SALT LAKE CITY (CN) - A contemporary art gallery sued Ephraim, Utah, claiming the city evicted it after the city manager complained: "I know there are places in the world where smut like this is tolerated but the last place I expected to see it was in Ephraim."
Ephraim, pop. 6,100, is about 115 miles south of Salt Lake City.
The Central Utah Art Center sued Ephraim City and its Mayor David Parrish, in Federal Court.
The Art Center claims it is "renowned as one of the most prominent venues for contemporary art in the Western United States," and was open for more than two decades before the city evicted.
It claims that Mayor Parrish, who was elected in 2009, "expressed repeated complaints about the content of the artwork exhibited at the CUAC."
"A particularly controversial exhibit was the 2011 national touring exhibition 'Camera Vivant,' which included parallel displays of the abstract film 'Flaming Creatures' by Jack Smith and a blind remake of the film by Bec Stupak. The films include depiction of gay and transgendered individuals and prompted complaints from some residents of the surrounding area due to the images of nudity," the complaint states.
"In an email dated Feb. 17, 2011, during the 'Camera Vivant' exhibit, Mr. Parrish stated that he was 'shocked and troubled' by a complaint sent by a citizen to the mayor, and that 'a Art Center should reflect the values of the community.' Mr. Parrish also stated: 'This type of display goes against my values and beliefs.'"
The city manager emailed the gallery's director in February 2011, using his city title and city-provided email address, "'to share my disgust with the "art" on view at the Central Utah Art Center,'" the complaint states.
It continues: "the city manager stated that he was 'saddened that a historic building built through sacrifice and faith by Ephraim's pioneer founders would be used to display such offensive items.' The city manager further stated: 'I know there are places in the world where smut like this is tolerated but the last place I expected to see it was in Ephraim.'"
The city manager in June 2012 was Regan Bolli, according to the complaint. She is not named as a defendant, and it is unclear from the complaint whether Bolli was city manager in February 2011.
The Art Center says it paid $350,000 to restore and renovate the space it occupied, on Main Street. The city provided it with $30,000 in annual funding, but they had no written contract or agreement on the funding or a lease, the complaint states.
The Art Center drew ire again in 2012 over "SuperHUMAN," an exhibit that "included artwork pulled from speculative and fantasy models to challenge notions of race, gender, sexuality, and culture."
Some of the exhibit's artwork, by Chitra Ganesh, "included representations of women or feminine images with exposed breasts," the complaint states.
It continues: "On or about June 13, 2012, several city officials, including Mr. Parrish, visited CUAC. That day, the city manager emailed the director of CUAC and stated that 'the art depicted was not appreciated,' and that one of the city council members in attendance was 'very much upset' by the artwork displayed.'"
One week later, the city sent the gallery a letter, signed by the mayor and five City Council members, "advising CUAC that the city would no longer provide funding to CUAC and demanding that CUAC vacate the premises by August 20, 2012," the complaint states.
"The June 20 letter stated that the eviction was based on 'the lack of follow through from the CUAC regarding commitments made to Ephraim City in 2011.'"
The Art Center says that's a pretext, and untrue. The complaint continues: "CUAC did not enter into any written agreements with the city in 2011. At most, CUAC's director gave a presentation to the City Council in April 2011 in which he described several upcoming projects and new programs CUAC was initiating.
"CUAC did in fact undertake and put into action the programs it described in the April 2011 presentation, including implementation of an 'art camp' program for children, completion of a mural project for Ephraim Elementary school, commencement of work on expansion of the sculpture garden at the center, and addition of a music series and a CUAC Annex to showcase new and emerging artists. The city's June 20 letter did not identify what alleged commitments CUAC purportedly failed to fulfill.
"On or about June 25, 2012, the City Manager, Regan Bolli, spoke with a representative of CUAC and advised him that the artwork displayed at the CUAC, including specifically Chitra Ganesh's work that was on display at the time, was the motivating factor in the city's decision to evict CUAC."
Ephraim filed an unlawful detainer complaint in state court in October 2012. In November, it announced that a new arts group, Granary Arts Center, would take over the building.
Central Utah Art Center says it asked permission to stay put until it could present the shows that already had been booked, but the city refused.
The gallery claims that Mayor Parrish wrote to the council on June 25: "'I am not in favor of extending our time frame. Continuing our time allows CUAC to continue showing objectionable material. That is not acceptable for the people of Ephraim. ... [T]he last art showing did not meet the moral [sic] and values of the [sic] our city, our county and state.'" (Brackets and ellipsis in complaint.)
The Art Center, citing a local newspaper report, claims that the City Council was upset that the gallery "'primarily showed abstract "contemporary art" that many residents found esoteric and difficult to understand.' The group seeking the new center reassured the city that it would not show the 'contemporary art' that had given the City Council concern," according to the complaint.
The city provided the new group with funding and the space, the Art Center says.
The Art Center estimates that it drew 19,000 visitors a year, contributing "at least $250,000 per year to Ephraim's economy."
Central Utah Art Center seeks an injunction stopping the eviction and damages for the withdrawal of funding, and First Amendment violations.
It is represented by Wesley Felix, with Snell & Wilmer.