On Nov. 13, 2015, LDS historian Richard Bushman and New York-based writer and art collector Glen Nelson got together to talk about the future of Mormon art and how they could best support it. What would be possible, they daydreamed, if money wasn’t a constraint?
They began to envision an organization that would encourage the cultivation of Mormon art and culture through scholarship, publications, catalogs, discussions, exhibitions and cultural events. They would call it the Mormon Arts Center.
This past weekend the founders took the first step toward that vision. Mormon artists and scholars from around the country gathered for the first Mormon Arts Festival in New York City, a celebration and exploration of Mormon arts. The three-day festival held at the historic Riverside Church marked the 50th anniversary of President Spencer W. Kimball’s sermon “The Gospel Vision of the Arts,” in which he called Mormon artists to rise to the excellence of masters like Wagner, Rembrandt and Shakespeare.
The festival included a symposium by Mormon scholars, conversations with artists, an art exhibition and a concert, all seeking to explore two questions: what is Mormon art today and what can Mormon art be in the future?
The center’s board member and historian Claudia Bushman said that although there have been Mormon arts festivals and exhibitions in the past, they were stand-alone and didn’t have a permanent nature. “So this time we said, we’re starting this and it’s going to go on,” said Claudia Bushman. And the enthusiasm from the donors was just another confirmation that the time was right for the center.
“It sounds very ambitious, but it’s within our grasp,” said Nelson, who started Mormon Artists Group nearly two decades ago in New York City to discover Mormon artists and commission them original artworks. “It almost feels like something outside of us was directing this.”
Although the organization is funded independently, the organizers collaborated with the Church History Museum on the featured exhibition, which was the focal point of the event. Curated by Laura Allred Hurtado, Global Acquisitions Art Specialist for the LDS Church History Museum, “Immediate Present” presents 23 works acquired for the Church History Museum collection in the past three years. The show is a mix of installations, multimedia pieces, sculptures, drawings and paintings.
Some works are explicitly religious, such as Kirk Richard’s abstracted faces of Jesus on multiple panels, and Jorge Cocco Santangelo’s Christ sailing on a stormy sea, painted in his unique style “sacro-cubism.” Other works examine the lives and identities of artists who consider themselves Mormon. For example, Pam Bowman’s woven rope installation was inspired by the mundane and repetitive tasks she experienced as a stay-at-home mother years ago.
In tackling the question of what qualifies as Mormon art, the founders are taking an expansive view.
“Instead of fences, I want to try to wrap my arms around all of it,” wrote Nelson in the essay in the festival’s magazine. “I wish to embrace and welcome our totality, and once we can identify these works, learn as much as we can about them.”
Hurtado said she was concerned about the reception of the show. “A lot of people, regardless of their religion, can be intimidated by contemporary art and find it sort of opaque to access,” she said. But what she saw at the festival was the opposite — people were actively engaging with the work and critically reflecting on it.
She’s on the same page with Nelson about broadening the definition of what Mormon art could be. “I don’t think that religious influence has a homogenous look or a singular style,” said Hurtado in her opening talk. “The field of Mormon art and the singular artists that make up the field remain individual and unique.”
To help document this diversity, the center has ambitious archiving goals. One project aims to build a comprehensive database of all Mormon artists since 1830 to the present with a Wikipedia-style page and index of works for each artist. Nelson said they’re nearly finished with the first step — a database of 1,600 Mormon composers with about 50,000 works in total, listing detailed information about all of them.
Musicians are already reaping the benefits of the archive. In preparation for its festival performance, the Deseret String Quartet from Brigham Young University used the database to create a repertoire of string quartet compositions by Mormon composers.
Among the festival’s visitors were President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, the second counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with his wife, Harriet, and daughter Antje, who both serve on the Mormon Art Center’s advisory board.
“This is really a marvelous thing,” said President Uchtdorf. “It’s important to see that art is part of our life -- it has been with the pioneers, it has been from the beginning of this world.” The center can be 'a kind of a home' for Mormon artists, he pointed out, where they can “enjoy the bonds of each other.”
“We are creating a new generation of wonderful artists,” said Sister Uchtdorf.
The idea of creating a community of Mormon artists in a physical space resonated with the artists. Virginia-based assemblage artist Page Turner has admired the work of New York sculptor Rachel Farmer for a few years. The two have connected on social media but have never met.
“The best part of this event has been meeting and connecting with other artists,” said Farmer, whose figurine of a pioneer woman was showcased alongside Turner’s female totem in a bell jar.
Turner agrees. “For me, it’s amazing to see the scope and the spectrum of Mormon art,” she said.