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The Joy of Belonging

Belonging touches every part of our culture—even in spaces where we might not expect it. In this episode, host Mary Ann Villarreal discusses belonging’s role in the arts and museums with Gretchen Dietrich, executive director of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, and Jorge Rojas, independent curator and co-owner of the Material Contemporary Gallery in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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00:00 – 02:15 | Mary Ann Villarreal

Welcome back to The Joy of Belonging. I’m so happy you’ve joined us today. My guests today have brought so much joy and laughter already to our room. I’m excited to have them. They’re creative people who’ve devoted their lives to the arts as curators, artists, directors, advocates and visionaries. Gretchen Dietrich is the Marcia and John Price Executive Director of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts and has dedicated much of her professional life to art museums. She’s also a member of the Art Bridges Foundation, created by Alice Walton, which is dedicated to sharing outstanding works of American art with those who otherwise would have limited access. And she’s the former executive director of the Utah Museums Association. But Gretchen also has a wealth of experiences in roles at several museums across the country, including the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, the Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She came to the UMFA in 2008, 15 years ago, and has guided the museum through a number of remarkable changes and developments during that time. Thank you, Gretchen, for being here with us today.

And we have Jorge Rojas, a 2022 Vision Arts Fellow for the Utah Division of Arts and Museums, a recipient of the of Salt Lake City Mayors Artist Award and a number of other recognitions and honors, including a recent mid-career retrospective at the Granary Arts Gallery in Ephraim. But Rojas is also one of Utah’s most important, celebrated and in-demand community art activists, curators, and a tremendous performance artist in his own right. He’s the former director of learning and engagement at the UMFA. And for the past two years, Jorge has worked as a consultant and advisor to the Utah Valley University Museum of Art, developing an initiative called “The Art of Belonging” that the new museum recently launched for its grand opening, which I hope you’ll tell us a bit about today. Welcome Jorge and Gretchen to The Joy of Belonging.

02:15 – 02:16 | Jorge Rojas

Thank you.

02:16 – 02:17 | Gretchen Dietrich

So happy to be here.

02:18 – 03:09 | Mary Ann Villarreal

In some ways, it seems now is an exciting time to be involved in arts and museums. There’s so much happening, so much that is rapidly changing and evolving in the museum and art world. I want to get to some of those changes, but I want to just start by acknowledging how exciting this time might be for the work that you are both doing, the changes you’ve seen, and I want to look around and see this amazing art and voices, that there’s just so much. I mean, maybe it’s always been this way. Maybe I’m just new to knowing you, new to knowing the work that you’re doing. But can you talk to me about all the attention that you are bringing, the visible attention, the excitement, I think the heart of the art and museum worlds?

03:10 – 03:48 | Jorge Rojas

Well, I want to point out, like, for instance, Simone Leigh and African American artists recently represented the US in the Venice Biennale. We just learned that Choctaw and Cherokee artist, Jeffrey Gibson, has been selected to represent the United States at the 2024 Venice Biennale. And Raven Chacon became the first native American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. So, has something changed? I would say yes, and it’s been a long time coming. But I think it’s important to note that these artists and many before them have paved the way for new generations of artists of color who have long deserved to be recognized for their work, but in many cases still haven’t.

03:49 – 05:51 | Gretchen Dietrich

Yeah, I would definitely add, from the museum side of things, not everybody’s going in the right direction, in my opinion, but increasingly, many art museums across the country are. And in my practice as a museum person, now, you know, 33 years in the field, for me, and what we’ve always strived for at the UMFA is that art museums need to be as much about people as they are about art and recognizing and valuing and not fearing that you’re going to lose control of quote-unquote excellence, but definitely recognizing that many different people, all people, make art, make great art, and that for generations and generations, museums in America have mostly collected works of art by White men. So, when you look at our collections, our historic collections for sure, but even to some degree, our modern and contemporary collections, when you walk into many museums, you’re going to just see works of art by White guys. That is changing in the field.

