By SETH BLAYLOCK
Vernal, Uintah County is a small town in eastern Utah. It is isolated from the bulk of Utah civilization by 117 miles and the Rocky Mountains, but it is not isolated from culture and the arts.
The town is home to its own chorale, band, orchestra and jazz group. Performing groups visit often. The Utah Symphony has even traveled to perform there.
These programs, however, would not exist without government support and the Uintah Arts Council. Janet Wallis has been president of the council for seven years. She said government subsidy of the arts is essential to a community like Vernal.
“The arts can’t support themselves and they are an extremely important part of the community,” Wallis said. “I think life would be extremely dull without them.”
According to Wallis, the Unitah Arts Council receives grants from the city of Vernal, Uintah County, and the state every year. Without these grants, the chorale could not sing Handel’s Messiah, the band could not play every Sunday night, and the Utah Symphony would not have performed in Vernal.
Wallis said programs funded through the arts council “give our people more culture than they would normally get here in Vernal.”
“We give them opportunities to participate,” Wallis said.
Communities large and small around Utah feature similar arts programs funded by public money. The relationship between the arts and the government in Utah has a long history.
Official sponsorship of the arts began before the dust from the first pioneer wagon train settled in the Salt Lake Valley.
In 1849, under the direction of Brigham Young and other leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Deseret Musical and Dramatic Society was created. The company presented concerts and plays in Temple Square (“Utah, the Right Place: The Official Centennial History,” Thomas G. Alexander, 105-6).
Later, the Social Hall and the Salt Lake Theater were built to encourage the arts within the growing community (149).
Shortly after Utah became a state in 1896, the new government created the Utah Arts Council.
Bonnie Stephens, executive director of the council, said Utah’s first woman legislator, Alice Merrill-Horne, introduced a legislative mandate “to advance the arts in all their phases.”
Almost all government programs concerning the arts go through the Utah Arts Council, and employees take the mandate seriously.
Council programs cover every discipline — from dance to sculpture — and every level of artist — from consumer to amateur to professional.
The council distributes grants to serve the community, non-profit organizations and individual artists.
One of those artists is Darl Thomas. Thomas, a sculptor from Salt Lake City, has been working professionally since he finished graduate school.
However, like many artists, Thomas cannot support himself through his work alone. He works part time as a machinist.
“I have to supplement with some part-time jobs, but art is my main focus,” Thomas said.
The Utah Arts Council is helping Thomas as an artist through the public art program and individual artist grants.
The public art program started in 1985, when the legislature passed the Utah Percent-for-Art Act of 1985. The act established a program to procure art for display at public buildings.
Thomas was one of the first artists selected to create art for public buildings under this program.
His stainless-steel sculptures are displayed in places like the Ogden Second District Juvenile Court and Snow College South in Richfield, Sevier County.
Thomas said artists selected to create public artwork to flow the art with the design and purpose of the building.
“It becomes the job of the artist to come up with a concept which addresses those issues,” Thomas said.
Thomas said he is grateful for the public art program because of the exposure his art has received.
“It’s extremely valuable … what it does is allow artists many opportunities to put a piece of artwork in the environment that would not be there,” Thomas said.
“It gives you credibility and validity, that other people view you as a creative artist.”
Thomas is also the recipient of grants from the council’s individual artist program. He used the grants to help market and promote his work.
Jim Glenn, Utah public art coordinator, said public art not only benefits artists, but the community by bringing “art out of the museum and into the public realm.”
Public art is only one of the Utah Arts Council’s programs, which range from folk art to literature to providing performance artists for rural communities.
Utah’s support for the arts is unique in the nation. The Utah Arts Council is the oldest state arts agency in the United States, and Utah is invariably one of the top 15 states per capita in arts funding, Stephens said.
She said other states and agencies around the country are continually impressed with the attention Utah gives to the arts.
“We are a benchmark … for a lot of other states,” Stephens said.
According to an annual financial report, in 1998, the Utah Arts Council gave over $1 million in grants and spent over $600,000 in community art outreach programs.
The council received most of its money from the state, around $2.5 million and, and almost $500,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Even with all of the support from the state, Stephens said the council could always use more money.
This year, the Utah Arts Council is asking the legislature to support a resolution for a new project, the Utah Cultural Center.
Stephens said this new project, like other government art programs, is important to all Utahns.
“Art changes life,” Stephens said. “We bring arts to the people.”