ON SATURDAY NIGHT I boarded a chartered “pARTy bus” from Salt Lake City to the Central Utah Art Center in Ephraim, Utah. Mikell Stringham, a member of CUAC’s board, welcomed passengers on the bus to the “Farewell to Ephraim Party.” Her colleague Andrew Shaw quickly corrected her: “It’s the ‘Footloose Dance Party.’ ” The city council served a surprise eviction notice last month, but as of yet no terms of settlement have been decided for the early breach of contract, and CUAC is trying to stay in Ephraim (pop.: 6,000) to maintain its unusual status as a small-town contemporary art gallery. I asked several people if they knew of any comparable institutions around the United States and got furrowed brows and shaking heads in reply. That doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t exist—before last week I had never heard of CUAC.
I was in Utah after a week of visiting relatives in the Rocky Mountain region, and when I learned about the Footloose Dance Party via RSVP notifications on Facebook I thought: Why not? It’s too bad I never got to see an exhibition at CUAC; Edgar Arceneaux, Rashawn Griffin, Kerry James Marshall, and Mariah Robertson have all recently shown there. The only vestige of its program on Saturday was a curator’s credit stenciled on the wall. “Curated by Jorge Dick,” it said when I entered, but by the next time I passed it the last word had been erased. (A few partygoers blamed Jorge Rojas’s aggressively provocative and budget-busting show “superHUMANS” for CUAC’s troubles.) The gallery was decorated with balloons, icicle lights, and a disco ball, and—to bolster the defiant mood—there was a silent screening of the party’s namesake Footloose, the 1984 hit about a teen dance party in rural Oklahoma whose organizer struggles against persecution by the town elders.
“What if you have your dance in Bayson?” This suggestion from a janitor to the young protagonist of Footloose happened to appear in the subtitles when I glanced at the monitor. Even the people who thought the relationship with Ephraim was beyond repair didn’t think CUAC was done for. Stringham said they had run an online poll, and fans suggested reopening in Ogden or Park City; Adam Bateman, an artist and CUAC’s director, told me that some potential funders had encouraged him to move to Salt Lake. But CUAC has invested heavily in Ephraim, raising money to renovate their building, a granary built by Mormon settlers in the mid-nineteenth century, as well as a cabin that belonged to pioneer artist C.C.A. Christensen, which was towed across town to CUAC’s backyard and converted to a secondary exhibition space.
CUAC had little tension with the local administration before the election of David Parrish to the mayor’s office. Parrish, I was told, owns twenty-one McDonald’s franchises in Utah and has a statue of Ronald (the clown) on his front porch. “They [CUAC] weren’t involving the local flavor,” he told the Huffington Post. “You’d think that these guys are big capitalists and only care that we bring a shit ton of money to Ephraim,” Bateman said, referring to substantial national grant funds that CUAC spends in the town. “But apparently that’s not their only concern.” Kathleen Peterson, who founded CUAC in the early 1990s as a place to show works of local artists and craftsmen and to educate local schoolchildren, reflected on her tenure in an open letter to the city council: “The exhibits were of high quality and were recognized by many artists in Utah but as the years went by, there was not much support from the community of Ephraim.” She has argued that shifting CUAC’s focus away from contemporary art would result in decreased attendance and funding.
Several of the people I talked to insisted that the city council’s opinions do not necessarily reflect those of its constituents. But, they said, Ephraim’s citizens had been regrettably quiet throughout the conflict. Jason Metcalf—an artist who ran a nonprofit gallery in Provo in 2008 and 2009 without support from the staunchly Mormon city’s administration—spotted an opportunity to get an authentic local opinion when Shaun Christensen, a descendant of the builder of the cabin, approached the pop-up taco stand in CUAC’s yard. But Christensen, who said he was a “digital artist,” hadn’t even heard about the eviction. “I was just passing by and saw something was happening,” he said between bites of tacos, and added: “I’d show you my portfolio but I lost my iPod last week.”
In the gallery, the party escalated. The dancers stomped their feet desperately, and the people hanging out in the basement office would occasionally raise their eyes, wondering if the floor might collapse. All the tunes were from the ’80s, in keeping with the Footloose theme. “If I go there will be trouble,” the Clash sang through the speakers. “If I stay it will be double.” As it neared midnight, Bateman rounded up the revelers for a sleepover at the Birch Creek Ranch in Spring City, the site of CUAC’s residency program. The next day, he and a few others would return to mount an unannounced project by Metcalf: a total installation incorporating some anonymous paintings—a fox in a field, a moonlit waterfall, a desert scene—that had been abandoned at CUAC and had languished in the basement for years. The guerrilla show is CUAC’s last sally to declare its commitment to Ephraim.