Sun Valley Center for the Arts: Museum with a Mission

The institution of the museum emerged for a variety of reasons, an important one being the need to preserve our history in the form of artifacts. Today, museums do more than just preserve artifacts. Museums are tastemakers; they educate their respective publics about the significance of our past, engage diverse audiences through programming, advocate for the arts, and most importantly serve as vibrant cultural centers that place the visitor’s experience at the forefront of their work.

The Sun Valley Center for the Arts was founded in 1971, making it the oldest arts organization in Idaho’s Wood River Valley. Although SVCA is a non-collecting museum, it received accreditation in 2006 from the American Association of Museums for its commitment to the highest standards of operation and programming. SVCA represents the multidisciplinary approach of a museum that is deeply embedded in its community.

SVCA provides its community with programming and projects that explore themes and topics that are both relevant and didactic. Recent topics have included Tibetan art and culture, Mexican immigration and labor, and fairytales and water.  SVCA focuses mainly on contemporary art exhibitions. Courtney Gilbert, Curator of Visual Arts, likes to incorporate the opportunity to contribute to the national dialogue through the creation of new work by including site-specific installation pieces. Gilbert affirms that by giving artists the opportunity to create large-scale installations, SVCA is able to participate in the national artistic dialogue. Gilbert explains that site-specific objects also enrich their exhibitions, remarking, “Living and working in central Idaho, we sometimes feel a bit isolated from the contemporary art world. Site-specific projects allow us to bring artists who are active in their own regional art scene here to inject their point of view directly into our exhibitions. Our current exhibition, Stories of a Changing China, features an installation by Ying Zhu, an artist who grew up in China but now lives in Omaha. The installation gets at her experience as someone who goes back and forth between the U.S. and China in a deeply personal way. I don’t think the exhibition would have been nearly as successful without her voice in it.”


Katelyn Ziegler, Director of Education and Humanities, contributes to SVCA’s multidisciplinary approach to the arts by making sure that excellent programming is offered in the visual and performing arts, education, and the humanities. SVCA’s education department engages community members of all ages with lectures, class offerings, performances and exhibition tours. In correspondence, Ziegler noted this diversity of programming, commenting, “During the school year we try to focus on multi-disciplinary projects; currently we are looking at contemporary China and the rapid changes occurring culturally, economically, and physically. Next up is a project entitled Wish You Were Here, which will focus on the notion of travel and the American road trip.”

Sun Valley Center for the Arts is in many ways pushing the parameters of museum programming. The organization’s various departments work together to identify themes that are relevant and interesting to the local community, but also resonate within the larger national and global conversations. For a rural area in Idaho, SVCA successfully provides exposure to the arts. SVCA strives to utilize this exposure and the global conversations it can open in order to sustain their audiences and to help younger audiences grow with rich arts experiences.


Nalini Elias is the Plinth contributor for the Western Region and is currently pursuing her Master’s in Museum Studies at the University of San Francisco.