Editors note: This story has been updated to reflect new information from Ephraim City Manager Regan Bolli.
The Central Utah Art Center claims in a new federal lawsuit that Ephraim City in Sanpete County cut off its funding and moved to evict the center after it displayed artistic work some officials found offensive and not "Sanpete appropriate."
In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court, the center said the city has censored it because some exhibits in 2011 and 2012 featured depictions of nudity and explored themes of sexuality, gender and identity.
Those exhibits included Camera Vivant, a cutting-edge contemporary art show featuring narrative images of performance acts by photographers such as Kuba Bakowski, Allison Berkoy and Julian Opie. The exhibit also included screens of two short films, including "Flaming Creatures" by Jack Smith, that depicted gay and transgendered individuals in various acts. The films were shown on a second floor, behind a curtain and a posted warning about explicit content.
The Smith film became notorious at its premiere in New York City, where it was confiscated and deemed obscene.
In a March 2011 interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, Adam Bateman, Central Utah Art Center founder and an Ephraim native, and Jared Latimer, former CUAC director, acknowledged the exhibit would break ground not just in Ephraim, but in Utah.
"It was a bold move and the show is incredibly strong," Latimer said at the time. "Typically speaking, you would expect there might be problems; you never know what is going to happen.
Indeed, the show upset some residents, who complained to Ephraim Mayor David Parrish.
Parrish then sent the center located in an old grain mill an email objecting to the display, which he said, "goes against my values and beliefs," according to the complaint.
City Manager Regan Bolli also sent an email to "share my disgust with the 'art' on view at the Central Utah Art Center," adding that he was "saddened that a historic building built through sacrifice and faith by Ephraim's pioneer founders would be used to display such offensive items."
"I know there are places in the world where smut like this is tolerated but the last place I expected to see it was in Ephraim," Bolli wrote.
But Bolli said Thursday that, contrary to the assertion in the lawsuit, the comments were from an Ephraim City resident and that he merely forwarded them to Latimer via his city email account, as Latimer had requested in a telephone call. Bolli provided The Tribune with a string of emails that showed where the comments originated and how they were shared. However, the original source of the comments is not included in the email Bolli sent to Latimer.
In June 2012, another exhibit drew officials' ire. SuperHUMAN included artwork by Chitra Ganesh that blends fantastical elements from "Greek myth, comic books and classic Hindu and Buddhist folklore to examine the cultural messages buried in the icongraphy."
After visiting the exhibit with the mayor and several other city officials, Bolli sent another email to CUAC that said the show "was not appreciated."
Days later, the city sent the center a letter saying it would no longer receive $30,000 in annual funding and had two months to vacate the mill it had occupied for more than two decades.
Despite the lack of a contract, the city claimed in its eviction notice that the center had breached its obligations, the center's complaint states.
The center said that it never paid rent or had a written lease agreement with the city. In exchange for free use of the mill, the center spent about $350,000 to remodel and preserve it.
"The purported bases for CUAC's eviction are entirely pretextual, and lay only the thinnest veil over the city's fundamental objective of censorship," the center said in its complaint.
When the center asked to continue to use the building for already booked shows, the city refused.
Parrish advised the City Council he was not in favor of an extension because "the last art showing did not meet the moral and values of ... our city, our county and state." In October, the city filed a formal eviction proceeding in 6th District Court. CUAC moved out, and the grain mill remains unoccupied.
The center said its shows were an economic boon to the city, drawing some 19,000 visitors annually and contributing an estimated $250,000 to the local economy.
Now officially known by the acronym CUAC, the center has relocated to Salt Lake City. Its current exhibit features the work of Ushio Shinchara, whose story is chronicled in the 2013 Sundance film "Cutie and the Boxer." The Andy Warhol Foundation, which has given the center $97,000 in annual grants, describes CUAC as a "surprising source of new creative energy that is surging through Utah's artistic community."
Attorney Jared C. Fields, who is representing CUAC, declined to comment and also said Bateman would have no comment. CUAC is asking a federal judge to order the city to allow it to continue using the mill, for damages caused by the loss of its funding and an injunction barring the city from evicting it based on the content of artwork it displays.
Bolli said Wednesday the city remains steadfast in its decision that CUAC missed the mark as far as "catering to Ephraim City residents." He said on one occasion, children between the ages of 8 and 12 came to the center for an art class and were escorted by an exhibit that included a piece that showed a naked woman lying on the ground, her arms cut off and groping her own crotch.
"Parents were complaining," Bolli said.
He said the city met numerous times with Bateman, who promised but failed to live up to commitments to expand offerings and seek additional funding support, particularly from local educational institutions. The council's hope was to create a community art center, Bolli said, where high school students and local amateur artists might showcase their work.
"They didn't do any of that," Bolli said. "Those were the real issues."