Whitney Tassie, curator of modern and contemporary art

The Utah Museum of Fine Arts bills itself as the “state museum” of, and Utah’s primary connection with, global art. It’s quite a mission, but the argument was strengthened this summer when the 60-year-old institution confirmed its commitment to contemporary art with the appointment of Whitney Tassie as curator of modern and contemporary art.

“We feel the role of contemporary art is especially important to university art museums,” says UMFA Executive Director Gretchen Dietrich. “The museum is about connecting people to more than art, to all kinds of ideas. Contemporary art is a wonderful way to join the conversation on world issues.”

Tassie comes from Chicago, where she was director of the Monique Meloche Gallery for seven years and co-founded the Gallery Weekend Chicago that annually focuses on contemporary art. Before that she was a curatorial assistant at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art in Ithaca, N.Y.

Appointing Tassie proves the UMFA’s commitment to the direction set over the last five years by former Chief Curator Jill Dawsey, who left Utah for the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

Tassie confronts head-on Salt Lake’s nagging complex about being a cultural backwater. “It’s not entirely untrue,” she says of Utah’s isolation, but adds, “More and more, we are seeing this trend of mid-sized cities building significant contemporary art collections. You can feel it’s a growing contemporary art community here. That’s not something you feel in many places in the country.”

The UMFA has more than 18,000 works of art in its collection, ranging from Egyptian artifacts to Utah landscapes to Warhols. But it wasn’t until the last five years that it began emphasizing cutting-edge contemporary art—an in-your-face genre that includes performance art, video installations and digital works. The UMFA’s Salt series twice a year brings in emerging artists from around the globe for a major exhibition. But the museum has no intention of cutting back on its exhibitions of Western art, landscape and other genres, Dietrich says. “Contemporary art helps us see old historic art with new eyes.”

Back>>>The Big See

Back>>>Read more from our February 2013 issue