1931: How We Got Here

“We will never develop any art that is real or great in Utah until art can be anything it wants to be.”
–Alta Rawlins Jensen

UMOCA is about the art of now. Our mission is to encourage people to explore what it means to exist in today’s world. We do that by sharing art that inspires imagination, stimulates thought, and transforms society.

As we celebrate our 85th anniversary, part of that exploration includes looking back to our roots. “Contemporary” may be analogous with today, but nothing exists in a vacuum. When we turn to see the road behind us, it is no wonder that 1931 was the year the organization that would one day become UMOCA was founded.

The list of larger-than-life artists working during the 1930s includes Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo, René Magritte, Edward Hopper, M.C. Escher, Joan Miró, Alexander Calder, Paul Klee, Georgia O’Keefe, and Marc Chagall, to name a few.

Salvador-Dali-and-Frida-Kahlo-Black-and-White-Photograph-EditedImagine a dinner party with that group at the table! Narrowing in on 1931 alone, a modern art lover would have had a chance to see two ground-breaking exhibitions at the New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA, founded in 1929): a retrospective of 162 works by French master Henri Matisse and a series of eight new paintings by famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Matisse was the first artist to have a monographic exhibition at the MoMA, and the Rivera exhibition—with its hallmark themes of social inequality and revolution—broke attendance records at the time and was reprised at the MoMA as recently as 2011. It was an exciting time, as artists experimented liberally with form and meaning.

Perhaps the most recognizable work of art created in 1931 was Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory. The surrealist image of melting pocket watches in a dreamscape captures avant-garde notions of the time that still resonate today. Dalí, a Catalan who lived until 1989, was known for his eccentric personality. Famously quoted as saying, “I don’t do drugs. I am drugs,” it’s easy to imagine he and his trailblazing peers mingling with today’s art mavericks. The modernist artists of the early-to-mid twentieth century continue to weigh on our cultural consciousness, inspiring countless contemporary artists to challenge themselves and break perceived boundaries.


In Utah, Alta Rawlins Jensen was counted as the key figure in the founding of UMOCA during a time of worldwide difficulty and transition. In the late 1920s, Jensen proposed the idea of a permanent art center that would transform the local artistic milieu and began the uphill climb to make her dream happen. The Salt Lake Telegram described her visionary efforts as a the start of a “Bohemian art center” that would be a “Greenwich Village for Salt Lake.” In 1931, with the help of fellow enthusiasts, Jensen founded the Art Barn Association, which led to the opening of the Art Barn, a gallery and hub for the art community. The Art Barn is still a functioning gallery today, located near the University of Utah and managed by the Salt Lake City Arts Council. In 1958, the Art Barn Association became the Salt Lake Art Center, and the institution moved to its current, downtown location in 1979. In 2011, the Salt Lake Art Center became the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA), to reflect that we have evolved to become Utah’s premiere exhibition venue for contemporary art.

From the beginning, our exhibitions and program have been innovative, displaying and supporting work at the cutting edge of visual culture from in and outside of Utah.