The Salt Lake Art Center Debacle

18 Oct

Heard a good story lately?

Well, you’re about to!

I was escorted off the premises by the executive director of the Salt Lake Art Center during a charity fashion event

Here’s why.

A little over a month ago I was contacted about doing an exhibition photoshoot as part of the Art Meets Fashion event held at the Salt Lake Art Center.  Ticket sales ( each) were set to benefit charities, one of which included the Salt Lake Art Center.  The shoot would be done with custom wardrobe designed by the amazing Michelle Boucher and  the styling team I work with on a regular basis were already committed.  I said yes without hesitation.

The concept I started kicking around involved live animals.  A large black-throat monitor lizard, an 8-foot albino python and a big arse tortoise if I’m being specific.  Obviously this could be problematic so before I even contacted the reptile wranglers I sought (and received) permission from the event organizers.  Then I placed a call to the amazing team at to sweet talk them into donating their time to the event as well.  It took awhile but they agreed.  Everyone was excited.

Then the night of the event came.  We were to begin shooting at 5:30PM so I arrived to set-up shortly before 4PM and was in complete photographer mode, meaning the ONLY thing on my mind was figuring out the best way to shoot the idea.

That’s when I was informed, for the first time, that the animals would not be permitted inside the Art Center.  Later I was told this message was sent weeks before (I didn’t receive it), but either way it didn’t matter to me at that point. The only thing on my mind was figuring out how to make the photo shoot happen and stay within the rules that I was powerless to change.  After all, animals inside an art gallery is kind of an unusual request… I’m fine with it being an unexpected no.

I settled on a spot outside the building that would be just perfect!  Well, I went with the event organizer to talk to Jenny Klekas, Executive Assistant for the Salt Lake Art Center to let them know the fantastic news that we could still do the shoot and not violate their rules.

Upon my very first conversation with her she was belligerent to me with the very first syllable out of her mouth.  I honestly felt like was being scolded by an angry shop-keeper in a Dennis the Menace comic strip.  I can’t emphasize how EXTRAORDINARILY menacing to both me and the event organizer this lady was.

“You cannot have animals anywhere on the premises, and that includes anywhere on the premises,” she ordered in a highly agitated and highly condescending manner.

Fine, I indicated we’d just shoot on the sidewalk off her premises then. I was told that this was also unacceptable because it was “near the event.”

Here’s my deal.  I came to do a conceptual shoot which was pre-planned with many volunteers  many days before Jenny Klekas decided to throw her weight around.  It would have been obvious to any rational human being that I was trying to work within their rules. It seems to me she simply wanted to be right. The message was loud and clear to me.  She was in charge so she had every right to treat me however she pleased.  This upset my delicate sensibilities.

“Let me explain something,” I said, “I’m not contracted with the Salt Lake Art Center and if I want to shoot on public property then I can shoot wherever the hell I want!”

I’ll admit, I shouldn’t have used the word “hell.”  That was rude of me.  I unfortunately have a character flaw, you probably haven’t heard of it because it’s quite rare, but if people are treating me like dirt I generally make a rash decision and act poorly back.  It’s very rare, I was probably the only person in the world that would have said something mean to Ms. Klekas in that instance.

At that point I witnessed something that was really quite sad.  Ms. Klekas threw a literal, adult temper tantrum turning around and shouting at one of her employees, “That’s it, I’m shutting this whole event down!”

I think I broke her.  I’m really good at being mean to mean people.  It’s an odd talent to have…. but I seem to have been born with it.  I apologize to all the mean people I made cry in my life and I include Jenny Klekas in that group.  You being mean to me is not an excuse for me to be mean back and I’m sorry.  Seriously.

That said the story must go on. I’m told, the “I’m shutting this whole event down!” mantra was wielded by art center staff many times that night… but the threat didn’t phase me one bit, mainly because it was obvious this was just a pure bluff from a woman terrified of not getting her way.  Nobody with the actual authority to shut down events with pre-sold tickets throws an adult temper tantrum in front of other people.  Or maybe she did have that authority, which is just another level of sad.

