As search for new curator begins, St. George Art Museum has many mountains to climb

The St. George Museum is in search of a new manager/curator. When one is found, they will take on many challenges in righting the ship. St. George, Utah, circa 2016 | Photo courtesy of The Erin Hanson Gallery, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The St. George City Council has given the green light to city staff to fill a vacant position at the St. George Art Museum.

Staff will now actively seek a replacement for a manager/curator at the museum following the departure of Deborah Reeder earlier this year. The approval came during a public meeting on Thursday.

When a candidate is chosen and Reeder’s successor comes on board, there will be mountains to climb and challenges to face.

Increasing visitation, infrastructure improvements, installing better signage, increasing programming and a very distant and remote possibility to move the art collection to another location and repurpose the building at 47 East 200 North were all discussed during Thursday’s City Council meeting.

Shortly after Reeder left her position, Michelle Graves, deputy director of arts/events with the city of St. George, began an analysis of the possibilities and problems the new manager/curator will face sustaining the several million-dollar collection of art.

Visitation

“From 2012 to 2019, our visitation numbers have been between 7,000 to 10,000 annually,” Graves said.

Visitors enjoying a solo exhibition during a showing. St. George, Utah, circa 2016 | Photo courtesy of The Erin Hanson Gallery, St. George News

With a budget of $252,423 for 2019, the cost per visitor is about $30, yet the museum charges only $3 for admission, so there is not much left on the bone when the next budget cycle comes around, city officials say.

“It looks like last year our total revenue was approximately $28,000, so increasing revenue is our No. 1 goal,” Graves said. “It’s not really surprising to see that in an art museum. We are planning on addressing revenue through grants and donations, and little has been done in these areas in the past.”

Other areas of focus are to increase the programs offered at the museum, incorporate an art-share program, where pieces from the collection would be featured in offices throughout the town, and increase educational opportunities.

Infrastructure

Graves realizes the museum is in need of an improvement to its street appeal and better accessibility, she said.

“It had a beautiful garden and an outside water feature which is leaking, but it’s cost-prohibitive to fix,” Graves said. “I think if we keep the museum, if we like the museum and everything that’s offered, I think it’s also a consideration of how to repurpose that space to make the garden more appealing.”

The building was built in the 1930s to store beet seed for a sugar beet factory. In 1979, the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company closed the building, and it was left vacant, soon becoming home to mice and pigeons. Eventually, the city took over ownership and renovated the derelict building. However, it has been decades since the renovation.

Though some infrastructure of the St. George has lasted the test of time, it is in need of some tender loving care. St. George, Utah, Circa 2016 | Photo courtesy of The Erin Hanson Gallery, St. George News

“The museum is dated,” Graves said. “It needs new paint. We are possibly considering new flooring. Most art museums don’t have carpet. We also need new lighting to brighten things up.”

Relocation

“Do we have the backing to continue to infuse money into it,” Graves asked the City Council Thursday. “Is it housed in the right location for the community to view the art? Could that building be repurposed to serve other community art needs and could the museum be moved to a location more centrally located downtown? Maybe where the Electric Theater is, or a location like that which is more accessible.”

The “remote” possibility of moving the art collection sparked interest from several council members.

The eyes of Bette Arial, a passionate patron of the arts, lit up by this possibility.

“It’s intriguing to think of moving the museum, but over my dead body will we do away with it,” Arial said. “We have an opportunity here and I’ve never considered moving, but now I am considering that. We need to spend a little bit and take a new look at things. Take a fresh look.”

Arial said that she is sad the museum put on such great programs but that hardly anyone showed up.

“The museum has been the stepsister of recreation in St. George forever,” she added. “People don’t visit because they believe it’s not that good, but it is that good. Let’s put things on the table to make things better. It’s our responsibility to take this time and really analyze it and not throw anything out with the bathwater.”

The newest member of the City Council, Bryan Smethurst, also agreed that someday the council may consider an alternative location for the art collection.

“I’ve been up to the museum once,” Smethurst said. “I didn’t even know it was there, but the one time I went up there, it was hard to get into, so I had to park a long way away. The group that’s been going there has to walk up the hill, so maybe the location is holding back some of them — a lot of them — from going.”

Budget

The city has approached a few people in town to take over the reins at the museum, but there has not been a big “oh, pick me” response, Graves said.

Local residents may see big changes at the St. George Museum with future plans for improvements on the horizon. St. George, Utah, Circa 2016 | Photo courtesy of The Erin Hanson Gallery, St. George News

“Honestly, if they looked at our financials … it will be a challenge, so finding the right person is really important,” she said. “We do need to carry on or change directions quickly.”

Graves admitted that whatever improvements or direction the council decides to take in the future, it will come at a financial cost. Although increasing revenue can be a bit of an uphill battle, she vows to work to increase the money flowing into the museum’s coffers.

“If we are going to continue, we may have to consider putting more money into changing some things to really make the museum more appealing,” Graves added.

Councilman Jimmie Hughes said he is sensitive to spending money but knows that sometimes to make things better requires money.

“We have to take into consideration that there is another group of people that would say a city art museum, I had no idea,” Hughes said. “They would say, ‘We are spending on what?’ But, I’ve said it before, we don’t all like the same stuff, but the arts are important. Not everybody is going to go there, but we have to realize it’s like a park, it’s not going to make money, but it’s something that is important to our community.”

Mayor Jon Pike echoed a similar view.

“Some of the things we do, we do them for our community’s quality of life and enjoyment, and some (actions) do come back and tie into economic development,” Pike said. “They do bring people here. While we may lose money on the books … there are studies that show the arts do pay for themselves. This can come through things like sales tax revenue and room tax revenue.”

Future direction

Everyone who attended the council meeting agreed it is important to nurture the arts community in St. George. To a person, they agreed it has intrinsic value.

“We really have set some deep roots,” Graves said. “Now we have this opportunity. As we continue to grow and people come here, we are infusing the town with so many tourists that we can really make the city a (destination) for art. The arts need to play a vital role as we grow in St. George.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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