SALT LAKE CITY — On a beautiful sunny day in 2016, B-boys and rappers gathered with academics, teachers and artists. Kids spun on their heads, participants perfected their spray-painting technique, and young emcees performed spoken-word poetry.
The museum's ACME program, which includes interactive art exhibits, a partnership with the University of Utah Honors Program and community outreach sessions, just received a $35,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. It's the largest NEA grant that UMFA has ever received.
"It's not easy to get a grant from the NEA. … (The NEA) is really looking at and examining thousands of programs and art museums across the country, and for them to make an investment in our program, it's just such an exciting and validating experience for us," UMFA Executive Director Gretchen Dietrich told the Deseret News.
The story of how ACME got started goes back to the UMFA's 2016-17 closure for renovations. When Dietrich realized that the museum would need to be closed for 18 months, she and her colleagues took it as a challenge to find ways to stay relevent in the community — even without their home.
"I had long wanted to find a new and better way to have a presence in the community that was not necessarily tethered to the actual physical space of the museum," Dietrich said.
ACME began with a partnership with the Salt Lake City Public Library, which Dietrich called, "A match made in heaven."
Jorge Rojas, the museum's education and engagement director, was instrumental in creating the new program. He and Dietrich wanted to support the broader community as much as possible rather than just focusing on fine art aficionados.
"It's about … thinking (of the museum) in a (more) reciprocal way … in order to be a more inclusive, relevant space for our broader community," Rojas told the Deseret News.
The library branches host ACME Sessions, which are held every other month and focus on a different aspect of art and community. These sessions bring together speakers, artists, activists and community members to discuss important issues — like feminism, art therapy and immigration — and participate in related hands-on activities.
"We really made a conscious effort to shift the kind of power distribution and authority and say, 'Let's use our institutional platform and elevate the voices of these people in our community,'" Rojas said of these sessions.
Each of the ACME sessions that Dietrich and Rojas described, from one highlighting contemporary Native American artists to several about LGBT issues, focus on bringing community members together to have a discussion with people who are different than them.
"Humans just tend to seek their own and hang out in groups of people who are so similar to them," Dietrich said. "(When) you're surrounded by people who have very different experiences from you, … that can feel sort of insecure."
Dietrich and Rojas want ACME Sessions to feel open to everyone, and now that the UMFA has reopened, they've brought that openness into their home base.
The ACME Lab, located on the first floor of the museum, gives a different take on a traditional art exhibition. Its exhibits are very interactive and typically deal with contemporary issues.
"It's not only about showing people great art and connecting them to art," Dietrich said. "It's about finding new ways to frame the conversation.
"We try to create a lot of opportunities for interactivity, for interdisciplinary engagement," she added.
UMFA practices what it preaches, and patrons, whether they know where it comes from or not, can feel ACME's influence throughout the museum. Thanks, in part, to the interactive art lab, museum guests can find children's books, couches and art they can touch, making the museum more kid-friendly. The museum also offers "Family Backpacks," which contain hands-on activities and are designed for children ages 4-12 to make adult-oriented galleries more enjoyable for families.
"I know a lot of people are afraid to bring small children to art museums because it is true, you cannot touch the art," Dietrich said. But for her, that doesn't mean the museum can't explore "new ways to engage different kinds of learners and different kinds of people," including young children.
"(The UMFA) is not meant to be a place where everyone's really quiet," he said. "We like it when kids are joyful. … We want this to be a lively, living, breathing space, where people are excited."
Since it's start in 2016, ACME has received funding from local donors, including Utah Humanities and the JoAnne L. Shrontz Family Foundation. With this new $35,000 grant from the NEA, ACME can continue its important work.
The money is, of course, vital to ACME's success. It goes to fund exhibitions, pay artists and support community outreach. However, the NEA grant is about a lot more than the money.Comment on this story
"To have validation, on a national level, … for something that our whole staff has been committed to and has been working on for over three years is really, really important," Rojas said. "It shows to us and to our community that what we've built together is important, and that it is worth developing and investing in and growing.
"It also sends a message to those people who believed in the vision of it early on … and hopefully it spurs just that much more interest from the community to come and reach out to us."
Correction: A previous version stated the $35,000 grant the Utah Museum of Fine Arts received from the National Endowment for the Arts was the largest grant the museum has received. It is the largest NEA grant the museum has received.