SPRINGVILLE — Two years before Springville’s founding in 1850, pioneer artist and early Springville settler Philo Dibble envisioned “the creation of a fine arts museum or gallery to be established for the benefit of the Mormon people.”
It took almost 90 years for Dibble's dream to be realized, but now the Springville Museum of Art — Utah’s first art museum — continues to provide a powerful identity for the Springville community as it celebrates its 80th anniversary.
“In a very rather small city, this building has grown into kind of a heartthrob for the community,” said Rita Wright, the museum’s director. “It has become this real place of memory and imagination.”
The Springville Museum of Art was dedicated in 1937 as “a sanctuary of beauty and a temple of contemplation” by President David O. McKay, then a member of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The museum has since driven Springville’s moniker of Art City, Wright said. Springville has more visual artists per capita than any other Utah city, according to the museum’s former director Vern Swanson.
“We just don’t have the name Art City, we really are Art City because of the amount of artists living here,” Swanson said.
The museum’s art collection, which is now 114 years old, began with sculptor Cyrus Dallin and painter John Hafen. In 1903, the renowned artists donated two works of art to Springville High School, where the collection was originally housed.
By the late 1920s, the collection had outgrown its space in the high school. With the help of funds from the federal Works Progress Administration, the LDS Church, Nebo School District, Springville citizens and various artists, construction on the new art gallery began in 1935.
Local architect Claude Ashworth designed the building in a Spanish Colonial Revival style. The building is the Springville museum’s most important piece of art, according to Wright.
“It really is such a unique style that makes it identifiable here and sets it apart from a lot of the other architecture that was being built at that time,” Wright said.
The building was considered a part of Springville High School for a time, which makes it especially meaningful to community members who attended classes there. Rick Child, a lifetime Springville resident, former city councilman and recent mayor-elect, remembers taking choir classes in the museum and getting to know his now-wife in an a capella class there.
“I just can’t walk in there without (being) nostalgic, thinking of being back in high school,” Child said. “It’s just a really neat asset that our city has.”
Since its opening 80 years ago, the original five-gallery building has undergone a number of changes, including the addition of new wings in 1964 and 2004 and a sculpture garden in 2009.
The Springville Museum of Art’s collection holds thousands of Utahn, American and Russian works of art. The museum’s Russian collection is the largest in the western half of the United States, according to Swanson.
“The work helps Utah art because of its quality and its strength,” Swanson said. “Utah artists have really loved and appreciated it.”
The museum is also known for its annual shows, including the Spring Salon, Utah All-State High School Art Show, Spiritual and Religious Art of Utah Exhibition and the Utah Quilt Show. Wright said the museum has been a force for promoting Utah artists over the years.
“Many of them have shown for the first time here in one of our salons, some of them even as high school students in the high school show,” Wright said. “As one person suggested, we are this river through which the art of Utah flows.”
Local artist Jeff Pugh, who has shown much of his work at the museum, said the Springville Museum of Art has always been a destination for him as an artist.
“I’ve always felt like it lent a sense of legitimacy to me in my career,” Pugh said. “As a student in high school, I knew that I wanted to show my work there. As a young artist, my goal was to be part of the annual Spring Salon.”
The museum’s reputation has spread beyond the Springville community throughout its history, recognized nationally and known to residents throughout the state. It has also hosted several wedding receptions, high school reunions and family events over the years.
Local artist and museum board member Jacqui Larsen, who has lived in Springville for 24 years, said she has seen how Springville residents treasure the museum.
“Art heals, inspires, motivates, teaches,” Larsen said. “The Springville Museum of Art helps those things happen in so many ways — through a huge variety of exhibitions, educational programs, even music performances and literary readings.”
Throughout its last 80 years of history, the Springville Museum of Art has become “a place of heart and memory,” Wright said.
“This building has such an incredible warmth that when people come in, … I think they all feel like this building just gives them a warm hug,” Wright said.
The museum will celebrate its 80th anniversary by opening an interactive history exhibit on Nov. 15 and serving birthday cake to visitors from 5-9 p.m. that day. The new exhibit will include timelines, building models, videos, pictures and activities, and will remain open for a couple of years, according to Lyndsi Pace, the museum’s associate director.
If you go …
What: Springville Museum of Art's 80th birthday celebration
When: Wednesday, Nov. 15, 5-9 p.m.
Where: 126 E. 400 South, Springville