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Op-ed: Here's why I didn't pick a local artist to paint the new mural in downtown Salt Lake

A new downtown mural at 150 S. State St. by Vexta, an Australian artist living in Brooklyn.
A new downtown mural at 150 S. State St. by Vexta, an Australian artist living in Brooklyn.
Courtesy of Steven Labrum

Recently, I, along with Joy Haynes at 3 Irons, commissioned a mural downtown at 150 S. State St. by Vexta, an Australian artist living in Brooklyn. Response has been widely positive for “The Nature of Wisdom,” including a Sept. 15 front page story by the Deseret News. However, a few have complained: “Why didn’t you pick a local artist?”

I recognize this sentiment well, as it’s been my own before. In particular, I’ve been openly critical of the new airport awarding California artist Gordon Huether a large contract. I said, “shouldn’t visitors be exposed first and foremost to ‘our’ artists?” So here I sit, in the hypocrite’s seat. I’m an avowed localist … yet I did not favor my neighbor-muralist with the opportunity to take on what is now the largest painted wall in the state. The reason for that is simple: where one lives was not a priority for this project. Neither was being a woman, which Vexta is, or many other traits. We had three criteria: Does the artist have solid experience with projects of this size? Do we love their art? And, are they available within our budget?

No one questions the artist’s international street cred; but a few question her tribal affiliation, and resent that an artist from “our group” didn’t get first dibs. Being challenged on this point has opened my eyes to the futility and dangers of this standard. If you prefer that we had selected “local,” let’s try to define who that is. Only those living in Salt Lake City? (Sorry, Sandy.) If they are a transplant from Texas or Tunisia, how long before their locals-card arrives? If they leave, are they artista-non-grata for work? Should talented artists receive less consideration when they are vying for gigs in Denver, New York or Melbourne simply because they reside in the beehive?

It’s intuitive to think of our fellow humans in terms of “member” and “non-.” That also makes it simple to decide who to pick for prom, or the next business contract. We are all programmed with this group-preserving DNA, and it is difficult to resist. But who gets to decide these rules for being “in” or “out?” Parochialism, tribalism, nationalism — all of these isms have a major flaw, the same that vexes Vexta’s owl critics: by creating us and them, we necessarily exclude, depriving ourselves of natural allies and access to valuable diversity.

The divide is not real. It is created by our own imaginations and biases. There is nothing wrong with wanting to connect and support others who share the indicators of our tribe. It is a human trait that can bring great satisfaction and comfort. There is also great value in celebrating and sharing our unique cultural heritages, and real economic benefits for buying local. The danger comes when we choke off the opportunity for growth or create ultimatums that offer no room for evolution and diversity, effectively halting our creative evolution.

As for gigantic painted owls and who deserves to paint them? Let’s just say there are still many more walls begging for inspiration. I hope that we can use every extraordinary color available as we press forward to paint them all. And to Mr. Huether and his airport project, “Welcome, I hope that your art inspires the weary travelers to Our Town.”

Steven Labrum is 1.5 of 3 Irons, the board vice president at UMOCA, finance director for the Eva Carlston Academy, and only drinks local water because it tastes better and is less expensive than Fiji water. Find more at or @3ironsSLC.