Diane Stewart: A cultural force in Utah and beyond

Before I have the chance to ask Diane Stewart anything about herself, she begins sharing details of the most recent opening at her gallery, Modern West Fine Art. The show was the premier of “March” the latest work by Jann Haworth. “She’s been flying under the radar,” Stewart says, “but it’s my mission that everybody knows who Jann Haworth is.” Most people do, even if they don’t realize it; Haworth is the internationally regarded co-creator of the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album and here in Utah, the artist of “SLC Pepper” a 50 × 30-foot mural in downtown Salt Lake City. Stewart talks fervently yet concisely about Haworth’s career—past projects and ongoing works—and just like that, she has sparked a new and lively interest in one of her artists.

Promotion of artists is what gallery owners do, but Stewart’s admiration for each artist seems to go beyond salesmanship. Born in Arizona, her father collected Native American art and she says she “was always drawn to Native American culture.” After starting her own collection with Utah artists—”LeConte Stewart, of course”—she built a collection of the Taos Masters. Her love of contemporary art grew with her collection, which eventually led to the opening of Modern West Fine Art in 2014. “The idea was percolating for a year or two, and I had a lot of encouragement,” she says.

The gallery represents the work of varied media and artists, both nationally acclaimed and local, but they all present a startlingly new yet familiar look at the West. “There are not necessarily cowboys here,” Stewart says. “I don’t want anachronistic art,” especially from the artists who are Native American. The works don’t tell dusty old stories or show stereotypical subjects in moccasins. “They paint them in Vans,” Stewart says, and depict real tribulations. She challenges her artists not to rest on their laurels but to constantly push themselves to re-create.

John Vehar-Evanoff, a Utah artist who has shown an expansive portfolio at Modern West, says Stewart and her team are “100 percent responsible” for giving his art attention and platform. “Diane is a fair, equitable and ethical business person whose first and foremost priority is to push artists to be at their very best, and that is a rare thing that I feel extremely privileged to be part of,” he says.

Beyond the large glass windows of the downtown gallery, Stewart is using other avenues to drive the appreciation of fine arts and cultural progress in Utah. She previously served as vice-chair of the Utah Arts Council and is currently a board member of many arts and city organizations. She and her husband, Samuel, founded the Stewart Family Foundation in 2002 to help grow the arts and education in Utah, as well as promote progressive issues.

The Salt Lake City/County Cultural Core initiative is the project where Stewart is currently seeing exciting progress. The initiative provides funding for arts and culture projects, which has been “in place for some time,” Stewart says, but will funnel new and existing art projects, programs and venues that will form a mecca of art in Salt Lake City that evolves into its own economic driver. “Historically, Utah is a state that cares about the arts. We are a big city now, and we need to own it and become a model for arts and culture.”