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 September 2010
Page 7   

Art Professional Profile

Searching for Excellence
The UMFA's new director, Gretchen Dietrich

"I really like stuff," Gretchen Dietrich tells me, her emphasis on the last word suggesting an orthographic marker somewhere between italics and ALLCAPS. "And I like order."

We are seated at a small round table in Dietrich's office on the top floor of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. Her statement can be read as: garage sales, no, museums, yes. Dietrich has spent much of her adult life in museums. Most of them, she tells me, are imbued with the presence of an individual -- whether the original collector or an influential administrator -- whose personality seeps into the place and into anyone who spends a significant amount of time there. At the UMFA that individual was Frank Sanguinetti, who as director of the museum for over thirty years exercised a strong influence on both the stuff of the museum, and its order (he also chose the museum's distinctive wall palette).

Sanguinetti retired after the museum's new 74,000 square foot space was unveiled in 2002. Since his successor, David Dee, resigned in April 2009, the museum has been without a director. Dietrich was named to the post in August.

Ever since she was a little girl, Dietrich says, she has been intrigued by museums. Her love affair with art, however, came later. An art history professor, the only one at the all-girls college she attended, played Cupid in a class on Northern Renaissance art. "I fell in love looking at Flemish and Dutch art."

After graduation Dietrich went on to earn a Masters in Art History at Temple University, then worked in museums in Philadelphia, Boston and Hartford. She came west in 2004, when her art historian husband, Monty Paret, accepted a tenure track position at the University of Utah. At the time Dietrich says she knew little about the state. She was familiar with the snow (a ski trip in college) and the redrock (a visit to Zions Naitonal Park), but the only people she could associate with Utah were Brigham Young, "who I knew had brought a bunch of people here in the nineteenth century," and Robert Smithson, the land artist behind the Spiral Jetty. Paret and Dietrich say they found a great community in their adopted home. Dietrich got a job as Executive Director of the Utah Museums Association, and they began raising a family (two boys). In 2008 Dietrich joined the UMFA as director of public programs and curatorial affairs, and began serving as interim director of the museum after Dee's departure. With Paret's tenure now secure and Dietrich's new appointment, the couple plan on spending a long time in the state.

"I love the way art allows you to understand history," Dietrich tells me as she contemplates her new position. Her aim as director of the UMFA is to use the museum's "stuff" to both expand that understanding and share it with the public. A state-funded institution, the UMFA functions as the state's de-facto museum of art. It also serves the University community that hosts it. Dietrich wants to reach out to both. She hopes to engage the University community by creating researched-based shows, but, she says, "you shouldn't have to have a PhD to enjoy them." She's willing to do fewer exhibits as long as they are "thoughtful, well done and current." She wants her curators to draw from the eclectic and diverse collections and package them in interesting ways. Most importantly there must be no mediocre shows. As she discusses exhibition ideas with her staff her first question is always, “Is the art good? If the art’s not good enough we don’t do the show.”

The art Dietrich feels "personally passionate about" is contemporary work. That's what, along with some prints from the Northern Renaissance, hangs in her home (the living room, she confesses, also has a Beastie Boys poster). She hopes to share her passion by bringing the "best of global contemporary art to Utah." She also wants the museum to concentrate more on regional art, something ignored by Sanguinetti. “Everyone should leave [the UMFA] having a sense of what western -- or regional -- art is.”

Dietrich calls herself a "social servant" and believes "museums are important to a thriving community." And order, she says, is important for a thriving museum, something it is her job to provide. Like most art institutions today the UMFA faces significant financial needs. Dietrich says there are at least a handful of positions she'd fill tomorrow if they had the finances. Because she has been serving as the interim director for the past year Dietrich is well aware of the museum's current state, but until now she hasn't been able to implement any definitive changes to the museum. For the next six months she and her staff will be concentrating on long-term planning. She wants to develop a series of “best practices” for the museum, whether in the handling of the objects by the collections staff (see video above), the exhibitions and outreach programs, or the implementation of the museum's non-profit management.