And as an example, we’ve been collecting BIPOC and LGBTQ artists with intention for many years at the UMFA. But the next time you go to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, if you haven’t been there in a while, it’s really different. It feels different and it looks different. And maybe after Covid, they did a big rehang. And it used to be when I went to MoMA, I could stand in the doorway of any gallery, and I knew exactly who I was looking at, all the big guys, right? Hanging around, literally, big paintings, around those gallery spaces. Now, when I visit the MoMA, and I do know a lot about art and artists, I don’t know what I’m looking at. It’s kind of changed our experience of museums, probably to the consternation of some folks for whom walking into the room full of all those big, big artists that we all know is easy. And now I think art going in many museums is harder than it used to be for people like me who know a lot about art, because you’re seeing, finally, amazing artists and work that we’ve never seen before. MoMA has collected it all along, but they never showed it. And there’s a shift there that’s really powerful and really important.

05:52 – 06:34 | Mary Ann Villarreal

Can we talk about that shift, right? How that shift really, what does it, who does it draw in, right? To whose heart and soul, right? What is that meaning and feeling? And we’re going to talk about joy. What do you think is in it?

06:35 – 07:11 | Gretchen Dietrich

I will say, being a little cynical in this business that I’ve been in for a long time, that in some ways, the shift has happened because museums are looking at the changing demographics of this country. They are recognizing that our communities are diversifying at a very rapid pace. And I think they’re sort of recognizing that our museums need to make sense and resonate and be valuable and relevant to many different kinds of people, and that that shift and that change is happening. So if a museum wants to be relevant, and we talk about this at the, you know, on our board meetings that the UMFA, if we want to be a wonderful museum, not two years from now, but 20 years from now, it really does require a new way of thinking about who we collect, who we exhibit, what kinds of programs we do. So, there is a bit of that going on, but straight up, I know when people come to the museum and they see works of art created by others who come from where they come from, or speak the language that they speak at home, that is really powerful and very joyful and very, very important. And it’s good for all of us.

07:12 – 08:12 | Mary Ann Villarreal

I’m going to come back to that, but you know, Jorge, you have been in that process of developing this, you know, growing an initiative for the launch of the new UVU Art museum located in the Bastian family mansion. And that must be a beautiful space. But instead of putting together a sort of standard art show for the occasion, one is, you know, Gretchen has, you know, sort of style around the fanfare, publicity for the organization, speaking to one audience, you helped organize and curate these beautiful exhibits highlighting the community, with Polynesian and Indigenous and Latino and Native American and Black artists, and artists from the LGBT community. And there’s all kinds of art from folks we don’t get to see in museums. And then you called the show “The Art of Belonging.” This is part of a series of amazing shows and performances that have gone on for several months at the UVU Museum, correct?

08:12 – 09:32 | Jorge Rojas

Yes, that’s correct. You know, I love Cole Arthur Riley’s definition of belonging. She refers to them as spaces where we have the freedom to question, doubt and change our minds without our status of belonging being at risk. I was hired to help the museum come up with an initiative that they could launch their new museum on, and that could serve as a model for their museum moving forward to better serve all the communities and represent that they are meant to serve. The fact that the UVU Museum of Art was asking these questions is something to celebrate. “The Art of Belonging” initiative is really a collaboration between the Museum of Art, their leadership and staff, artists, the Mexico and Utah’s director, Fanny Guadalupe Blauer, and the community. The goal of “The Art of Belonging” initiative is to create a space for reflection, interpretation and dialogue of who we are as individuals and as a collective society. Through the examination and “The Art of Belonging,” we explore what it is to belong from the perspective of our BIPOC community. I need to say that much of my education and experience in thinking about the role of museums and shifting museums into places of belonging is really due to my mentor and friend, Gretchen Dietrich. So, I just want to give a shout out to her. I had the best mentor teachers and the whole staff at the UMFA who were my, you know, who taught me how to do this work for six years.

09:33 – 09:35 | Gretchen Dietrich

I can assure you the love is mutual.

