Bringing the Arts to Utah: A Celebration of Alice Merrill Horne

Laura Durham, Utah Division of Arts & Museums
a black and white photo from the early 20th century of a young white woman with long dark hair and Victorian dress
Alice Merrill Horne. Photo courtesy of the Horne family

Thanks to Alice Merrill Horne, Utah can claim the first state-sponsored arts agency in the nation. At the young age of thirty, Horne ran for the 3rd Utah Legislature specifically to advance an arts agenda and was electedbecoming only the third female legislator in the state. In 1899, she authored the landmark bill that created the Utah Arts Institute, now known as the Utah Division of Arts & Museums.

Beyond her leadership in the arts, Horne was a preservationist, environmentalist, and suffragette. As a believer in education, she penned legislation to set aside the land grant for the University of Utah. She sponsored a Clean Milk for Utah campaign that resulted in more rigid inspection standards for milk sold in the state. She established four free milk stations in different parts of Salt Lake City for the benefit of undernourished and underprivileged babies. She was also an active volunteer, serving on the General Board of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ National Women's Relief Society from 1901-1915. There, she put her passion for art to work as chair of the Relief Society's art committee, publishing lessons on art appreciation, landscape study, and architecture.

An artist in her own right—she studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and privately under some of the best artists in the Intermountain region—Horne understood the demands and financial challenges that came with that profession. She presented hundreds of fine art exhibitions in various venues, including her own gallery in the Salt Lake Avenues District, the Newhouse Hotel, the ZCMI Tiffin Room, and Zion's Bank. Her self-proclaimed efforts were to provide Utah artists with income (living wage) and to enrich the cultural life of the state. Horne established an annual statewide visual arts competition through which artworks by Utah artists would be purchased for a permanent state art collection. The competition, now called the Statewide Annual, exists today, attracting both amateurs and professionals each fall. The state’s Art Acquisition Committee purchased three pieces from that exhibition in 2015. This collection, dubbed the Alice Art Collection, now numbers over 1,400 pieces, and is valued in the millions.

Public access to art was clearly important to Horne, and she formed 37 collections of Utah art in public schools, so that all children, no matter their parents’ means, would have direct contact with original art. Being a mother of five children, she inspired a passion for art among many of her descendants.

During Horne’s time, many artists were sent to Paris by the LDS Church to study the great traditions of the masters so they could return and paint murals in the temples. she had a deep loyalty for Utah and felt strongly that these talented artists belonged in their home state and that the citizens needed to sustain them. In her book Devotees and Their Shrines, she acknowledged that grander opportunities awaited artists in the great cultural centers of the world and that these artists sacrificed much when they left them. “But the soil from which men spring clings to them. The traditions of parents weave themselves into the hearts of the children, and when memory stirs those golden threads, the wanderer is drawn homeward,” Horne stated. “Emerson prophesied long ago that the art of America would rise in the West amidst the feet of a brave and earnest people. Did he mean that our artists must rely upon the great producing class for patronage? Yes.”

The art community is greatly indebted to Alice Merrill Horne. Is it any wonder that one historian labeled her one of the most active civic and cultural movers that Utah has ever called citizen? A bronze bust of Alice by Avard Fairbanks. Fairbanks rests on the landing in the historic Glendinning Mansion in Salt Lake City where the administration of Utah’s Division of Arts & Museums works to carry out the artistic ideals of this visionary. We are proud to reflect upon her vision and accomplishments during Women’s History Month, but as direct beneficiaries of her initiatives, we think about her almost every day, and find ourselves pondering her oft-quoted vision for every home to have an original piece of art.

Emily Johnson, Utah Division of Arts & Museums Collections Registrar, contributed to this article.