I just walked off… or maybe the event organizer pulled me away… that’s probably more accurate but I didn’t follow up with anyone about that detail.  Either way, Ms. Klekas made it obvious she had no intention of actually working with me and I respected her wishes and stopped working with her.  We never shared another word the rest of the night.

As we were walking away something was said about calling the Sheriff Deputy (stationed on-site 24-hours a day) about this.  I stated to the event-organizer (Ms. Klekas probably could hear me), “Oh good there’s a sheriff deputy here? Lets go talk to him – people with actual authority are easier to work with.”

That was also probably mean, but I’m not apologizing for that because it was also true.

Our next stop was the Sheriff’s office.  Wouldn’t you know it, as we arrived it sounded like the sheriff was talking to someone on the phone about little old me!  Someone was taaaaaattttling!  :-)

He hung up and after a brief conversation the pleasantly rational Sheriff Deputy reaffirmed my opinion that indeed the city sidewalk was public property and nobody at the facility (including him) would stop me if I wanted to take photos there.

He even walked outside and kindly pointed out all the boundary lines for the Salt Lake Art Center so that we would not impede on Ms. Klenkas’ fiefdom.  I can’t emphasize how refreshing it is to deal with people like him after the extraordinarily childish encounter I’d had earlier.  He also informed me that the area I had offered to do the photoshoot in to Ms. Klekas originally was actually not owned by the Salt Lake Art Center, it was owned by the Salt Palace and he kindly walked us to their security office to ask about using the space.

Well, we started scouting for locations and power outlets on the sidewalk and as we were looking around Ms. Klekas was talking furiously with a man dressed in black, with short curly hair within 25 feet of us.  Mind you, I had not had an additional encounter with any employee of the Art Center since my first and only encounter with Ms. Klekas.  Nobody EVER asked me about my version of how the event had transpired to this point, though I did see the man with short curly hair listen intently for a good five minutes to Ms. Klekas’ version.  Her version looked very intense, with a lot more dramatic hand motions and threatening faces than I remember… though I will say this, she was about the same level of angry both times so that part was true. It was shortly after this conversation that the same man escorted me out, without explanation.

I started to walk inside to remove the thousands of dollars of equipment that was sitting in a room we were going to shoot at until 20 minutes ago and was stopped by the man that Ms. Klekas had been furiously talking to moments before.

“Sir, you are not allowed inside the premises,” he says.

I didn’t even ask for a reason, mainly because I couldn’t care less about going into that building anymore.  I was extremely friendly to him though, I shook his hand and thanked him and told him that wasn’t a problem at all.  He told me that my ‘friends’ (meaning photo assistants I think) could come get the equipment for me.  Again, totally fine by me.  Sorry for not helping guys!  :-)

I also told him to convey my apologies to Ms. Klekas for coming off rude and explained that I realized she was frustrated and wanted to let her know that I was dealing with stressful frustration as well. He thanked me back and said he would convey the message to her.  I never once set foot into the building or talked to her or any other staff member of the Art Center for the rest of the night.  I had no problems disassociating myself from the Art Center at this point.  Except for the Sheriff, he was cool.

We started setting up on the sidewalk and that’s when the sheriff arrived, again.  I’m guessing he was called by the Art Center staff but I’m not sure, the only thing I am sure about is I was standing five feet away when he explained to the staff that I was going to be shooting on the sidewalk, which was public property so I was permitted to be there.  He also kindly pointed out to them where their property ended because apparently there was some question in their mind about that particular fact.

Shortly after we started shooting and the models and animals immediately started attracting a crowd.  Out-of-towners were asking if they could take photos, little kids were asking if they could pet the animals and the reptile wrangler was educating interested people about the different reptiles.  Exactly the type of interest I was hoping to generate for the event and I actually LOVED being outside to do it so to me this wasn’t that big of a deal, I had even forgotten about Klekas-gate.  Then the next thing happened.