09:36 – 09:37 | Mary Ann Villarreal

You two, you worked together?

09:38 – 09:45 | Gretchen Dietrich

We did. I had my eye on him for a long time and wanted to bring him into the UMFA, and I succeeded. For six years, we did really good work together, he’s a wonderful human being.

09:45 – 09:46 | Jorge Rojas

Thank you.

09:47 – 09:51 | Mary Ann Villarreal

Can you tell me why it was so important for you to do this show with UVU?

09:52 – 11:29 | Jorge Rojas

So, we talked a lot, we talked a lot about how do you launch a museum that’s in a really wealthy environment, this mansion, right? Melanie Bastian donated her beautiful home to UVU Museum, and the museum inherited. They knew, they understood that museums haven’t historically always been the most welcoming places, or always, like Gretchen pointed out earlier, representing all the different cultures in the community. And so, they came to Fanny Blauer and I, and they said, “Listen, we could really use your help on this. This is what you all do for museums and for communities. How do we come out of the gate? Cause we have an incredible opportunity for a new museum to come out of the gate and say, We value diversity. We value all the different communities who have contributed to the racial strength and beauty of the state.”

So that’s how we came up with “The Art of Belonging” there. It has a number of pieces, but I would say one of the main pieces I want to highlight is “The Art of Belonging.” It’s a juried, statewide call for BIPOC artists. We basically convinced the museum that it was in their best interest to come out of the gate with a bold statement saying, “We value multiculturality. We want everyone in this state and in this community to feel like they belong. And so, we’re going to do what every other museum around the world is trying to do right now. And just say we’re going to show people artists of color, and artists from the LGBTQ community, and artists who are just historically have not been represented.” So yeah, it was amazing. We have an exhibition of over 40 artists with over, like, 55 works of art and all across media, all asking the question, what does it mean to belong? What does it mean to not belong? Who belongs in museums, and who gets to make those determinations?

11:30 – 13:04 | Gretchen Dietrich

And I’ll just add, you know, it’s extra powerful and important, I think, that this museum that Jorge has been working well with, as well as the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, we are university art museums. So first and foremost, I mean, the UMFA is also really the civic museum for the city of Salt Lake, and we’re also the state’s art museum. But first and foremost, we are a university art museum. And we really think about that, and we take that responsibility very seriously, because art and museums have the power to connect people to very important ideas, to move people and to change the way they think about things. Artists are so powerful in that way. Even art that’s made thousands of years ago as stuff that’s come out of the studio yesterday, right? And really for me, I hate when I hear the art museum being thought of on this campus as sort of a jewel in the crown of the campus, or a nice sort of additional thing. The work that happens in a university art museum is absolutely central to the learning and engagement and teaching and, you know, goals of the university itself. Art is always about ideas. It’s about history. It’s about the future. And when we engage students in feeling comfortable in these spaces, when we engage students in looking at and really thinking about what they’re seeing, we are creating human beings that are going to be awesome, that are going to go out into the world and not be afraid to be questioned or to see something challenging. To not be afraid to encounter something different that they don’t know. So, for me, the work of the art museum at UVU, up in Logan, at BYU—

13:04 – 13:05 | Jorge Rojas


13:06 – 13:12 | Gretchen Dietrich

Our museum, you name it, we are really about opening minds and hearts to new ways of thinking and being that will make the world a better place, period.

13:13 – 14:17 | Mary Ann Villarreal

So Gretchen, this, this brings me to, you know, I thought that when, you know Jorge, as you acknowledged, you know, Gretchen’s role in your own, you know, in your own heart space, right? Of who you are today. You’re so kind and generous in inviting the board and inviting the division in to help think about, to inform how you think about audience, right? With whom will this resonate? How do we ensure that we have people who are connecting? I think of the quote where you said somewhere the real magic of the museum is not just the art that sits there, but the interactions that people have with the art and what they learn about them. So, this being part of a recipe, an ingredient, what we might call an accelerant that sparks something in others, a passion, a memory, a sensation or joy. What is that joy for the UMFA? And Jorge, I’m going to ask you that piece as well in terms of the response that you’re seeing with the belonging, the launch of the UVU museum.

