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Think house hunting is hard? Utah's small arts organizations feel your pain

Editor’s note: This is the third article in our three-part series "Beyond Abravanel Hall" that looks at how smaller arts groups along the Wasatch Front and Utah create a name for themselves and find success.

SALT LAKE CITY — As Wasatch Theatre Company’s website puts it, “It all started in a lobby. And moved to a deli.”

When Jim Martin and a group of his friends from the theater department at Westminster College founded the group in 1997, they initially performed in the lobby of the Jewett Center on campus. But when the college could no longer serve as a venue, the group set up shop in the West Valley deli Martin’s parents owned at the time.

“We were able to use that on the weekends and turn it into a stage and had lighting trees and curtains that we hung and we tried to make it the best possible space that we could,” said Martin, the group's artistic director.

Once Martin's parents sold the deli in 2001, the group bounced around from venue to venue before spending 12 years at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. Now, the company recently moved to The Gateway, occupying what used to be the Acoustic Space.

Jim Martin, third from left, at the open house of Wasatch Theatre Company's new performance space. The group recently moved to The Gateway, occupying what used to be the Acoustic Space.
Jim Martin, third from left, at the open house of Wasatch Theatre Company's new performance space. The group recently moved to The Gateway, occupying what used to be the Acoustic Space.
Provided by Jim Martin

“This opportunity came up and we thought it was a great opportunity to grow in some ways that we had wanted to explore but hadn’t been able to just because of space constraints,” Martin said. “There are other groups that use the Rose Wagner so we had to share it, so we had a lot of ideas of things that we wanted to do in our own space and we thought this was a great opportunity to do this.”

That constant search for a building — a space, a home, perhaps — in which a group can build its future and identity is something many a small arts group administrator can relate to. It’s a decision that involves consideration of budget — should the group rent, build or buy? — and asks these organizations to consider their groups' mission and potential for future growth.

Finding the right home

Salt Contemporary Dance is in the midst of its own consideration process. The group currently rehearses at the Pointe Academy in Highland and performs at various spaces — from the Rose Wagner’s Jeanne Wagner Theatre to its recent concert at American Fork Boat Harbor at Utah Lake — but is looking to build a home of its own.

“We’ve made some great connections with the local community … but we are very aware that we need a home,” said Lexie Corbett, Salt's executive director, “so we are actually in the process of making that happen and building our own space.”

For groups who don’t want to build their own space or are unable to, Salt Lake County Center for the Arts hopes to provide a solution. The government agency manages four performing arts venues in Salt Lake City — the Eccles Theater, Abravanel Hall, Capitol Theatre and the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center — that are rented out to local and national arts groups for performances.

“Salt Lake County makes significant investments in these facilities that accommodate most any size arts group,” said Melinda Cavallaro, Salt Lake County CFA’s associate division director over event services. “The Rose was built for smaller arts groups and since its opening in the late 1990s, we’ve seen our bookings increase steadily and today we are nearly at capacity.”

With the Rose Wagner almost at capacity, Salt Lake County CFA is in the process of bringing a similar venue to the county as plans continue to move forward for a Mid-Valley Performing Arts Center in Taylorsville. According to Cami Munk, Salt Lake County CFA’s communication manager, the demand at the Rose Wagner made the need for an additional professional venues for small arts groups apparent.

“The MVPAC grew out of the county’s 2008 Cultural Facilities Master Plan and is located in the fast-growing mid- to southwest area of the valley,” Munk said. “The facility brings professional theater spaces, services and opportunities closer to home for many county residents. There is great interest from groups all over the county in the venue and we think that over time, MVPAC will be as popular as the Rose.”

The new venue is slated for a fall of 2020 completion.

“Philosophically, we consider ourselves stewards of these beautiful buildings,” Cavallaro said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to provide spaces, places and services that allow so many people to fulfill their performance dreams.”

Home is where the art is

Wasatch Theatre Company recently moved to The Gateway, occupying what used to be the Acoustic Space, and renovated it to fit their needs.
Wasatch Theatre Company recently moved to The Gateway, occupying what used to be the Acoustic Space, and renovated it to fit their needs.
Provided by Jim Martin

Although renting spaces like the Rose or eventually the MVPAC is a viable option for some groups, for others, rent is still a prohibitive factor.

"For a lot of our arts organizations, there is a lot of money that needs to go into rent and that is not feasible for a lot of our newer arts organizations," said Jason Bowcutt, community arts manager for the Utah Division of Arts & Museums. So instead of renting a space, Bowcutt says he sees newer arts groups using public spaces for performances, rent free.

Encouraging arts groups to use underutilized urban space is part of The Blocks initiative, which Salt Lake City and County unveiled in July. Although a large part of the initiative is focused on marketing, The Blocks also hopes to facilitate the use of less conventional spaces for performances, murals and more.

“(Activating underutilized urban space) is definitely a big part of our goal," Ryan Mack, the Downtown Alliance’s communication and marketing director, said in an interview. "We want to utilize and help foster these kinds of experiences through our relationships with local arts groups, plus the city and county, to make these unique events.”

Bowcutt and Mack both pointed to Sackersontheater as an example of a smaller arts group that's already putting this idea into action. The group recently staged "Hindsight," a play set on the streets of downtown Salt Lake City where the audience followed the actors from location to location, including using public transit.

"It’s a really cool way to showcase this performing art and utilize a space that wouldn’t otherwise be used for that purpose," Mack said. "We’d love to see more performances like that around the city."

Something for everyone

Yes, it’s no secret that Utahns love the arts, and its the goal of smaller arts groups to make sure their art isn't a secret.

"We have so many amazing smaller performing arts groups and some people may just not know about them," Mack said. "I think it would be great to build upon it, but the arsenal of performing arts groups that we already have is impressive and we want as many people to know about it as possible."

And as local arts groups — both big and small — continue to seek ways to share differing voices, fund productions and find physical spaces in which to build their futures, the result is an incredibly varied, one-of-a-kind cultural landscape Utahns can be proud of.

"I love it all: I love the professional; I love the big, well-produced shows, but I’m also just as drawn to small, bare-bones, innovative work," Bowcutt said. "Because I can do all of that in Utah, I find it to be incredibly satisfying."