Art Is Where the Heart Is

USD alumna Dana Hernandez


The moment that changed everything for the would-be engineer came at an art museum.

Dana Hernandez ‘07 (BS/BA) had actually never set foot in one prior to her family’s European vacation, just a few months before she graduated from USD with a degree in industrial and systems engineering. Her awakening came in London’s National Gallery of Art. She followed the docent’s tour and listened in.

“I could not believe it. I was astonished that this whole world existed and I knew nothing about it.”

Now, Hernandez has completely immersed herself into the world she was introduced to that day, by taking on a job that’s tailor-made for an engineer-turned-artist. As it turns out, when you’re the public art program manager for a capitol city like Salt Lake, having the engineering smarts to know both what will work and how to make it work is exactly the bridge that’s needed.

It’s her job to oversee Salt Lake City’s multimillion-dollar slate of public art pieces and steer new proposed projects through the application, approval and construction process.

Since she’s constantly working with engineers, it helps to speak their language and be able to read technical documents. She can at once advocate for the artists and help figure out how to make a complicated piece of work happen. In part, it’s her job to work with everyone to make sure the art — much of which is outside and exposed to weather — will hold up. She brings an understanding of how stress, force and other elements may affect a structure and how that structure will respond.

Dana Hernandez with back to camera admiring public artThat each piece of public art is unique, often oversized, and the first of its kind is just a problem to be solved, Hernandez says. She loves working closely with engineers and fabricators to solve the myriad obstacles that crop up while transforming artistic visions into reality. There may be safety issues with a work being so close to people; environmental factors can come into play as well. She sees her role — indeed, her strength — as making sure the art can stand the way the artist intended, while still bearing the stresses of the environment and the people who interact with it.

“I have engineering drawings with me all the time,” Hernandez says. “This position lends itself to an engineer who loves art. I also serve as defender of the artist. The fabricator might say, ‘We can’t do that.’ I don’t really ever take no for an answer unless something really won’t work.”

When it comes to public art, people are often encouraged to interact; for Hernandez, that’s part of the fun.

“We want people to touch and to play and discover the unique kinetic sensibilities of the work. I’m happy for people to ponder and to question the work that we do.”

After earning her degree, Hernandez worked for Raytheon as an engineer, soon deciding to take some art history classes to learn more about her burgeoning interest. It became clear she needed more art in her life, and she moved to Salt Lake City to study art history as a graduate student at the University of Utah. She began working in the arts and eventually found this perfect fit.

While most people in her position start with the arts and come by some engineering and construction know-how on the job, Hernandez took a different path. “I had a birds-eye view of what it meant to construct something, then I made my way into the arts. It’s extremely helpful. I interface with engineers constantly to ensure that none of the public art is going to fail.”

Like many cities, Salt Lake devotes a set amount of every capital improvement project — 1 percent in this case — to public art.

One of her first tasks was to bring her engineer’s eye to the entire public art process to refine and make it more efficient. “My passion is in art history and the arts in general. I also have an extreme fondness for efficiently run systems.”

In this case, too, the engineering helps the art. Hernandez points out that the more proficiently her department uses its time and money, the more art it can make.

Going back to that moment at the art museum, did Hernandez even know that something was missing from her life?

“I had no idea I needed it, but I do,” she says. “Art gives me an outlet. It pushes the bounds of my creativity, which inevitably makes me a better problem solver, empathetic person and overall human. Seeing art helps me see the world with a fresh set of eyes. I love that.” — Kelly Knufken

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