At some point druing the shoot I was told (I was kind of focused on shooting) that now the entire styling team were not allowed back on premises.  This included Paula Dahlberg (makeup artist), Steven Robertson (hair stylist), Michelle Boucher (wardrobe designer), Ryan Muirhead (photo assistant), Steven Wood (photo assistant), Tiffany Sanchez (photo assistant), Jessica Garcia, Jayme Vanderhoof and Paris Gibson (all models).  Mind you we were ALL there free of charge donating our time for a charity benefit.

Denise Gibson, the mother of one of the models, was not happy about this and she insisted on returning inside for her daughter’s belongings.  She was physically blocked from entering and was told that since they were part of an “illegal photoshoot” they were not welcome in the building.  Funny, the sheriff didn’t seem to share curly black haired guys opinion about the legality of the shoot, but whatever.

As I usually do with an on-location shoot I had a full team of EXTRAORDINARILY talented photographers as my photo assistants including Steven Wood, Ryan Muirhead and Tiffany Sanchez.  We were all so focused on the fashion shoot that we completely forgot that we should also be documenting this insane drama unfolding around us, which is when Ryan Muirhead snapped this photo of Michelle Boucher, Denise Gibson and Paris Gibson being being physically blocked from entering by the man in curly black hair (the same man that escorted me out).  Paris is the one in the insanely amazing wardrobe, wardrobe not designed for wandering around in downtown Salt Lake.

It was the refusal of entry by this man that led to models having the fantastic option to change OUTSIDE in public… oh, ya, Ryan Muirhead was still taking pictures when they settled on the idea of holding up coats while the models changed right next to the Salt Lake Art Center, in full view of the Art Center staff who was still furiously guarding the doors.

Last night we were inundated with questions about what happened, I had already made it clear that I was waiting to post my version so Ryan Muirhead posted a brief summary of the event on facebook and it immediately garnered some serious late-night interest, and in the morning I was told that Adam Price, the Executive Director of the Salt Lake Art Center had commented on the post.  I was still under the impression he was not at the event (mainly because if there was someone higher on the authority list than Jenny Klenkas I assumed they would have sought out my side of the story before escorting me out) so I was highly confused that he was speaking with such authority about how the events unfolded, especially since he had a highly inaccurate understanding of how the events actually unfolded.

Later that night Ryan Muirhead developed his film from the event allowing us to take a second glance at the person refusing to let the models in to change or collect their personal belongings. Wouldn’t you know it… it was the man with curly black hair.  By an absolute coincidence around the same time I was told that the man in question was the Executive Director of the Salt Lake Art Center, Adam Price.  It made me sad to realize that the behavior was not only sanctioned by top management it was top management.  You can come to your own conclusions about the accuracy of the public comments he made.

Just in case you forgot, Ryan Muirhead took that photo because the models were actively being denied entrance and people were gathering to watch, both inside and outside the event.

Those are the facts surrounding the event as it unfolded. I seriously don’t understand why, of all places, an ART center would be so punitive and vindictive about a photographer who figured out a way to make an amazing shoot happen in a way that didn’t violate any of their rules.  Is that really the message you’re trying to send?  If so then that’s cool I guess, I haven’t donated to the Art Center for years (excluding last night that is) so who am I to tell you how to do your job.

I highly respect the Salt Lake arts community and the people that contribute to it both creatively and financially. There isn’t a ton of money in Utah for the things most artists do so it is driven by passion, and that passion needs to be encouraged, not stifled.  This blog is about a very specific experience, and I write about it in the hopes to create open dialogue in resolving the issue.

I’m happy to report that in the midst of all this we put on an amazing photoshoot and I can’t thank the amazing team enough for all their hard work in getting the job done no matter how badly it was fought against!  Those photos, will be coming soon!

PS – If Ryan Muirhead does not get a Pulitzer prize for this photo then my next beef is with you Pulitzer!!!  ;-)

Jake Garn Photography

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