14:18 – 16:05 | Gretchen Dietrich

I mean, I think lots of different feelings happen for people when they’re engaging with works of art, right? And joy is certainly, I hope, at the top of the list. But I think the joy, you know, I mean, certainly I hear people talk about a lot about how art should be beautiful. I don’t agree. Art should be connected to ideas, and art should be connected to the human experience in ways that we all can identify and see and hold up. And for me, maybe, the joy, I think, comes in many different ways within the art museum. Maybe the joy might come for a visitor who didn’t expect to feel welcome, you know, who walked in the front door and with a little trepidation or a little nervousness about, “This place isn’t for me. My family doesn’t come to this place.” But they’re welcomed at the front desk by, you know, our staff who are so amazing, and they’re made to feel that we’re really glad that they chose to come to the museum today. That’s how we think about it.

There’s nothing worse in the world than an empty art museum. I like ’em when they’re chock full of people. I’ve worked for curators, with curators before, who prefer them empty, by the way. Because art never gets damaged when there’s no one around it. But the point of it is to really connect and help you help visitors connect to whatever it is you need to connect to that day. And you might walk by a work of art 30 times, but the 31st time you walk by that work of art, it might change your life. So, we really try to encourage people to recognize they have everything they need already to have a wonderful, joyful experience at the art museum. Just come over, have a cup of coffee, bring someone you love, come on your own, and just wander the galleries and connect to 5,000 years of human history and just let that happen. That’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.

16:06 – 18:18 | Jorge Rojas

Yeah, I mean, in order for me to talk about “The Art of Belonging” initiative, it’s actually the number of things, right? So, I think it’s important to note that there’s all these public programs that we create around the exhibitions in order to create further opportunities for dialogue. The public programs, “The Art of Belonging” include, like, artist lectures and educator workshops, collaborations with faculty in the university, performance art series and family art making. And, you know, I can go on and on.

One of the exhibitions that brings me a lot of joy, and I think has brought a lot of people joy in the community, is an exhibition by Maruch Sántiz Gómez. Her exhibition is called “Beliefs of Our Forebears.” Maruch was born in the village of Cruztón in Chamula in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico. And she’s a photographer, she’s a weaver, she’s a textile designer, she’s a farmer. She identifies as from the ethnic group Tzotzil Maya. So historically, and this is from my own experience working in museums, Mesoamerican cultures, so, you know, like Mayans and communities, and even Native American communities here have often been relegated to places of the past, right? So, we go into museums and we learn about the Mayans as a civilization that existed before, that were from the past, but that’s not accurate, that’s just not real, you know? But there’s Mayans living all over the world, and there’s Mayans living here in this community here in Utah.

So, for us to bring this artist from the highlands of Chiapas, who is documenting her forebears, her stories, her community stories, through photography and through her weavings, is I think the most powerful message that we can send as far as like decolonizing museums and really shifting the thinking towards this idea of like, who belongs in these museums, right? So, I guess I should also point out that Maruch is exhibited internationally. She’s been published, she’s collected by museums. And so, this is not her first, yeah, that’s not her first rodeo at the museum, but it’s the first time in Utah. And so, we’re like, that brings me a lot of joy because it just shifts the center, right? And it really shifts the center from how old objects from collections are supposed to be the center, to more like people, living, breathing artists who are making art today and who are making us think about what is important in our societies.

18:19 – 18:37 | Mary Ann Villarreal

I love the note you made, right? About removing them from the past, giving the voice, the agency, the visual of not just the today but the future, right? That it’s also future looking in people’s resilience and survival—

18:37 – 18:38 | Jorge Rojas


18:39 – 18:50 | Mary Ann Villareal

Right, in the present moment doing that, right? And so, as you’ve worked with your, you know, colleagues across UVU and all the programming, what would you say has been your favorite part of that work?

