This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
This month Utah welcomed the National Assembly of Arts Councils (NASAA) for its annual convention. Unfortunately, the Utah Division of Arts and Museums has never been more compromised. Long known as the Utah Arts Council, the agency is governed by an incompetent state department, a terrible example of how to govern state arts programs across the country tasked with cobbling together and disbursing the few funds the country as a whole provides to arts and arts education programming.
The problem lies in the leadership of the Utah Department of Heritage and Arts. It also lies with the governor, who, as part of his global push to make Utah more economically attractive to expanding companies, seems to see the "creatives industry" of which fine arts is the sector's gold standard as some kind of embroidery to more important work of buffing big business dollars into a high sheen.
We can do better as the first state in the union to establish an arts council, as the Performing Arts Coalition recently highlighted in these pages. Again, the problem is with department leadership that answers directly to the governor's office. To be fair, Executive Director Julie Fisher and her wingman Deputy Director Brian Somers rid us of a catastrophic division director when they maneuvered Margaret Hunt out of the historic offices of the arts council at the Glendinning Mansion. But now it seems that Fisher is more interested in currying favor with the governor and State Legislature, where she served four terms, than watching out for her constituents.
This summer Fisher canned Lynnette Hiskey, Hunt's much-respected successor, allegedly because Hiskey made the former state legislator look bad to her boss by requesting much-needed funds to preserve the state art collection. When I was at the arts council in 2012, the need for these funds was huge, as much of the collection sat largely unprotected and disorganized in a west-side warehouse where the only regular visitors outside of the dedicated staff were rats. In my view, Hiskey's politically motivated dismissal is a reminder that Utah's state government is not immune from corruption, to put it mildly.
Fisher's constituents, among others, are supposed to be artists, arts educators and Utah residents, many of whom make the engine of the creatives industry turn over and over. Instead, her client or "customer," the term Fisher prefers appears to be the governor, who, when the most recent Utah Poet Laureate was installed three years ago, looked like a deer in the headlights trying to figure out why he was even there. Does Gov. Gary Herbert even know, let alone care about, how his appointee is managing an entire department?
Fisher has remarked more than once that she is interested in returning monies from her department to state coffers at year's end. This, rather than using these modest funds to build an artistic community and, yes, an "industry," which is the language of the governor.
Clearly the creatives industry is on the periphery of Herbert's push for economic development. And yet, I would argue that it is nevertheless going to be the edge that he and GOED (Governor's Office of Economic Development) need to lure employers and their employees to a state that already is arguably apathetic if not hostile to education, clean air and health care. You can only point to the majestic Wasatch Mountains and Delicate Arch so long before relocating businesses start looking for something other than a gun show at South Towne Convention Center.
The arts are not embroidery to economic development in Utah, nor are they in the U.S., where this sector represents more than 4 percent of the nation's GDP, or $698 billion. More important, the arts and humanities are what tell us every day why the heck we get up in the morning, "pound the pavement" and help our children, as they dodge bullets in the classroom, to find jobs and have their own families. The arts and humanities give us meaning and they give us a hope that STEM subjects in school and "doing business" in the traditional sense cannot. The arts and humanities are continuing spiritual practices that all of us, regardless of faith or of no faith, can get on board with and that motivate us to look outward, inquire deeply and engage our communities.
If the members NASAA looked deeper than the dog-and-pony show the Department of Heritage and Arts provided them earlier this month, they would see that America's oldest state arts agency is highly politicized, petty and provincial, and that Utahns are all worse off because of it.
David G. Pace is a Salt Lake City-based author and in 2012 was the literary arts specialist at the Utah Division of Arts and Museums.