Utah Arts Council

Carol Nixon
Utah History Encyclopedia, 1994

The Utah Arts Institute was established on 9 March 1899 by the Third Utah Legislature. Representative Alice Merrill Horne, thirty-one-year-old patron of the arts, ran specifically to advance the arts agenda. Thus the first state arts agency in the nation was created, “the object being to advance the interest of the fine arts.” The act authorized an annual art competition and exhibition with the winning entry becoming part of the state art collection, which now numbers over 1,200 pieces valued at over $2 million.

In 1937 the legislature changed the name to the Utah State Institute of Fine Arts, and enlarged the board, appointed by the governor, to thirteen members. Arts activity flourished during the Great Depression. Branch offices of the Institute were opened in Provo, Price and Helper. Through the Federal Works Project Administration (WPA), artists were commissioned to create works which were placed in state and federal buildings.

During World War II, the Arts Center closed; yet the Arts Board survived, with emphasis on developing Utah’s arts resources, which included a community orchestra and an emerging ballet company. Those organizations today are the world-class Utah Symphony and Ballet West, two of Utah’s artistic treasures. The Utah Original Writing Competition began in 1958 and is a vital Arts Council program today.

Increased public appropriations, through the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965, allowed the institute to offer arts services and programs in many disciplines. Wilburn C. West became the first full-time director. A grants-in-aid program was established whereby grants were made on a matching fund basis to Utah’s non-profit organizations. In 1967 the institute became the Division of Fine Arts within the new Department of Development Services.

Community outreach programs were added under the direction of Ruth Draper, appointed in 1974, and her staff of two administrators, who were housed in the Carriage House behind the Governor’s Mansion. Professional artists were placed in residencies, citizens from throughout the state developed arts councils; performing artists were presented and visual arts exhibitions were offered to schools and communities. Council projects included the Utah Media Center, the U.S. Film/Video Festival, the Utah Play-writing Conference, the Salt Lake City Arts Council and the Utah Arts Festival.

The nation’s bicentennial in 1976 stimulated state funding for construction of Symphony (now Abravanel) Hall and the Salt Lake Art Center. The historic Capitol Theatre was renovated for opera, dance and theatre. By 1978 the James R. Glendenning home at 617 East South Temple was restored to house the Utah Arts Council, as it is now known, under the Department of Community and Economics Development. In 1984 the Chase Home in Liberty Park was restored, and today is the home of the Council’s Folk Arts program.

In 1985 legislation was passed which provided that 1 percent of state facility construction costs be set aside for the arts. A Model Site Program for Arts Education was created. Carol Nixon was appointed executive director, with a nineteen-member staff to advance the state’s cultural agenda. The Council’s ninetieth anniversary was celebrated with the inauguration of the Governor’s Awards in the Arts. Arts Town Meetings were begun, and visual art fellowships and folk art apprenticeships came to fruition.

In 1989 the state received the Union Pacific Depot as a gift from Union Pacific Railroad Company for the purpose of housing the state’s fine art collection. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donated memorabilia from the Hotel Utah, the proceeds of which created the Utah Museum Foundation. The visual and design arts programs were relocated to the depot.

At the Council’s request, in 1990 Governor Bangerter recommended, and the legislature unanimously appropriated, $2.3 million to insure the vitality and stability of Utah’s large and small non-profit organizations. To complete the endowment package, in 1991 the Utah Arts Council received the largest federal grant given to Utah arts: a $75,000 Challenge III grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Twenty percent of the federal money is to be used for non-profit organizations; twenty percent provides an endowment to serve ethnic and minority populations; and sixty percent creates an endowment for individual artists’ services.

Utah has cultivated an heritage in the arts as rich and as strong as the many ethnic and culturally diverse groups that have combined to help make up Utah. The arts endure because they inspire humanity, and an inspired humanity knows no limit.