WESTAF Origins: Supporting Creativity in the West

Establishing itself as a supporting conduit for creativity in the ever-evolving landscape of the West, the Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF), known at the time as the Arts & Humanities branch of the Federation of Rocky Mountain States, was born of a collective vision and unwavering commitment to equitable access to the arts for everyone. The mission of WESTAF crystallized around advocating for the arts, facilitating cultural exchange, and providing support systems for the myriad of artists and cultural organizations scattered across the Western states.

A Founding Member’s Impact

A founding member of WESTAF, Louise Tester served as vice-chair from 1973-1977. As an abstract expressionist painter and artist herself, she encouraged her local community in Yuma, Arizona to embrace the arts and the impact art can have. She worked closely with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the assemblage of the Hopi Indian children’s art exhibition, which then toured around the country. 

In 1963, Tester opened the Yuma Fine Arts Association and served as its first director. She then moved on to direct the Arizona Commission on the Arts and Humanities, obtaining the funding needed for many programs across the state. 

She received the 1977 Distinguished Achievement Award from Arizona State University, College of Fine Arts. In 1982, she was honored with the Governor’s Arts Award for her long service and contributions to the arts.

An Inventive Traveling Exhibition

The Federation of Rocky Mountain States sponsored a traveling exhibit called Artrain in 1973 with the help of the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads. This train traveled from place to place with as much art inside as it could carry, bringing art to as many communities as possible.

Artrain was such a success that in April of 1973, the Utah Governor, Calvin Rampton, declared that month to be “Artrain Month” across the state, with the Mayor of Brigham City, Utah declaring Artrain Week a holiday from April 22-28, as well. The Mayor was quoted as saying “I am deeply interested in any and all experiences that enrich the lives of the citizens of our community, where people have always welcomed artists of every discipline to Brigham City.”

Ever-Evolving Community Programs

At the grassroots level, WESTAF helped to catalyze programs that were rooted in community needs and aspirations. The goal was that these initiatives be as diverse as the communities they served, from funding local art projects to organizing cultural events that highlighted the region’s rich artistic offerings. An emphasis on community-driven programs highlighted the symbiotic relationship between art and society.

One institution, Ballet West, was born of a collaboration with the Federation of Rocky Mountain States. A successor of the Utah Civic Ballet, Ballet West has made ballet a more accessible and affordable art form in the western region through the Federation’s support to build the Utah Civic Ballet into a regional professional ballet company.

Willam Christensen said of the development, “If it is as successful as we anticipate, we will have not just a good ballet company here but a great one. Of course, we will always remain a Utah company and Utah always will be our home. But now we can serve more people, add to our stability, and help spread the cost of operation over a wider area and larger audience.”

A Journey Still Unfolding

The WESTAF of today continues to celebrate the western imagination through the arts, and we are humbled and grateful to witness the cultural organizations in our region creating legacies and seeing communities uniting under the umbrella of the arts. Our vision remains unchanged and our mission still resonates 50 years later in supporting arts organizations and artists in their quest to serve diverse audiences, enrich the lives of local communities, and provide access to the arts for all.