18:51 – 20:11 | Jorge Rojas

Oh my God, I’ve loved every part of it. And every part of it’s been difficult, you know? ‘Cause when you’re dealing with institutions and universities and, you know, boy, it’s not every easy work, but it’s good work. And it all pays off because it’s all about the art and about the artists and about the conversations. But, you know, I’m really excited about, I was invited to curate a performance series. And so, I was thinking, I do some performance art myself, and I’ve done some curatorial work. And so, I just, I thought, okay, we are going to decolonize this mansion, and we’re going to do it with living bodies of color that are moving and dancing and sweating and breathing and screaming and yelling throughout, you know, and like performing and telling their stories from their perspectives in this mansion. And I just thought, this is like a saging, it’s like a purification. It’s like, it’s, to me, that’s how you shift energies. And it’s also how you tell people, “This is not just a sacred place where you whisper and you walk around quietly. This is a place where you belong and you can question, and you can doubt, and you can ask, and you can cry, and you can, you know, even be offended a little bit sometimes, you know? So, this performance art series has been fantastic. And I’ve gotten to great work with, like, Stephanie García, “Punto de Inflexión.” Working with Mitsu Salmon, who’s Japanese American, and several others. I think performance in this space has a really wonderful power.

20:12 – 21:05 | Gretchen Dietrich

I just want to make a comment about the power of art and artists. I mean, for me, that’s what this work always comes back to, right? And these amazing people, I mean, who Jorge is as an artist, and all of these amazing people that he just listed off for us, artists are incredible human beings. They have a capacity to see the world, to ask questions, hard questions, to help us find answers and solutions, to help us see the future and help us to envision a better future for all of us. And we always say at the UMFA, when we have questions, we ask artists for answers, because they think, they’re better than the rest of us. They think differently, and they help us to do what our work at the museum, certainly, in every way, better and better. So, I just feel like, I love the degree to which Jorge’s practice is centered on artists making art. And I think sometimes in art museums, we get away from that, and it’s never good.

21:06 – 21:44 | Mary Ann Villarreal

You two have raised throughout our conversation, right? Joy is often associated with happy, but you’ve not talked about the sort of happy. You’ve talked about full, you’ve talked about curious, you’ve talked about questioning, right? That joy allows for so much connection, right? So much of wonder. But I want to come back to this, right? That you are shaping and thinking about joy and belonging through various lenses and opportunities, I think of the body, of the mind, of the heart.

21:45 – 22:08 | Gretchen Dietrich

Maybe joy in the art museum is about connection, you know? That really powerful feeling of being connected to a history, to a story, to a person, to the world in a new way. That doesn’t happen all the time when we sort of sit passively and watch Netflix. But, you know, but sometimes it does there too, you know. Art is art. But maybe that’s what joy looks like in an art museum, I don’t know.

22:09 – 24:05 | Jorge Rojas

Yeah, I think joy is the result. It’s not necessarily the thing, right? So, I’ve been thinking a lot philosophically for a few years now about belonging. And you know, a question that keeps coming back in my mind that I think needs to be asked is, is belonging a human right? Is it a privilege, or both? And I think the easy answer is that belonging should be a human right, right? We should all feel like we belong. But we know that historically that hasn’t been the case. And if we look at the history of this country, for instance, and any other colonized nation, we know that assimilation was the price for many to belong, right? So, whether it be Italians, Mexicans, Native Americans, Jews, you know, Asians, African, you know, it was required that we let go of our own culture, of our own language, our own traditions, our clothing, our music, our food, you know, our religions, just to name a few things.

