them in Ephraim, the whole trip just $15.
Utah's jonesing for art • Jeff Lambson, curator of contemporary art at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art and a CUAC board member, says the center is part of a growing trend toward art sophistication in Utah. He points to new and energetic contemporary art curators such as Jill Dawsey at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Micol Hebron at the Salt Lake Art Center, and of course, Lambson himself at BYU.
"There's an appetite for contemporary art in Utah right now," Lambson says. "It seems like there's something in the air a convergence."
The CUAC art bus is indicative of the shift among Utah art lovers toward a wide-open definition of capital-A Art, Lambson says. "It adds to the experience this journey you must make down to Ephraim through canyons and mountains. That takes the experience out of the realm of looking at a painting hanging on a blank wall. It lends CUAC a lot of power."
CUAC's approach to art education is summed up by the center's rubber-duckie logo. "They don't take themselves too seriously," Lambson says. "They're not aiming for the black-turtleneck crowd."
CUAC director Jared Latimer says the gallery doesn't condescend to its audience, even in rural Sanpete County. "We're excited about educating people," Latimer says. "Anyone who comes in gets a little lesson on contemporary art. They may not understand it, they may not love what they see, but they are more aware when they leave."
CUAC attracts some 12,000 annual visitors, about two-thirds of them from out of the county, including tourists enjoying scenic U.S. 89.
Importing artists • So far, the center's influence is being felt outside Utah more than at home. Artists from New York, Los Angeles and beyond about 30 a year stay at the nearby 80-acre Birch Creek Residence, Bateman says.
Before they leave, the artists usually show work at CUAC. So far, the list of visiting artists has included Susan Mogul, Pooneh Maghezehe, Inga Huld Tryggvadottir and Fernando Villena.
The CUAC and its residency program appeal to a growing circle of international artists. "We're trying to build a network," Latimer says. "Adam makes several trips every year to L.A. and New York. A lot of artists have come through [CUAC and Birch Creek], and they help us build that network by word of mouth."
Bateman can't completely explain the attraction of Ephraim. "Artists from all over the world come here," he says. "It's crazy this little place in the middle of nowhere."
Finally, Bateman points to a $95,000 Andy Warhol Foundation Grant that CUAC won last year as evidence of the center's reach. "We listed the artists we have shown at CUAC and they said, 'You are doing something really amazing in Utah.' "
The Warhol Foundation says this of CUAC: "Operating out of a historic limestone mill on Highway 89, this small but innovative organization has become a surprising source of new creative energy that is surging through Utah's artistic community."
Pushing boundaries • CUAC's most recent exhibition, "Camera Vivant," which ended this week, is an example of its commitment to exposing Utah patrons to cutting-edge contemporary art. The show, curated by the New York City-based AD Projects, includes work by Kuba Bakowski, Allison Berkoy and Julian Opie.
A group of video works are sequestered behind black curtains on the upper floor of the former LDS rolling mill that serves as CUAC's main gallery. The videos by Narcisister and Bec Stupak and Jack Smith include nudity, screened from the rest of the exhibit with a posted warning about "explicit content."
Bateman and Latimer acknowledge "Camera Vivant" is a step beyond anything seen before in Ephraim or even for most urban Utah exhibits, for that matter. "It was a bold move and the show is incredibly strong," Latimer says. "Typically speaking, you would expect there might be problems; you never know what is going to happen.
CUAC works to maintain a close relationship with Ephraim's city council and mayor. "I explained to them that this work is here and there might be some response," Latimer says. "They agreed with our decisions and how we handled it."
Bateman says the community supports CUAC and the center's efforts to challenge viewers. "Those pieces are among the most relevant work to ever be shown in the state. There is no question about their artistic value."
Lambson, of BYU's MOA, labels the show "fantastic." "I'd be curious to see how people are reacting to the dicier art works," he says. "Museums and galleries have an obligation to serving their audience. But they also have an obligation to teach and expose people to everything."
Latimer is confident CUAC's influence will grow. "Everything is moving in the right direction. Our funding is going up and our national reputation is rising. Our goal is that CUAC becomes a voice and destination for contemporary art."
In that direction, Bateman hopes to expand the residency program to expose more artists to Utah and Utah to ever-higher doses of contemporary art. "Critical mass has finally happened."
Trek for edgy art
Catch the bus • CUAC offers an art bus to its openings, departing from Salt Lake City's Visual Art Institute, 1800 S. 1500 East, at 5:30 p.m. the second Friday of every month. The bus stops in Provo at the corner of 100 W. 100 North at 6:30 p.m.
Plan your own art party • Or you can drive 115 miles south to Sanpete County and visit CUAC, which is free and open Tuesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Information • www.cuartcenter.org