LEXINGTON, Mass. (RNS) When psychologist Bob Bass retired five years ago, he knew his photography hobby would be good for his spiritual well-being. But he never expected an evangelical megachurch would help him, a liberal Unitarian, become a full-fledged artist.
That’s what’s happened through the Grace Chapel Art Gallery in Lexington, Mass., one of hundreds that have cropped up or expanded in U.S. churches over the past decade. At Grace, a simple hallway has become a destination, not only for local art lovers but also for budding talents like Bass, who compete for a spot on the wall next to some of the region’s best.
Bass beamed at the March 18 opening of Grace’s new show, “Flower Power,” when a reporter mistook his digital photo of tulips in a vase for a watercolor painting. That was the goal, he said, and the gallery lets him show what he can do.
“The fact that I have shown here has given some respect to me from others in the art world,” Bass said, as some 75 visitors perused 58 works in pastel, acrylic and other media. “It’s sort of like, ‘Welcome to the group.’”
With a few inexpensive moves to turn bare walls into venues, churches are using visual displays for a range of purposes. Some complement lessons taught in worship (one church asked members to submit art pieces in response to a sermon series on thriving). Others bridge cultural divides with the secular world (such as a show at a Fort Wayne, Ind., church featuring local artists’ creations from discarded objects and materials).
Parishioners, staffers, artists and neighbors all say they benefit as displaying art becomes a larger part of the church’s mission.
In one indicator, some 400 churches with gallery ambitions have bought “Seeing the Unseen: Launching and Managing a Church Gallery” at $30 per copy, according to Cameron Anderson, executive director of Christians in the Visual Arts, which publishes the handbook. A precursor edition didn’t sell as well 10 years ago, even though it listed for only $5.
“It’s just a popular item now because there’s something happening out there,” Anderson said.
The gallery trend is catching many by surprise.
“When we have receptions for the artists, they invite their friends and co-workers and people they met at the grocery store,” said the Rev. James Disney, pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minnetonka, Minn., which opened its gallery in 2013. “We get a lot of remarks about, ‘How amazing that you’re doing this! Wow, this is incredible!’ It sort of reshapes their vision about what church is about.”
Their surprise is understandable. The Protestant Reformation, launched in 1517, led to purging churches of their stained glass and sculptures in attempts to squelch idolatry and exalt God’s Word without visual distractions.
Vestiges of that legacy live on in Presbyterian churches that won’t display art in worship spaces even if they will display it elsewhere, according to David Taylor, assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary.
Going back just a few decades, artist Gillian Ross recalled a time when artwork largely wasn’t welcome in Protestant settings.
“There was just that general feeling that the arts were a little bit risqué and maybe not appropriate for the church to be involved with,” said Ross, a gallery owner who directs the Grace Chapel Art Gallery as a volunteer ministry.
Today churches again want to support artists. At Ross’ talk at the “Flower Power” opening, she doled out practical tips for an hour to help a room full of creative types find success and fulfillment in the gallery scene.
Churches’ wariness of the arts has receded, observers say, as America’s culture becomes increasingly visual with memes, videos and images galore. Churches now see an opportunity to leverage their spaces and use art to stimulate dialogue with groups they wouldn’t otherwise reach.
“There are things you cannot express in words,” said Patty Griest, visual arts chair at First Presbyterian Church of Fort Wayne. “You have to go beyond the words to something deeper. Art is one way of doing that.”
The gallery movement spans the theological spectrum. First Parish in Bedford, Mass., a Unitarian Universalist congregation, opened a gallery three years ago and this year expanded its scope to include works by nonchurch members.
Episcopal congregations in Memphis, Houston, Milwaukee, Carmel, Calif., and Chatham, Mass., all have galleries. Dozens of nondenominational evangelical churches have opened galleries as well, according to Scott McElroy, director of the New Renaissance Arts Movement, a nonprofit that equips churches to utilize arts in ministry.
Objectives can vary, even from one show to the next. Lincoln (Neb.) Berean Church, a megachurch with five art galleries and nearly 100 works on display, recently showcased the handiwork of 40 quilters in the congregation. The goal: let the world behold beautiful quilts before they’re given away.
Sometimes Lincoln Berean puts out a call for photographers or painters to capture a particular theme for an upcoming show. One photo show featured tattooed church members alongside placards explaining what their tattoos mean to them. Five siblings inked an anchor on their skin to remember their late father; another inked The Three Musketeers to remember a grandfather and the two grandchildren he’d lost in infancy.
“The idea was to help our congregation look beyond what you might see physically and make a judgment, but instead get to know the person,” said Ann Williams, director of visual arts at Lincoln Berean. “You can maybe use the artwork that somebody is wearing to start up a conversation and talk with them.”
At Bethlehem Lutheran, Disney organizes five or six shows a year. For some, he seeks out local Christian artists who adorn the fellowship hall with images consistent with the liturgical season, such as Epiphany, Lent or Easter. The art enhances parishioners’ spiritual lives, Disney said, by giving them new ways to see and think about familiar subjects. For Easter, the gallery will host a traveling exhibit on the theme of joyful music.
Launching a gallery can be as simple as installing a few hooks in a hallway, but ambitious ones require a bit more investment. Outfitting a space might cost $1,000 for track lighting and other core features, McElroy said. As volunteers get more involved, they often handle everything from moving artwork to publicity campaigns.
Perhaps most challenging is figuring out what’s inappropriate for a church to display. First Presbyterian in Fort Wayne generally allows nudes, but it denied one racy depiction of a prostitute in a Bible story.
Lincoln Berean has a no-nudes policy in solidarity with congregants who battle pornography addictions. Bethlehem Lutheran drew the line at a photo of a woman dressed like a zombie holding a sign: “Jesus was a zombie.”
“The picture is a wonderfully clever play on all these overly abundant bloody crucifixes we’ve all seen Jesus impaled on,” Disney said, “but I couldn’t put that on the wall of my church and let five-year-olds come out of Sunday school and look at it.”
Churches have little trouble attracting quality artists for two big reasons: They offer visibility and financial opportunity. Unlike commercial galleries, most churches (including Grace) don’t broker sales and don’t charge commissions. Visitors buy directly from exhibiting artists, who can keep every penny but sometimes donate a portion to the host church.” That helps them pay the bills and ultimately makes art more accessible by holding prices down, according to Danvers, Mass., artist Susan Drennan.
“You really want people to buy your art because you want to share your art,” Drennan said. “If you’re jacking up your price just to cover a commission, that kind of defeats that purpose. It makes it so that only people with money get to have art. But I want to share it.”
(G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a correspondent based in Boston)