In all the museum does, Dietrich wants it to be known for its excellence. Whether she stays five years or three decades that's what she hopes her legacy to the museum will be. She may change some wall colors too, but it's less of a concern. What's important is that the UMFA becomes a place where people come in “to try on new ways of thinking, to try on new ways of seeing.”

Gretchen Dietrich at the UMFA

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Process Points
Nathan Florence: A Push-pull Dance with Paint & Patterns

It is not unusual for an artist to layer paint in a way that allows parts of the underpainting to show through in the final work. Nathan Florence, whose work is currently on display at the Kimball Art Center in Park City, has taken this process a step further: He uses patterned fabrics as his ground, superimposing on them his figures or landscapes while teasing the pattern through in both subject and background. The result creates a sense of mystery bound by unity of design.

Florence says he started out painting directly on white canvas, and later switched to a toned canvas. Eventually he began making his own varied grounds by creating abstract, colorful messes with the leftover paint on his palette at the end of each painting session. “I’d build up color, texture, in an abstract foundation and then paint on it. I loved the unpredictable nature of it.”

Florence has always been interested in textiles and patterns and has collected many pieces, either from clothing, upholstery, or yardage. So a few years ago, he decided to see what would happen if he painted directly on a piece of patterned fabric.

First he had to determine the best way to stretch or adhere the fabric to a support. He has used acrylic matt medium to adhere fabrics to stretched canvas, clayboard, or museum board. And he’s stretched the patterned fabric around stretcher bars without canvas backing. His objective is always to create a stable, smooth surface that won’t stretch or buckle during or after the painting process. Experimenting with flannel, cotton, silk, linen, brocade, corduroy, polyester, and hand-embroidered fabrics, he’s learned by trial and error which fabrics will rip at the corners of the stretcher bars; which will pucker and sag; and which will lose their texture and nap if covered with matt medium.

While mounting and stabilizing the fabric continues to pose a logistical challenge for Florence, his new method also poses compositional demands. As he plans his painting, he decides where he wants the pattern of the fabric to show through. Then he draws his subject on the patterned fabric with chalk. Since matt medium will change the finish of the fabric, Florence sometimes applies the medium around those shapes that will not be painted with oil, but will be left as the patterned fabric. Once the fabric is adhered or stretched and the subject is drawn, Florence uses oils to start the push-pull dance between subject and background, paint and pattern. Using Liquin generously and a glazing technique, he paints some areas translucently, allowing the pattern to play a part. In other areas, the paint is applied opaquely. Sometimes he paints around elements of the pattern in the fabric, allowing it to play a more central role and become an integral part of the subject.

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Florence has achieved a level of excellence in both craft and creativity in the integration of pattern and paint. Florence’s favorite subject, making up most of the work in his current show, is the human figure. The pattern of the printed or embroidered fabric may be the dress of his subject, but on closer inspection is also evident in her body or face. The pattern may be prominent in a tree, but also subtly present in the grass or ground, making the viewer want to look more closely and stay in the painting for a long time.

Looking at Florence’s array of works at the Kimball I was thus pulled into “Rite,” an image of several women in bathing suits at the beach, towels laid out on the sand ready for the sunbathing ritual. In this painting Florence used a hand-embroidered silk a friend had purchased for him. Embroidered spiral shapes, covered with oil paint become interesting patterns in the sand and throughout the piece. The translucent application of oil paint in the women’s bodies makes them almost ghostly while the towels on the sand appear to have more substance.

I’m interested to see how Florence’s work continues to evolve and where his experiments may take him in the future.

If his name sounds familiar, it could be because Florence is the designer of the fifth hole in the Contemporary Masters mini-golf game exhibit at the Salt Lake Art Center. He also helped found, and teaches art at, The Weilenmann School of Discovery in Parley’s Canyon. He has also taught art at the Waterford School in Sandy.

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