Western Vanguard


Not every American city has the audience, or funding, to sustain a large, nationally renowned contemporary art museum–nor even every state, for that matter. And yet, in the dynamic ecosystem of the art world, it is often the smaller institutions that can afford to be more adventurous–and more responsive to shifting currents, and local needs. Across the vast swathe of the American West–from the Great Plains through the sprawling Southwest to the Rocky Mountains–there are numerous, vibrant, unique cultural oases that urban dwellers on either side might not necessarily know existed. These modestly sized regional museums focus both on exhibiting local talent while bringing nationally or even internationally recognized artists to their own distinct communities. Over the next few pages, art ltd. looks to the rugged geography of the Mountain states, with a deliberately non-comprehensive survey of selected, smaller art museums whose programming represents an active engagement with contemporary art. Serving their communities alongside larger institutions such as the Denver Art Museum, the Phoenix Art Museum, the Boise Art Museum, and the Nevada Museum of Art (which will be featured in our January issue), each of these smaller institutions presents a distinct approach to their exhibition programming; together, they are favorably redefining the term “regional.”


Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA)

Interior view of new SMoCA Lounge
Photo: Tim Lanterman, courtesy Janis Leonard
Design Associates and SMoCA

In the 12 years since being founded in a former movie theater, SMoCA has consistently pulled together an ambitious program of contemporary works by both national and local artists, architects and designers. Last year, the museum introduced the “Art + Architecture” series, which exemplifies SMoCA’s core values of highlighting the work of contemporary artists and architects, while seeming to blur the boundaries between them. For each exhibit, the museum invites architects to create site-specific installations related to a specific concept within the context of the Arizona’s environmental climate. The inaugural exhibition “90 Days Over 100 degrees” investigated the idea of transformation through the freezing, melting and collecting of water; the more recent installation by Lead Pencil Studio, “Extended Collapse,” built on the history of the space itself. Adding to the distinctive flavor of SMoCA’s architectural design, the museum has launched the Janis Leonard designed “SMoCA Lounge” a mixed-use space within the Virginia Ullman gallery that will be able to host anything from an educational events, music, art-making, after-hours events or going back to the building’s origins and showing movies. In 2012, SMoCA is scheduled to continue its innovative programming, with an exhibition of rarely seen photography by Kiki Smith and a retrospective of video works by Peter Sarkisian.

Heard Museum, Phoenix
Founded as a small museum in 1929 by Dwight and Maie Bartlett Heard, the Heard Museum today boasts a permanent collection of over 40,000 objects of American Indian culture houses two locations with 10 exhibition galleries. Dedicated not only to preserving history, but to broadening the understanding of modern and contemporary Native Art, the museum has presented exhibitions such as, “Remix: New Modernities in a Post-Indian World” in 2007-8, a multi-media exhibition geared towards issues of class, gender and globalization which subsequently traveled to the Smithsonian; “Mothers & Daughters: Stories in Clay” including the work of Nora Naranjo Morse in 2009-2010; and the recent “POP! Popular Culture in American Indian Art” an exhibition exploring influences ranging from Pop to Graffiti on American Indian contemporary art that showed earlier this year.

Arizona State University Art Museum, Tempe
Founded in 1950, with a gift of American and Mexican artworks from Oliver B. James, the ASU Art Museum to this day maintains an emphasis in collecting contemporary and Latino art in addition to new media, ceramics, prints, and local artists. The museum is notable for its extensive collection of ceramics, which began in 1967 when then-director emeritus Rudy Turk began to acquire works by prominent American artists and currently consists of 3500 objects, making it one of the nation’s largest collections of 20th-century and contemporary American and British ceramics, including works by renowned artists, including Stephen De Staebler, Jun Kaneko, John Mason, Peter Shire, Beatrice Wood and Peter Voulkos. In 2002, the Ceramics Research Center was renovated to its current 5,000 square feet of an “open storage” style of display, and the Susan Harnly Peterson Ceramic Research Archives was established. As part of another vital aspect of its programming, the museum recently hosted New York-based artist Janine Antoni as part of the ongoing Elaine Horwitch Memorial Lecture series.

