The Socratic Nudge: Evolving an arts community, one question at a time.
by Amie Tullius
When I sit down in the Art Center library with Heather Ferrell, the Salt Lake Art Center’s new director, I am swept up by her energy and excitement. Ferrell wears a crisp business suit and a warm smile. She is young and articulate; she has the mental speed and charisma of a good politician; she is genuine and accessible. It’s immediately apparent that she loves what she does and wants to share that passion. There’s something else about her, though, that draws you in and makes you want to listen to what she has to say: She has a generous and probing curiosity about Utah arts and culture, and I sense her vision for the Salt Lake Art Center reaches into the whole Salt Lake arts community. Listening to her, I get the distinct feeling that Utah is on the brink of something wonderful, and that Ferrell wants give us a good nudge.
How will she do that?
By asking questions.
But first it’s our chance to ask.
What’s here already? "It’s a really dynamic, diverse cultural community, and you don’t tend to hear that so much from the outside, coming in. We’re kind of our own best-kept secret," Ferrell says. Salt Lake is bubbling with energetic non-profit visual art organizations, funky little galleries, tight-knit artist studios, and arts-loving cafes. "I have been a bit astonished," Ferrell says of coming back to Utah after 14 years, "it’s very cultural, the growth here." There’s a lot to discover about the artistic and cultural community of Salt Lake, not only because the community is in an exciting period of shift and growth, but also because Utah can be somewhat demure about its vibrant cultural life.
Who are we now? Ferrell has been in Salt Lake for a couple months now, and I ask her if she’s starting to get a sense of the conversation that’s going on in the art scene here.
"What I would say is that there are different kinds of conversations; conversations can start with statements, or they can start with questions that promote dialogue." In coming to Salt Lake, Ferrell says, "what I’m sensing is that there are a lot of questions being posed. Who are we as a community, now? We’re really changing, we’re kind of looking for our identity."
What if we were to own our distinctive Utah culture? Returning to Utah, Ferrell says she hears anew about the various groups and subcultures in the state. "Maybe it’s having time outside of the state and coming back," she says, but she sees it as not a series of separate or competing groups, but rather as "really a Utah culture." Ferrell is doesn’t try to explain the culture, though I can see her engaging the question and examining it from multiple angles. I get the sense that the challenge she gives herself is not so much to answer questions as to open up dialogue-in this case dialogue which will allow the culture to explain itself and to expand through self-reflection.
What’s next for the Art Center? Ferrell’s vision for the Art Center is that it be a place that people really know. "I want it to be one of those centers of community where people feel welcome." She wants to keep working on the Art Center’s wonderful tradition of exhibitions. And she wants local artists to feel really supported, so that "even if there isn’t an exhibition, we’re working with them in some way- that we’re out doing studio visits, or pointing them on to other regional and national venues."
How can we bring the greater Utah community into our arts community? It is when she talks about community involvement and partnership between artists and various arts organizations that Ferrell really lights up. "It’s about having a conversation, and it’s about being informed, and it’s saying ‘you’re welcome here.’" She’s excited to form a community advisory group on the exhibitions "to talk about what’s going on in the world thematically, what relates to our community or to the national environment."
What do the various arts organizations have to offer one another? "We’ve got the performing arts, we’ve got the U, we’ve got BYU… we’re all supposed to be doing different things!" Ferrell says. "We all have different missions so we can augment each other. Then, when you have a strong cultural group, then you can really move forward." It’s in the partnerships and the collaborations among the disparate organizations that magic happens.
And this: "Do you have a sense of what Utah’s artistic community has to contribute to the national conversation?" She laughs, which seems a fair response. "Come back in three to five years," she says. Also fair. If we are on the brink of something wonderful, she is not going to limit whatever that is by defining it prematurely.
Heather Ferrell smiles and says, "Maybe we pose more questions."
Amie Tullius writes about the arts for CATALYST.