And so, I think, you know, bringing it back to The Joy of Belonging, I think it’s really important that we talk about the complexities of belonging. And I think that that’s what art does. And I think that that’s where the joy ultimately comes from, is that we’re having a conversation about it, where before we weren’t even having a conversation about it. Belonging is an opportunity to reach across the table to someone that has completely different political views and saying, “Can we all just agree that we all have the right to belong?” And that, you know, maybe you don’t believe in Black Lives Matter or this or that, but can we just all agree that we all have a right to belong? And how do we do that? So, I think it’s an incredibly powerful concept that can actually break down those barriers that are so prominent right now in our nation, and that it’s just an incredible opportunity. It’s a really kind of like the special magic sauce that I think breaks across all those barriers. So, to me, there’s joy in that. What greater joy is there than recognizing that we all have this in common?

24:06 – 24:25 | Mary Ann Villarreal

As we come to a close, I’m going to say thank you in advance for giving me much to think about as well, getting me more excited about being in both the spaces that you are curating and leading. I want to leave with this question. What gets you excited about the future of your world?

24:26 – 25:13 | Gretchen Dietrich

I’ll say in the art museum world, what gets me excited is this turn towards thinking as much about people as we do about art, and recognizing and holding up and valuing those personal interactions that our visitors have in the museum. In thinking about our work and finding, as Jorge just said so beautifully, insisting upon finding new ways of working and different ways of working. Because we know that the ways that I’ve learned and the ways that we’ve done it has not been what it needs to be. That is really exciting. And I think we need to continue to push, because the status quo is strong, pulls you back to doing things the way you’ve always done them before. And it takes extra work and extra to time and extra energy. But that’s where the work is going. I really believe in art and museums, and I believe the future is bright, but we got to keep working.

25:14 – 26:34 | Jorge Rojas

I’m excited and I would say hopeful, and even joyful, that the art world and museums are evolving and working towards becoming better places that are more welcoming, inclusive, equitable, where all people, regardless of race, can feel welcome. I’m joyful that UVU Museum of Art just launched a new museum with an initiative titled “The Art of Belonging.” I’m joyful that UMOCA has for years now developed a program called “Out Loud,” which is an artistic platform for LGBTQ+ voices in Utah. I’m joyful that the UMFA has partnered with Artes de México en Utah to reimagine their Mesoamerican Gallery. This is a long-term collaboration, and it’s all about bringing in Latino communities to help them think about how to shift that Mesoamerican gallery to something that feels more of present. What do those things represent for us today? Yeah, no, there’s a lot to be joyful about. There’s a lot to be hopeful about. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it, but there is progress.

I guess the last thing I’ll say is ultimately the only way that these changes can happen is when the institutions, museums, universities, corporations, all do the work of looking at themselves and how they’re going to shift those systems of power. I think that has to be said, because there is no progress unless the institution does that deep hard work of taking a look at their systems of power.

26:35 – 26:42 | Mary Ann Villarreal

Well, thank you both for sharing your very precious time with me today. It has been a wonderful start to my day. Thank you.

26:43 – 26:51 | Gretchen Dietrich

And I just want to say thank you for what you do on this campus and in this community. We are grateful for you and we love working with you, Mary Ann. Thanks for all you and your amazing team do.

26:51 – 26:52 | Mary Ann Villarreal


26:53 – 26:55 | Jorge Rojas

Thank you, Mary Ann. It’s an honor to be here, and I’m with Gretchen.

26:56 – 26:57 | Mary Ann Villarreal

My privilege. Thank you very much.

In This Episode

Mary Ann Villarreal smiles in a button-up shirt and blazer with a Progress Pride Flag Block U lapel pin

Mary Ann Villarreal, Ph.D.

Vice President for Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion
The University of Utah
Gretchen Dietrich smiles with her arms crossed in front of her chest. She wears thick framed glasses, a chunky necklace, and long blazer

Gretchen Dietrich

Executive Director
Utah Museum of Fine Art
Jorge Rojas smiles in a hat and glasses

Jorge Rojas

Independent Curator and Co-Owner
Material Contemporary Gallery

Episode Notes

The Joy of Belonging is created by the University of Utah division for Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion marketing and communications team. Episodes are produced by David Hawkins-Jacinto and Jasen Lee, and edited by Miko Nielson.