Museum of Contemporary Art, Tucson
For over a decade, MOCA Tucson existed as a somewhat transient operation, putting together exhibitions at temporary locations, such as vacated retail and office spaces. The museum came to reside in its current location in 2010, in the former downtown Tucson Fire Department headquarters, with a renovation funded in part by a 2009 grant from the Warhol foundation. Currently led by Anne-Marie Russell, the small museum pulls together an ambitious program ranging from last year’s installation of “The Artist as Collector: Olivier Mosset,” to this fall’s “Raymond Pettibon: The Punk Years, 1978-86” and Marfa-based artist Camp Bosworth’s “Plata o Plomo.” In addition to presenting exhibitions, the kunsthalle also hosts a series of lectures titled, “Art Now! Contemporary Art & Culture since 1960.” Led by Dr. Paul Ivey, associate professor of modern and contemporary art history at the University of Arizona, recent symposia have featured topics ranging from Courbet’s Pavilion of Realism to Feminist Art and Womanhouse.


Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) Santa Fe
The Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) was formed out of the need to inventory, catalogue and exhibit the growing collection of work held by the Institute of American Indian Art. Initially consisting of works of student and faculty of the institute, including T.C. Cannon, Kevin Red Star, Bill Warsoldier Soza, Doug Hyde, Alfred Youngman, Earl Biss and Dan Namingha, later donations include the works of Tony Abeyta, Allan Houser, Helen Hardin, and Fritz Scholder. Nearly four decades after its inception, MoCNA remains the country’s sole museum dedicated to exhibiting, collecting and interpreting the work of contemporary Native artists. The current exhibitions, “Counting Coup,” exemplifies MoCNA’s vision, bringing together artists from the US, Canada and Australia exploring the consequences of colonization, and “Rock & Roll Photo Coup,” the first survey of James Luna’s photographic works.

University of New Mexico Art Museum, Albuquerque
The permanent collection of the recently expanded UNM Art Museum, founded in 1963, currently houses over 30,000 art objects. With an encyclopedic inventory, modern and contemporary highlights include an archive of prints from the Tamarind Lithography Workshop, which moved to New Mexico in 1970 and established an affiliation with the university, which now archives two impressions of every Tamarind edition; and the Beaumont Newhall Collection, formed in 1985 in recognition of Newhall’s contribution to the field of the history of photography and includes works by Carleton Watkins, Eugene Atget and Tina Modotti. On view through December 18, London-based
artist Richard Deacon’s massive oak and stainless steel installation, Dead Leg holds center stage in the main gallery, while selections from UNM’s photographic collections are curated into five thematic groupings for the exhibition “Re-imagining American Identities.”

Salt Lake Art Center

The Salt Lake Art Center had two reasons to celebrate in 2011, as the museum celebrated its 70th anniversary, and was recognized as the Best Museum in Utah. First known as the Art Barn Association, the center’s activities were managed entirely by volunteers for three decades, until the hiring of James Haseltine, the first full-time director in 1961. In 1979 the SLAC moved to its current location where it maintains an impressive schedule, hosting 15 exhibitions this year including the inaugural presentation of the Catherine Doctorow Prize for Contemporary Painting to Los Angeles-based artist Kim Schoenstadt–which includes a solo exhibition running through February 18, 2012. The SLAC is also involved in community projects, including the educational program, Salt Lake Art Center/337 Project Art Truck, which promotes contemporary art through schools and community venues led by trained museum educators with artwork from regionally and nationally recognized artists.


Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art
Originally called the Boulder Arts Center, BMoCA was founded in 1972 by a group of local artists to showcase and promote visual arts. The museum relocated four years later to its current downtown location, an historic 1903 building that was renovated in 2009. The museum maintains three galleries with rotating exhibition featuring a mix of local, national and international contemporary artists. Past shows have included Stephen Batura, James Surls, Emi Whitehorse, Halim Al-Karim, Hiroshi Watanabe, Heather Wilcoxon, and the noteworthy 2008 exhibition, “Weather Report: Art and
Climate Change” curated by art critic and historian Lucy R. Lippard.

