Art and artists being supported, housed, and cultivated in the church or other religious settings is not something that many of us would readily think of today. There is a trend in this direction, however, that I discovered while attending a Creative Church conference in Indianapolis, IN earlier this month. Since just before the turn of this century, the church began to realize the important and valuable contributions and characteristics that artists have to offer both the church and surrounding communities. As a result, it is taking a close look at key – but often ignored or underutilized – contributors within its congregation.
Many churches are converting their massive, and frequently bare, walls into art gallery space. For both community artists (those not attending the church) and artists within the church, the walls provide another venue for artists to share their work and reach people who wouldn’t normally see the work. As one church art and outreach director said to me, “We have 3,000 people walk through our church doors every week. That is a lot more than through a gallery. Many artists jump at this opportunity.” Other churches have turned underutilized classrooms into ‘open studio’ time for either artists or community members who want to dapple in the arts. And still other churches are using the arts as a means for spiritual growth and development. In all these instances time and time again, leaders and artists from the churches have reported how people are emerging from congregations who have amazing talent that no one ever knew or artists within the community are finding places to connect with other likeminded folks. Even people within the church, who may not necessarily be arts connoisseurs, are pleasantly surprised at how much they enjoy being a part of the arts-focused church.
Art in the church is far from a new phenomenon, and in many ways, public art has its roots in the church. Until about the middle of the 17th century, art was often supported and funded by the church. Some of the artists that we know most prominently from history, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, were supported by the church. The politics and assumed status around art patronage were fierce, there’s no denying that, but the fact that the church recognized the valuable contributions of the artist helped develop both art and the church throughout history. In fact, as church leaders wanted to build bigger and more edifying cathedrals and places of worship, it was the artisans – painters, muralists, stone carvers, sculptors – who helped them achieve this end goal. And, these artistic contributions are still valued and enjoyed today. After all, what’s a trip to Italy without taking at least a moment to stand in the awe-inspiring presence of some of the greatest art masters?
If you are reading this as an arts administrator, community or church leader, or even an artist – your mind might be reeling with all sorts of comments or questions about quality of work or even subject matter shown within the church. Or you might have questions about how the church can provide adequate services for the emerging, amateur, or professional artist all at the same time. Many of those topics were discussed at this conference, and can be answered in another blog (or contact me), but in short – it really all depends on your mission, surrounding community, and resources.
You might also be wondering what the big deal about this is and why it really matters if the church cares about the arts (other than music). Well, if you grew up anything like me, in a family who was involved with community theatre, read a wide range of books, and supported the arts through attending art shows, and eventually showing art after going to art school – but also attended a fairly conservative church – you’d understand that the intersection between these two ‘worlds’ was virtually nonexistent. The church always looked at you like you didn’t belong there and often criticized you for running in “those circles”.
In actuality many artists have a spiritual side and have a unique perspective and sensitivity about relationships and organizational dynamics that benefit churches, entire organizations and societies. The fact that churches are now realizing the true value of the artist is a breakthrough – or at least a re-realization of what they have to offer.