(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) "Where we belong," a mural by Bill Louis in West Valley City, Monday, Nov. 7, 2022.
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There are people in West Valley City who would like to have a word with those who labeled their town “the least artsy city in America.”
West Valley is “a culturally diverse, artistic and engaging city,” countered Michael Christensen, who is visual arts manager for the Utah Cultural Celebration Center — one of the two major arts venues in the city (the other being the West Valley Performing Arts Center).
The study, released Oct. 25 by the lawn care company LawnLove, compared 200 U.S. cities on the level of support each one gives to the arts. The study’s methodology involved gathering public data on performing arts venues and art supply stores per square mile, along with the availability of art classes and universities with arts programs nearby.
West Valley City was ranked dead last among the 200 cities. San Francisco was ranked at the top. Salt Lake City, the only other Utah municipality in the study came in 43rd place.
But artists and performing groups in West Valley City — and more broadly on the Salt Lake County’s west side — disagree with the study.
For Alan Ochoa, a Mexican-American artist who is a part of the the public arts group Roots Art Kollective, hearing West Valley City was the “least artsy” city in America was “shocking.”
Ochoa — who grew up in Kearns and West Jordan, which he called “borderline West Valley” — contended the study’s view of what is considered “art” is too narrow.
Street art, Ochoa said, “may not have been supported by the city or by the community, but growing up as a kid interested in art, that was one of the main sources of art that we could see in the city. … There’s not enough museums or things like that over on the west side.
“I remember riding the TRAX from the Valley Fair Mall in West Valley going downtown,” Ochoa said. “The TRAX ride was basically like a little gallery, [with] street art like graffiti. That was our gallery that we had to see: in small hidden corners, where it was mostly away from the public.”
RAK started painting murals on the west side, Ochoa said, because there was a clear lack of them. “It’s almost like that scene has been growing a lot more and has had more investment,” Ochoa said. “A lot of the times the murals we’ve done in West Valley have been for free.”
One well-known example is a mural they painted on the side of Panaderia Mexico, a bakery in Kearns.
West Valley City is trying to grow support for the arts, Ochoa said, but there are “hurdles” when trying to complete projects. “The officials that are in place are a little bit slower in adopting [art], and realizing the benefits it has to the community,” he said, adding that RAK has tried to get projects going, but they haven’t panned out because the group doesn’t have the “credibility” of an arts nonprofit or someone in Salt Lake City government would have.
(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Artwork by Durga Ekambaram is on display at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center in West Valley City, Friday, May 27, 2022.
Money can be an issue with art projects, said Miguel Galaz, another of RAK’s three founders. The group faced problems coming up with funds for their early projects, and a lot of the expense was “out of pocket,” he said.
“As we went to school, we noticed that lack of access to arts compared to downtown,” Galaz said. For artists on the west side, downtown Salt Lake City can be 30 to 45 minutes away by bus or TRAX.
Galaz disagreed with the study that labeled West Valley City as “least artsy,” but he said west side artists do have struggles making a living from their work.
“While growing up, there were places like Mestizo Coffeehouse where we would gather, or other places in school or open mics that influence the work we do,” Galaz said. The art created on the west side, he said, is about “exploration of identity of a Chicano or Mexican-American artist.” (The Panaderia Mexico mural in Kearns is a prime example.)
The creators of the study Galaz said, need to expand their definition of an arts venue. In West Valley City, it may include a family gathering where a mariachi band plays.
“The whole structure behind it, that builds up a culture that doesn’t necessarily perform in those big venues,” Galaz said.
Michael Christensen has been working for the Utah Cultural Celebration Center for 20 years, and every week he has been involved in coordinating the city’s public arts program.
The offerings can include the theater program at the West Valley Performing Arts Center, partnerships with the Utah Shakespeare Festival and Westminister College’s Greek Theater program, and most recently a Dia de los Muertos festival that drew nearly 3,000 attendees.
UCCC offers great services — such as an online artist registry — but people generally aren’t aware of it, Christensen said. The West Valley Arts Council works within the city’s Parks and Recreation program, Christensen said, so it may not be as recognizable as arts councils and programs in other cities. Contrast West Valley City’s less publicized work with the Salt Lake City Arts Council’s annual event, the Living Traditions Festival, something that gets a lot of attention for its diverse roster of artisans and performance groups.
“True, we may not have as many public venues as some of our surrounding cities, but we definitely have a lengthy, vibrant and robust series of programs that we do in our city,” Christensen said.
Bill Louis has painted murals all over the Salt Lake Valley — Sugar House, along the Jordan River Parkway, South Salt Lake — but his work “Where We Belong” is special.
That mural is on the south wall of Valley Fair Mall — a place he always went when he was growing up — and he’s seen the mall change over time, which made it “cool” that he could be the first artist to create a public mural there.
“Where We Belong,” he said, depicts “a brown girl holding a salt crystal that represents the growing diversity and culture of West Valley City.”
For Louis, West Valley City is the most diverse place in Utah — because it has people who trace their roots to Africa, Central and South America, and the Pacific Islands.
According to 2018 U.S. Census data, West Valley City was the first large Utah city to be “minority majority,” where white people make up less than half the population.
Louis said he can understand why West Valley City isn’t considered “artsy,” but he said there is art on display in various places around town. A few local businesses, he said, have art on their walls, commissioned by building owners and locals.
There’s room for growth for public art opportunities in West Valley City, Louis said, noting that he can only think of two full-time artists to come out of there.
“The majority of projects are outside of West Valley,” he said, “because there are other cities or galleries that are paying more.”
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