Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Transforming Underutilized Spaces into Artists' Spaces

A few weeks ago on my theology blog, I wrote a post about artists who need exhibit spaces and studios, and I dreamt of a world where churches opened their doors to this possibility. 

I've continued to think about it, so I'm going to repost it here.  What follows is specific to churches, but I've been thinking of all the other underutilized spaces to which these ideas would apply:  schools, strip malls, abandoned big box stores . . . and the list could go on and on.

Here's the post:

 Earlier this week, while talking to a group of friends, the one who's working on an MFA in Visual Arts remarked that her friend in the program was having great difficulty finding an affordable place to have her show.  One of the final requirements for their MFA program is to find the space and arrange for the show.  She's not finding many venues that are affordable and have a chunk of time available for a show.

In this time of empty spaces, why would anyone have trouble finding space for a show?  I immediately thought of churches.

Now I understand that using a non-traditional source, like a church, would have a whole different set of problems, like security.  But surely most churches could devise something.  The churches of my childhood often had a classroom or two that was underutilized.  There's the sanctuary, which could lend itself nicely to certain kinds of shows.  Some sanctuaries already have hooks and hangers in the wall for seasonal decorating.  Why not hang art in the off season?

Artists might say, "But I don't create sacred art."  Good news!  It doesn't have to be sacred to fit into a sanctuary environment.

Now I do know some artists who create works that wouldn't be welcome in that kind of space.  But I know far more artists who do abstract creating who could fit right in.

Maybe the problem is a different one.  Do artists get insulted when I say that their art would be welcome in a sanctuary?  Do they interpret that comment as me saying that their art isn't edgy enough?

In a sanctuary, the major problems with security are solved, as most modern sanctuaries are locked when not in use.  There's still the issue of people wanting to touch the art, but that might be the case in all but the most secure spaces.  I've been in many a gallery where I could touch anything I wanted, since the gallery workers were often otherwise engaged.

I think of a quilt show tradition that one of my former churches launched.  We draped quilts over the pews.  It was amazing, a wonderful transformation of the space that had been dominated by wood and stone.  We let people touch the quilts.  One year, I organized an afternoon poetry reading to go along with the quilt show.

Even if the sanctuary won't work, as I said before, there are other options:  classrooms, offices, a fellowship hall, long stretches of walls.  Most churches would be grateful for the extra traffic that an interesting art show could create. 

I know that many churches have transformed their buildings into early childhood ed spaces.  But even that wouldn't have to be insurmountable.

And for those churches that have lots of space sitting empty, why not transform those spaces into artist studios?  Artists would probably be happy to make a set donation to have studio space.  Many communities have a shortage of studio spaces:  why not be the answer to that need?

Our church has done a lot with our space, but the closest we've come to the vision that I have is the drama group for special needs kids that meets in our fellowship hall.  Our fellowship hall has a raised stage, so it's perfect for them.

The rest of our space isn't great for studio space, but it's the only church I've been in that isn't.  We don't have the warren of classrooms that most churches have in their education wings.

I can hear howls of protests from certain corners:  "We need that space for Sunday School!"

Well, maybe the studios can be used on Sunday mornings.  Maybe the Sunday school classes can meet elsewhere.   Maybe sacrificing artist space for Sunday school isn't the best use of our resources.  Maybe Sunday school would be more effective if Sunday school was more like an artist studio and less like elementary school.

Maybe all sorts of church activities would be more effective if we used the artist studio as a model.  How could we transform worship so that it's more like a place where artists come to create and less like a space where sleepy parishioners come to observe?

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