Kristian Anderson, wife and son Soren, traded Seattle wet for Utah dry.

Kristian Anderson, the new executive director of Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, recently had a conversation with his 3-year-old that gave him unexpected insight into the purpose of an art museum. His son, Soren, said, “Dad, I love you.” 

“I asked him, ‘What does that mean?’”

Soren thought a moment: “I’ll share my fish crackers with you.”

“I thought, huh. That’s what love means to a 3-and-a-half-year-old,” Anderson recalls.

“I want to have that kind of conversation about art,” he says. “How do we take the complexity of human emotions and being part of a community and express it? Art is an incredible vehicle to do that in a very unique and vibrant way.”

Since February, Anderson has been applying that approach to leading UMOCA. “The last five years have had their share of fiscal challenges,” says Anderson, who had been director of the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries in Seattle and before that, an instructor at University of Washington and director of the Jacob Lawrence Gallery. “It’s a reality of an exceptionally large recession.” 

Anderson’s immediate goals are straightforward—increase staffing and expand the donor base. “We need to find a director of fundraising and fill the senior curator position. You need money to do that.”

As for his philosophy of contemporary art—which will be key in hiring a new curator—Anderson describes himself as “more a populist than an elitist.”

“I don’t see myself as ‘selling’ contemporary art to the community,” he says. “I see it as teaching why this stuff is important—what it can do. That lends itself to a populist approach.”

That “Why art?” question leads back to Anderson’s conversation with Soren. 

“Contemporary art is a conversation about what it means to be a modern being and that is invaluable to a community.”

That doesn’t mean dumbing down: “There has to be steak, meat, to what you are doing. There has to be some sort of intellectual rigor. Contemporary art doesn’t have to be exclusive or ironic or depressing. But of course, good contemporary art can also be any of those things.”

UMOCA also will continue, through artist residencies and exhibitions, to support Utah artists. “We want to help them succeed and move on to national and international platforms,” Anderson says. “We need to bring national and international artists here to help that dialog and growth. The best work is not created in a vacuum.”

Still, UMOCA’s success depends on connecting with its community, he says. “Museums do themselves a disservice when they get huffy—‘Why of course you should support us, we’re a museum! If you don’t, you’re uncultured.’ That doesn’t fly for me.”

Anderson is going to try another approach: “You need to make a case as to why the institution really means something by going out and showing what art does and what UMOCA can do.”

Exhibits at UMOCA:

do it

Started in 1993, "do it" is an open-ended traveling exhibition that evolves with each stop. UMOCA will present more than 50 reenactments based on the artists’ instructions, but with input from the Utah community. Through May 31.

Trent Harris: Echo Cave

Through drawings, sketches, posters, artist books and short films, Echo Cave explores Utah native Harris’ filmmaking (Rubin & Ed, The Beaver Trilogy) and his painting and collage work. Harris blurs the boundaries between reality, fiction, absurdity and the bizarre. Through April 26

Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, 20 S. West Temple, Salt Lake City, 801-328-4201, utahmoca.org.

Back>>>Read other stories in our March/April 2014 issue.