Peering through the chain link fence on 21St South at 11th East, one is confronted with raging bulldozers shifting colossal volumes of earth, sloshing concrete and disconnected plumbing pipes. The scene is disorienting. Yet amidst all the filth and chaos of what is known as Salt Lake’s ‘Sugarhole,’ one building has remained unscathed. Rockwood Art Studios is predominantly occupied by twenty-two painters and visual artists, and stands relatively untouched: tenants in tact. The area will soon transform, as condominiums will abut the property on both sides. To the south, a light rail project promises to revitalize business in the area. Yet with all this activity, one can’t help wonder: why is Rockwood still standing ?
Certainly there was no shortage of speculators vying for the prized property. Flanked on either side by multi-million dollar projects, developers were eager to gut the entire block, and install their own pipe dreams. Yet that was unthinkable to Marian Rockwood- Johnson. At ninety-one, she’s seen buildings come and go along 21st South. As scion of a prominent Sugarhouse property family, her father owned nine acres in the ‘Furniture Capital of the West.’ And, with a business degree from the U (Class of ’42) it was business as usual for Marion and her renters. Though several artists panicked when bulldozers broke ground; some even left preemptively, in fear of eviction, Marion kept her ground, reassuring her occupants she had no reason to sell. “Where would we go? Why should we leave? Adding : “These artists are wonderful. They’re happy there. They have a good thing going. Why disturb that?”
Rockwood-Johnson’s commitment to her tenants is rivaled only by her loyalty to her family legacy. When she was eleven, she remembers how her father, Jullius Apollos (‘JA’) Rockwood, acquired the land in severance from Granite Furniture, his employer of 21 years. With a penchant for property, Marion recalls her mother bemoaning “I can’t trust Daddy when he goes out. He’s always looking for corners to buy.” JA passed away in 1944, entrusting Marion’s mother with the family estate. “Mother wanted the Rockwood name to stay in Sugarhouse” she explains, “out of loyalty to our father.” Complete in 1955 when Marion was 33, decades of property management were thus channeled into ‘Rockwood Furniture Corporation.’ The elimination of parking along 21st South soon ended the venture, as walk-ins completely dried up. Rockwood struggled to fill its space, and for many years, it remained near-abandoned.
Connie Borup first saw its potential in the early nineties. Having recently received her MFA from the U, she needed a place to work. “But it was otherwise pretty bare bones.” Borup recalls. “With the Blue Boutique at street level, along with a fortune telling business where gypsy proprietors were squatting, the area was a little shady.” But soon enough, the Rockwood-Johnson family decided to renovate, and in 1999 created purpose-built studios for their tenants. The spaces were rented before the work was complete and in no time, Marion became the building manager and was responsible for everything from plumbing to rent collection.
In addition to housing established artists such as Borup, Rockwood also fosters newer practitioners. Many are still finding their way by ‘just dabbling’ or have taken up the brush following first and second careers. Such variety often characterizes artist communities, and is heralded by city planners as a catalyst for the revitalization of neglected neighborhoods. Stephen Goldsmith, an Associate Professor in the College of Architecture + Planning at the University of Utah, advocates for the inclusion of artists in urban development. “Artists and art communities play an important role in the health of a city.” he says. “They bring creative energy and vitality to an area, which is unique to that of the developer or property owner.” The brainchild behind Salt Lake’s Artspace, Goldsmith describes a scenario in which everyone benefits. Not only do artist communities fuel collaboration and innovation among themselves, but the effect multiplies. Goldsmith explains how “Artist communities often contain micro-economies. A painter might engage the services of a framer in the same building, or purchase materials from an art supply store, which may result in a gallery exhibition, which generates sales. Participation in a gallery stroll might then lead to restaurant and cinema patronage in the area.” The benefits are manifold.“When creative people come into contact, innovation occurs, which leads to economic development.” Goldsmith says.
Meri DeCaria, Director of Phillips Gallery, concurs. As one of the oldest galleries in the Intermountain West, Phillips has had a long-standing relationship with Rockwood. “We’ve exhibited several Rockwood artists over the years” she says. But the advantages are not just economic. There is a ripple effect that feeds into the intellectual life of the city. Not only do the works go out into private and corporate collections, but exhibition openings energize the cultural community at large, by attracting practitioners in related disciplines. As well, Phillips plays an educational role, it is visited by groups such as high school students, art appreciation classes and even the UMFA’s ‘Young Benefactor’s Club.’ DeCaria also alludes to a spiritual dimension of the gallery. “People come here to be recharged. To feed their soul. For a breath of fresh air, and for new ideas.”
As the extended life of Rockwood Art Studios percolates down into the further recesses of the city, it generates unexpected momentum and activity. With this in mind, it would not be inappropriate to heap praise and accolades upon Marion Rockwood Johnson. Yet she prefers a more retiring life behind the scenes and, with an eye on her family legacy, is content to pass the torch onto her sons. As for her tenants, she says simply “They’re good tenants. They‘re clean and responsible. And we’re just happy to provide a good environment for them.”