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Art and Audience: Making Magic Happen

Peter Coffinweb

There is something magical about the exchange that can happen between an artwork and a viewer. In spring of 2010, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City hosted a retrospective exhibition of the work of performance artist Marina Abramović. She performed one piece—called The Artist is Present—live each and every day for the run of the exhibition; The New York Times called it a 700-hour silent opera. Abramović sat silently in a chair from the moment the Museum opened to the time it closed, and visitors were invited to sit across from her, facing her for as long as they liked, engaging in silent communication. Each visitor who sat with her was photographed, and their portraits were streamed on a companion Fickr site for all to see. 

I must admit that scrolling through these photographs became something of an obsession for me. Occasionally I caught a glimpse of a celebrity or someone I knew, but what resonated with me most was the unmediated exchange taking place between artist and viewer. These diverse people brought to the museum and to this work of art their own ideas, their own gaze, their own thoughts. This to me is a fascinating and wonderful thing.

The idea of meaningful engagement between audiences and art has been at the heart of my work in museums from the very beginning. I have worked passionately to facilitate that connection, to encourage visitors to think carefully about art, and to enjoy their art‐looking experiences as much as possible.

My vision for the UMFA is to provide access to and opportunities for dialogues with exceptional art for as many people as possible. Through innovative exhibitions and inspiring programs, the Museum will grow as a professional, rigorous, and vibrant institution that is vital to this University and to the local, statewide, and regional communities.

As the official art museum for the State of Utah, the UMFA has a deep commitment to serving the increasingly diverse communities of Utah and the Intermountain West.  In my role as Executive Director, I plan to work with the Museum’s outstanding staff to continue to expand our statewide outreach efforts and bring art into the lives of people in every corner of our state.  We will continue to open the museum to all people – to be mindful of their different interests and needs, to make them feel welcome, and instill in them a desire to visit often.

It is crucial that the UMFA continue to be a significant resource for teaching and learning across campus.  We are committed to knowledge and learning, experimentation and risk‐taking, innovation and excellence. We work to provide students the rare opportunity to have face‐to‐face encounters with great art and authentic historical objects, which is an important companion to classroom learning. The Museum has a responsibility to contribute to the research mission of the University of Utah and the College of Fine Arts by producing rigorous and scholarly exhibitions and programs.

One such scholarly exhibition is The Smithson Effect, on view at the UMFA from March 11 – July 3. I am proud to announce that this is the most ambitious contemporary art exhibition ever mounted by the UMFA. Artist Robert Smithson (1938-1973) was the creator of the iconic earthwork, Spiral Jetty (1970), in Utah’s Great Salt Lake.  Our exhibition examines Smithson’s legacy and incredible influence on a generation of artists who came after him. In fact, he is perhaps the most influential artist of the late twentieth century. The Smithson Effect will introduce visitors to the work of twenty-three major contemporary artists who share a profound debt to Smithson’s art and ideas.

The UMFA is poised, more than ever before, to become an art museum with a reputation for rigorous and relevant programming, one that is dynamically engaged with the many communities it serves and recognized for the vital role it can play in enhancing the quality of life in our region. On a more personal level, I hope that everyone who is affiliated with the U as a student, staff member, or faculty member will enjoy their time at the UMFA, feel excited about our exhibitions and programs, and be proud of the work we do to serve the broader community.


Learn more about UMFA and the direction in which Gretchen Dietrich is guiding it in this recent UofU Face Time interview.


  • http://www.coffeemash.com Cal Chapman

    Great article. I think, as you mentioned, that an art venue should be rigorous and relevant.