Manna for the soul

BYU's museum of art uplifts campus, world community

"Right to the Jaw" by Mahonri Young.
"Right to the Jaw" by Mahonri Young.

PROVO, Utah — Brigham Young believed art was nearly as vital to an LDS community as industry and commerce. So when the Saints entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 and began breaking soil and planting seed, President Young was already anticipating a time when artistic sustenance could be found in Mormon territory that would feed and profit the spirit.

Today, the pioneer prophet could wander the galleries of the museum that bears his name and see part of his envisioned community realized.

The Brigham Young University Museum of Art is a haven for BYU students, staffers and visitors from across the globe. Each year, the triangular structure on the north side of campus draws thousands with its eclectic international exhibits, educational and outreach programs for students of all ages and respected permanent collection. Renowned traveling shows, including the "Imperial Tombs of China" and "Masada," have helped make the museum one of the most popular tourist destinations in Utah.

Museum director Campbell B. Gray hopes anyone who walks into the pink-toned granite building can enjoy an artistic and, yes, faith-promoting visit.

"An experience with art links the heart and mind," Brother Gray said. "People can grow spiritually through art as well. We hope anyone walking through the museum will have an experience that helps them understand art and their own testimony."

The museum was first visited in the mind's eye of James Mason, dean of BYU's College of Fine Arts and Communications from 1981 to 1993. During his tenure, Brother Mason was determined to build a first-rate facility to house BYU's collection of nearly 14,000 works assembled over half a century.

Museum director Campbell Gray.
Museum director Campbell Gray.

With the support of then-BYU president Jeffrey R. Holland, the museum project was launched in 1983. The school's board of trustees approved the project with the stipulation that general school funds, supported by Church contributions, could not be used. Money had to be raised from private sources, a practice that continues today. The museum opened in 1993 with an exhibition of antiquities from the Vatican Museums. Nearly 180,000 visitors attended in the first six months.

Today, anyone from art history graduate students to pipe fitters are welcome and wanted at the museum. Besides offering academic opportunities and programs to the BYU community, administrators have also developed outreach programs targeting the off-campus crowd. It is vital to make the museum accessible — without simplifying or compromising the issues and integrity of each exhibit, Brother Gray said.

"We want students and people from the community to feel like this is a comfortable place to hang out," added Cheryll L. May, who coordinates the museum's public and volunteer services.

In recent years, for example, the museum has drawn such diverse exhibits as a series of Marilyn Monroe paintings from pop-artist Andy Warhol and an event celebrating counterculture hot-rod cartoonist and Church member Ed Roth of "Rat Fink" fame. These esoteric shows shared museum space with more traditional artists like Frederic Edwin Church, Maynard Dixon and Mahonri Young.

Brother Gray said the museum is continuing its commitment to hosting important international shows. The museum is in the early stages of securing an exhibit from London and Denmark exploring the earliest forms of writing. Administrators are also excited about a multi-media show scheduled to run during the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City that will capture the experience of the Western frontier.

Families wander through one of museum's many galleries.
Families wander through one of museum's many galleries. Photo: Photos by Paul Barker and the BYU Museum of Art

The museum is also a cultural playland for children. In conjunction with the ongoing basket exhibit from artist Dale Chihuly, for example, children's groups have filed into the museum to weave their own baskets. Staffers also offer "kid-friendly" tours for elementary school groups. Teenagers are even being trained as student docents, giving tours to other young people "in their own language," Brother Gray said.

Mondays often highlight the museum week with storytelling and social programs for both families and campus home evening groups.

Docents are available and can tailor a tour to meet the needs of any audience — from high priests groups to Primary classes. Admission is free except for special ticketed exhibitions and concerts. For museum information call (801) 378-2787 or visit online at

Remember, be respectful — but not intimidated at the museum.

"One of the instructions we give visitors is to have fun," Sister May said.

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