All the valley is a stage for a surplus of performing arts
Salt Lake City — The people must have amusement as well as religion. -- Brigham Young
Ever since 1851, when Brigham Young ordered a large playhouse built for his Mormon pioneers, Salt Lake City has enjoyed a superb surplus of almost forced arts - far beyond what a small city could, in theory, support.
Yet the arts buzz like a beehive here, and the queens are the nationally ranked Utah Symphony Orchestra and Ballet West, both newly perched in their own splendid halls. And considering that half the valley's population is under 25 years old, and that large Mormon families here mean low-income audiences, it is indeed a surprise to discover an oasis of high entertainment in the West's cultural desert.
The arts, along with powder skiing, now serve as a drawing card for newcomers and businesses to a city with an image of conservative provincialism.
If there is a sting, it is in an unusual imbalance in favor of performing over visual arts. This preference for the active arts can only be explained by the necessity for financial or creative help from three yokemates: Mormons, the state government, and the University of Utah.
''Brigham Young was very concerned that the pioneers have some joy,'' says Ruth Draper, director of the Utah Arts Council. ''The Mormons literally sang and danced their way across the plains.'' Early Mormon missionizers were told to convert artists to help build ''the land of Zion,'' and Mormon actors were sometimes sent to Paris for lessons.
The city's most famous art export, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, reflects the Mormon tradition for group participation in the arts, starting with family sings. The church's other arts activities provide a more-than-adequate breeding ground for Utah's performing troupes.
After World War II, however, the state took over the patron role, providing an indirect subsidy to performers by sponsoring tours of arts groups among Utah schools. Last year, for instance, nearly $600,000 in government money went for statewide performances of the Utah Symphony, Ballet West, and the Utah Opera. While that sum is the highest ever, its porportion of the budget for these groups has fallen from nearly 100 percent to less than 5 percent. Much of the money now comes from gentle arm-twisting among business leaders. Still, the state ranks in the top 10 in the nation in spending on arts per capita.
Next to Brigham Young, conductor Maurice Abravanel stands out as the kingpin for Salt Lake arts. Starting in the late 1940s, he has led the Utah Symphony from little-noticed concerts in the Mormon Tabernacle to the world-touring group it is today. The orchestra's new home in a $16 million arts complex (paid for mainly with state funds and a bond issue) anchors its future firmly.
Outside professionals, such as Mr. Abravanel, might not have stayed to upgrade the city's art institutions without the extra income and creative outlet of teaching positions offered by the University of Utah. The school also serves as another feeder for talent, including a unique four-year curriculum for training professional ballet dancers.
Salt Lake's art scene has gone beyond the level of pride to regular export of sohpisticated performers. But just so it never forgets its roots, the city turns out a sizable audience for a special show every summer: The church-backed Promise Valley Playhouse performs a reenactment of the Mormon trek across the plains in the 1840s.