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If you walked into the Salt Lake Art Center two weeks ago, you'd find director Ric Collier not behind a desk but in a gallery, a roller in his hand and his polo shirt spattered with paint, applying primer to the walls.

Collier has staffers who could do this for him, of course. But this sort of roll-up-the-sleeves attitude typifies Collier's egalitarian view of contemporary art and his belief that the center should display artworks with the respect they deserve.

"If I'm going to be criticized, I don't want it to be because the paint isn't fresh and the floor is dirty," says Collier, who repaints his galleries between every exhibit. "I owe it to the community and the artists to provide a clean, well-lighted space. This has to be a temple in some ways. The discussions that go on here are, to me, very spiritual and sacred."

If the Salt Lake Art Center is truly a temple, then church has been in session since a group of artists and art lovers formed the city's first community art association in 1931. That group evolved into the current center, the city's only public venue dedicated to contemporary art.

The SLAC celebrates its 75th anniversary this year as Utah's longest-running visual arts organization. In its early years, it drew huge crowds for exhibitions by such figures as Maynard Dixon, Diego Rivera and Vincent Van Gogh. Since moving downtown in 1979, the center has been plagued by declining attendance, budget deficits and the threat of closure.

Today, as it opens a 75th-anniversary retrospective show of works by Utah artists, the Salt Lake Art Center appears to be on the rebound. Attendance is still spotty. But many credit Collier, an Idaho-born sculptor, for whipping the center into financial shape, sharpening its focus on postmodern art and mounting important exhibitions, such as a recent show by 20th-century abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell.

"He is utterly unwilling to believe that the art center is hindered by anything," says former SLAC director Allison South, who worked with Collier for nine years. "He believes in its potential, believes it is a singularly important organization with a vital role to play in the community and the region. He will say so to anyone who will listen, and is fearless in doing so."

Such a commitment to the city's artistic life is what drove civic leaders to form a community art association in 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression. Art, they thought, could help lift Utahns' spirits during that difficult time. In 1933, artists and city officials christened Salt Lake City's first public art center, the unassuming Art Barn, in a grassy park near the University of Utah.

From the beginning, the center's emphasis was on visual art. Later that decade the Art Barn displayed paintings by Rivera, the Mexican muralist, and his wife, Frida Kahlo. In 1941, the center scored a triumph when it showed 14 paintings by Van Gogh, the Dutch master, on loan from the Netherlands.

Over the next four decades the Art Barn embraced bold contemporary art by exhibiting works by such modernists as Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky and Robert Rauschenberg. The center also proved unafraid to challenge Utahns' sensibilities in 1964 by displaying an exhibition of nudes that had been yanked from the University of Utah.

By the mid-1970s, the center had outgrown the Art Barn and planned a move downtown. The new triangle-shaped building on West Temple opened in 1979 to great fanfare. But the crowds never followed.

"We figured when we got downtown that we'd make a big splash. But people just didn't turn out," says Allen Dodworth, the SLAC director at the time. Parking was a problem, and the angular building between the Salt Palace and Abravanel Hall wasn't inviting enough to draw pedestrians from the street.

To make matters worse, the center fell into deep debt. By 1983, the SLAC couldn't pay its rent and was preparing to close. The center even discussed merging with the Utah Museum of Fine Arts before it was saved by emergency cash donations by the city and Utah arts patron Marcia Price.

Donors such as gallery owner Bonnie Phillips helped keep the SLAC on its feet. When Collier arrived in 1996, he found an art center that mounted more than three dozen exhibitions annually but struggled to pay its bills. He quickly trimmed the exhibition schedule down to about 12 shows a year.

"Bigger isn't always better. Because it comes with this burden to raise more money," says Collier, who prefers to devote more care to presenting each show. "It takes time to do these things right."

The longest-tenured director the center has ever known, Collier is an energetic man with a darting intellect and a mad-professor shock of unruly gray hair. Like almost every arts administrator, he faces criticism that he caters to art snobs at the expense of mainstream tastes. Collier also has heard sniping from some Utah artists that he ignores their work for shows by out-of-staters. The director takes such talk in stride.

"Some have said we're elitist. But are baseball teams elitist because they want the best players? Why not shoot for the best [artists]?" he says. "We're not living in a vacuum here. There's a bigger world out there that's making art."

In his 10 years at the art center Collier has largely eschewed pretty pictures in favor of challenging shows on hospice care and courtroom politics. He also has nearly tripled the center's budget, to $850,000, while refusing to charge admission fees.

Now Collier hopes to make the center a hub for the city's artistic community while mounting artworks that elicit dialogue about social or political issues. He loves it when people wander in and engage themselves with the art, whether they like it or not. Like contemporary art itself, Collier is more interested in raising questions than providing answers. And to him, there are no dumb questions.

"Let this place stir your imagination," he says, in a bald-faced plea for more visitors. "That's all I'm asking for here - that we get to be seen."


Contact Brandon Griggs at or 801-257-8689. Send comments to

Friday reception

  • "Looking Back: 75 Years at the Salt Lake Art Center," opens with a reception Friday from 6 to 9 p.m. at the center, 20 S. West Temple. The retrospective show celebrates the SLAC's 75th aniversary with 24 paintings and sculptures by 24 esteemed Utah artists, living and dead.They include Anna Campbell Bliss, Lee Deffebach, George Dibble, Alvin Gittins, Frank McEntire, Tony Smith and V. Douglas Snow.