SALT LAKE CITY — Nestled between the Salt Palace and Abravanel Hall, the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art is a striking, angular structure that, through its abstract façade, anticipates the sort of groundbreaking art contained within. Now, under the leadership of Laura Hurtado, the UMOCA's new executive director, the museum hopes to engage and recruit art lovers to art that is often misunderstood.

“Contemporary art isn’t always just there to challenge people, but also a place to be participatory and a space to discuss,” Hurtado said in a recent interview.

The UMOCA, formerly known as the Salt Lake Art Center, has enjoyed a rich history since its founding in 1931. While the museum has a storied tenure of innovative exhibitions headed by ambitious leaders, Hurtado, who started in April, aims to further stabilize the institution, while creating even more opportunities for community engagement.

Creating bridges

Hurtado received her bachelor’s degree in art history and curatorial studies from Brigham Young University and went on to complete an art history master’s degree, with an emphasis in contemporary art, from the University of Utah in 2011. Since then, she has curated exhibitions for a number of local and national venues, taught courses in art history at the University of Utah and has published two books. From 2013 to 2019 she worked as the global acquisitions curator for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint's Church History Museum.

Utah Museum of Contemporary Art Executive Director Laura Hurtado stands for a portrait in the upper level of the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 25, 2019. Since taking her position in April, Hurtado has put forth an amb
Utah Museum of Contemporary Art Executive Director Laura Hurtado stands for a portrait in the upper level of the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 25, 2019. Since taking her position in April, Hurtado has put forth an ambitious agenda for revitalizing the museum, the viability of which critics and contemporary art naysayers question. | Colter Peterson, Deseret News

Hurtado said that her tenure at the Church History Museum taught her, among other things, “a lot about audiences and how ideas, if they are underdeveloped, can be misinterpreted and fall flat to your audience.

“I learned that if you tell a powerful story, and do the work, even if it’s something brand new or something people are unfamiliar with or a style they’re not traditionally comfortable with, that people will come along and will get excited,” she said.

While Hurtado crafted innovative and thought-provoking programming at the Church History Museum, her work at the UMOCA with contemporary art — known for being untraditional and sometimes controversial — will have her looking for ways to bring people together with art they may not know much about.

“I think that UMOCA has done a good job in terms of creating bridges for people to contemporary art, with programs like the Art Truck and our programs that serve over 1,000 school-age children and Utah families through free hands-on art-making activities,” she said, referring to the UMOCA's mobile art museum that takes art to various communities.

In addition to continuing the museum’s outreach programs, Hurtado aims to continue bolstering “the local art community by supporting local artists through scholarship, lecture series, exhibition spaces and the artist-in-residency program,” she said.

Moving forward

While other state museums such as the Utah Museum of Fine Arts showcase a wide breadth of art ranging in eras, cultures and styles, UMOCA is uniquely focused on showcasing art of the present. Much like other contemporary art museums, UMOCA works to analyze artistic trends as they are unfolding and to contextualize these patterns within a larger art historical narrative. This focus on the present allows for a dynamic roster of exhibitions sought from artists currently engaged in their trade. It also allows resources — economic and otherwise — to be allocated toward education and outreach, instead of preservation and maintenance of a museum collection.

Community members and arts advocates fully acknowledge the difficulty of running an art museum in the state, with the museum’s financial hardships hardly a concealed fact.

Utah Museum of Contemporary Art Executive Director Laura Hurtado stands for a portrait in the upper level of the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 25, 2019. Since taking her position in April, Hurtado has put forth an amb
Utah Museum of Contemporary Art Executive Director Laura Hurtado stands for a portrait in the upper level of the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 25, 2019. Since taking her position in April, Hurtado has put forth an ambitious agenda for revitalizing the museum, the viability of which critics and contemporary art naysayers question. | Colter Peterson, Deseret News

“I knew the (financial health and prospects of UMOCA) was a challenge when I took on the position of executive director," Hurtado said. "Unlike many other museums and art organizations in the state who have umbrella support from a larger institution, we rely heavily on private, corporate and government grants and individual donations, which can ebb and flow year to year and leave us financially vulnerable."

So how will Hurtado help stabilize the museum’s finances? Her goal, she said, is to reduce and simplify.

“We are focused both on reducing costs and increasing revenue … including a more active development program, paid admission, increasing rental use, more disciplined budgeting and teaming up more effectively with other organizations here in the state,” she said.

I think the art of our time is vital. It tells us something about who we are, what we’re thinking about, what matters to us.

Hurtado acknowledges that the museum sold off a portion of its collection three years ago in a sale that "was well-documented and publicly disclosed at the time," she said.

"While all museums should approach de-accessioning a collection with caution, in our particular case, the mission of UMOCA has changed so dramatically from being a collecting museum to being an exhibition-only and artist nurturing institution,” Hurtado said.

In this respect, the differences between a contemporary art museum and a traditional state museum are striking. Whereas a state museum necessarily draws from and relies on its collection for wide-ranging topical shows, contemporary art museums often work closely with working artists who lend out their artwork on a temporary basis.

An artistic lifeline

Beyond its value to its visitors, the museum is also a lifeline for the state’s many talented artists.

Utah Museum of Contemporary Art Executive Director Laura Hurtado stands for a portrait in the upper level of the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 25, 2019. Since taking her position, Hurtado has put forth an ambitious ag
Utah Museum of Contemporary Art Executive Director Laura Hurtado stands for a portrait in the upper level of the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 25, 2019. Since taking her position, Hurtado has put forth an ambitious agenda for revitalizing the museum, the viability of which critics and contemporary art naysayers question. | Colter Peterson, Deseret News

“UMOCA is one of the only spaces that is really invested in the Utah art world that is showing Utah artists through a critical and important lens and giving them a kind of stamp of approval by giving them a museum show," Hurtado said. "What Utah lacks is venues for artists to show. The lack of places to show causes us to lose our artists (when they) move elsewhere. There are consequences to that.”

To Hurtado, the indispensable role of art to a civil society is analogous to another vital, yet struggling industry: newspapers.

“It’s interesting because newspapers are dying around the country because print journalism is no longer a financially viable medium, and yet papers matter because they have archived the history of our people, they have told our stories, they have been record keepers and told us about ourselves," she said. "Whether they’re viable or not, they remain the watchdogs of our society and our very democracy hinges on journalism’s role in checking and balancing our society. If papers matter, art is certainty central to our democracy and who we are as people."

Ultimately, Hurtado will continue fighting for the museum, its staff and the visitors who have sought artistic refuge within its walls.

“I think the art of our time is vital," she said. "It tells us something about who we are, what we’re thinking about, what matters to us. It offers critique, it offers a mirror, and can reflect back both the beautiful and the ugly and in that process can ask us vital questions.”