A year or two ago, a graduate student asked my wife Claudia how Exponent II, the Mormon women’s newspaper/magazine got started a little over forty years ago. Claudia was the first editor and there from the beginning, the right source of information. After she had given the young woman her version of events, to Claudia’s surprise, the graduate student told her she was wrong. That was not how it happened at all. The student had heard other stories from other participants and knew Claudia missed the mark. What happened at the beginning, it seems, is being debated even when the participants are still around.
From early on, Claudia has kept records on the Mormon Arts Center, but that will not necessarily prevent confusion. From these records, Glen Nelson has pieced together a chronology for the festival program that is about as accurate as we can hope for, and yet there are uncertainties and ambiguities that muddy the waters.
One version of events is that the Center originated in a conversation between myself and Greg Sorensen, a scientist with strong interest in Mormon scholarship. Always one to think outside the box, Greg suggested that we needed bigger thoughts than the Mormon Studies professorships which we had been promoting to that point. What if we had fifty million dollars to work with, Greg proposed hypothetically. What would we do then?
After thrashing around for months with varied thoughts about Mormon scholarship, we came up with the idea of promoting Mormon arts which we both thought was the next frontier.
I was encouraged to pursue the idea because I knew that Glen Nelson had been sponsoring projects for Mormon artists through an organization he called the Mormon Artists Group. MAG had presented exhibitions, initiated imaginative projects such as Mormon composers writing music in response to paintings by Mormon artists, charged Mormon photographers to take pictures of the new Manhattan Temple, and collected vast amounts of information about Mormon artists worldwide.
I knew Glen would be interested, and of course he was. Over lunch in the Museum of Arts and Design in Columbus Circle, we met to lay plans. From that point on, we have moved steadily forward, forming a committee, seeking out people to help with fund-raising, and informing Church leaders of our plans.
People came into our orbit almost miraculously. I met Allyson Chard by chance in sacrament meeting where she was attending with her husband the High Council speaker. I asked if she was interested in the arts and if she would like to help out with an arts festival. She said she was interested in the arts and had been involved in projects like this before. She signed on, proved herself to have amazing managerial gifts and boundless energy, and is now managing director in charge of operations. I met Jenna and Jeffrey Holt on my Thursday temple shift. They turned out to have had fund-raising experience and have taken over the management of finances. Dave Checketts, as it so happened, had just been released as stake president. Knowing his gifts as a fund-raiser and his unparalleled connections in the city after managing Madison Square Garden for years, I was thrilled when he signed on.
When Glen and I began to speak to groups about plans for a Mormon Arts Center, that is the story I told. The Center idea originated in conversations with Greg Sorensen and moved in a straight line to the Arts Center idea and the Festival.
Then on our second round of presentations, I realized I had it all wrong. The story did not begin with Greg and me. It began with Glen and the Mormon Artists Group. For twenty years, Glen had been bringing artists together for projects, collecting information, connecting with Mormon artists all over the world, doing everything the Mormon Arts Center hopes to do. The only reason the Arts Center and the Festival will work is because Glen had been building up resources for decades. When we need a program, he can devise one in a flash. He knows what is there, has personal relations with scores of artists, and has a practiced imagination in creating programs.
What has happened in the last year is what business people call scaling. I joined Glen, not the other way around, to bring this about. The program has been widened to a larger audience and aspires to more ambitious events. We have found more financial support than we ever dreamed possible. As Greg Sorensen suggested in our early conversations, our imaginations have been liberated. However events unfold from here on out, history should recognize that the Mormon Arts Center began with MAG.