Aspen Art Museum
Founded in 1979, the Aspen Art Museum is a non-collecting institution dedicating to presenting the latest trends of international contemporary art, while also showcasing the work of local artists. Director and Chief Curator, Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, who previously served at the Phyllis Wattis Matrix Curator at the University of California, Berkeley, Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (1999–2004), and has worked with such artists as Fred Tomaselli, Mark Bradford, and Cathy Wilkes during her time in Aspen. A noteworthy aspect of AAM’s prgramming is the Distinguished Artist in Residency program. The program, established in 2006, was formed as a collaborative project with the late Linda Pace, who housed the artists during their residency, and has since found support from Jane and Marc Nathanson. “Originally a group of artists got together and asked the city to take over the hydropower station building,” Jacobson explains, “we wanted to go back to our roots and create an artist-centric program.” Haegue Yang, this year’s recipient, transformed the galleries with a series of provocative multi-media installations. Indicative of the museum’s growth, the AAM recently broke ground on a new 30,000 square-foot Shigeru Ban-designed building, which includes an apartment for the residency program, and will triple the museum’s current gallery space.

Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, Denver
The collection at the Kirkland Museum contains over 3,300 works of international decorative arts encompassing the early Modern through Contemporary, including examples from Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, Bauhaus, Art Deco, and Pop. The mixed collection is uniquely installed in a series of “rooms,” creating an engaging relationship between the various traditions ranging from furniture and textiles to sculpture and painting. The museum boasts an extensive collection of Colorado artists, and maintains a collection of the area’s prominent modern artists, painter Vance Kirkland. In November, the Kirkland highlights Colorado’s abstract expressionist artists.

Holter Museum of Art, Helena

On track to celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2012, the Holter Museum of Art in Helena has grown exponentially since being founded in 1987 in a former dynamite supply warehouse. “We put everything into context,” curator Yvonne Seng explains, “we like to bring the larger art world [to Helena] not only to inform the public, but to inspire the artists that are here.” The upcoming shows celebrating the silver anniversary–in one of the country’s wealthiest former gold mining towns–exemplify this ideal. Contrasting ancient with contemporary are ancient bronzes of 17th-century BC Xia Dynasty China and sculptures by San Francisco artist Wanxin Jhang, while Deborah Butterfield and John Buck contrast their work against equine statuary from China’s bronze age.

Yellowstone Art Museum, Billings
This past June, the Yellowstone Art Museum completed the first phase of their current expansion campaign, which has included the 2010 opening of the “Visible Vault,” allowing public access to storage facilities for the permanent collection and the implementation of an artist-in-residence studio, now hosting Brooke Atherton. The permanent collections include donations from the New York based-Poindexter Collection; 50 works of Minimalist and Conceptual art donated by Herb & Dorothy Vogel; and the Peter Norton Family Christmas Project Collection which features contemporary internationally recognized figures including Takashi Murakami, Yinka Shonibare MBE, and Kara Walker.


“Shooting Gallery”
Jamie Burmeister
Installation view at the NIC (May 20–August 7, 2011)
Photo: courtesy of the Nicolaysen Art Museum
“The Art and Technique of Folding the Land,” 2011

Nicolaysen Museum of Art, Casper
Since being founded in 1967 by Mary Durham with the intent of showing “art of the time,” The Nic (as it is known throughout the region) relocated twice to find its current 25,000 square foot home in the building of a former Mountain States Power Company. Now holding a permanent collection of over 6,300 works of historic and contemporary art, the museum currently holds rotating exhibitions from both regional and nationally known artists, with a focus on creating a dialogue in the larger community. “We are asking people to come out, some without any prior knowledge,” curator Lisa Hatchadoorian explains, “in a way that opens them up to what contemporary art can be.” In addition to exhibitions, the museum focuses on collecting contemporary art of the Rocky Mountain
region, and art education with classes, lectures and symposium related to their programming. Four concurrent exhibitions currently on view at the Nic include “Coevolution” by ceramicist Helen Otterson, “Reformulations” and “Terrible Beauty” New York-based artists Laura Splan and Kysa Johnson, respectively, and the selections from Conrad Schwiering Studio collection, part of the museum’s historic permanent holdings.