after/words

Immediately after the Festival, the participants, presenters, art, and artists went home. We organizers took a week or so to catch up on sleep. And then we went right back to work. We felt energized, and if anything, the positive feedback fueled our ambitions to develop additional ideas for the future.

While the memories of the Festival were still fresh, I asked participants of the event to jot down some personal comments about what the gathering meant to them. My own feelings were that people really enjoyed the act of meeting each other and forming a community. Repeatedly, I heard the comment that artists, scholars, and musicians felt accepted, valued, and welcomed.

But I had not realized how some of them saw the Festival as a historical moment in Mormon history. Here are two comments I received in July, from Terryl Givens and from Adam S. Miller.

“I applaud this event as a seminal moment in Mormonism’s coming of age, artistically.”

– Terryl Givens, Professor of literature and religion, University of Richmond, VA, author of People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture; The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith.

“I don’t know if this first Mormon Arts Center Festival marks a turning point in the story of Mormon Arts. Time will tell. But it feels to me like it will have been. Or, at least, it feels to me like it will have been if, hand in hand, we dare to decide that it was. For my part, I’ll risk that wager: something new just happened in the Riverside Chapel—I was there, I spoke and looked and listened—and the story of Mormon Arts will never be the same.”

Adam S. Miller, Professor of philosophy, Collin College, McKinney, TX, author of Nothing New Under the Sun: A Blunt Paraphrase of Ecclesiastes; Future Mormon: Essays on Mormon Theology

 

Unpacking the Festival

The Mormon Arts Center Festival ended Saturday afternoon, July 1, 2017. I don’t really know how best to describe the events of those four days (five, if you could the exhibition set up). Anybody who was there has their own impressions, so I can only speak for myself. And anybody who wasn’t there can experience it through videos that are now beginning to appear on our YouTube channel. (The entire Festival was recorded.)

I’ll start at the end.  Sunday morning around 5:00 a.m., I awoke to S.O.S. emails that the exhibition walls were still up at the Riverside Church. Our contract stated that they had to be down by 8:00 a.m. or we would incur a severe penalty. Unable to get the contractor responsible on the phone, or anybody else, I decided to rush up to Riverside and see what was going on.

Sure enough, there was the empty exhibition space, the art packed up and gone, but the 8′ x 4′ panels, maybe 30 of them, still standing like an abandoned, roofless apartment. I felt I had no choice but to take it down myself. I borrowed a box cutter, a screwdriver, a pair of pliers, and a ladder, and I began. True, the panels were heavy, I’m not very strong, and I have a couple of herniated discs in my back, but I began anyway.

Richard arrived a bit later. He lives close by, and he steadied me in every sense as I dismantled the exhibition. As the hands of the clock moved closer to our deadline, Allyson Chard, her husband, and daughter arrived to help take down the last few panels with us. With the last panel down, I rushed out because I had some church responsibilities of my own at Lincoln Square. On my way out of the church, I looked at the clock. We finished with 75 seconds to spare.

This little sweaty tale serves as a metaphor, too. For a long time I have wanted somebody to tackle Mormon Arts seriously and studiously. I would have been perfectly happy to let some else do it because I felt inadequate. When that didn’t materialize, I threw up my hands and just tried to do it myself. It was hard. There were bruises. But over time, I found a rhythm.

Then Richard came along. With a vision, calm and ambitious, he guided me to bigger thinking. Finally, Allyson arrived with an organizational mind and skill set that found partners and volunteers to do things that we couldn’t have handled ourselves.

Goals were met. It was beautiful. And we left exhausted, and satisfied, and hungry.

Glen Nelson

What Happened?

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.

Richard Bushman

The DSQ

Today’s project is the completion of the program booklet to be published for the chamber music concert on Friday evening, June 30, 2017. The Deseret String Quartet has done an amazing job coming up with a varied and exciting group of five works. Here it is:

Deseret String Quartet

Alexander Woods, violin; Monte Belknap, violin; Claudine Bigelow, viola; and  Michelle Kesler, violoncello.

Christ Chapel, The Riverside Church, New York, New York

Merrill Bradshaw – String Quartet No. 1 (1957)

Francisco Estévez – Elegía (2015)

Lisa DeSpain – Rise and Fall (2002)

Neil Thornock – eyefire (2008)

Ethan Wickman – Namaste (Five Scenes from the Devi Mahatmyam) (2008)

The program booklet contains an essay, extensive program notes, biographies of the performers, and a listing of the wonderful, wonderful donors who made it all possible.

Glen Nelson

The Festival Magazine

Every attendee at the Festival (June 29-July 1, 2017) will receive a free magazine. I’ve been putting the finishing touches on the maps, directions, restaurant listings, schedules of events, and information about what is happening. Richard, Allyson, and I also wrote short essays about art. Many people don’t know, for example, that the Bushman family comes from a long line of painters.

Claudia Bushman is the Center’s historian, and she’s already collected and generated reams of documents about our meetings and activities. Culling these papers, I created a little timeline of our operations. Looking back now, it’s quite amazing to see how this has come together. It has evolved, as well. Some of our initial ideas were replaced when better solutions came along. For me, the biggest surprise has been the encounters with just the right person at just the right time.

Be sure to look for the magazine when you’re at the festival. We’ll likely post a PDF of the magazine for those who can’t make it but want to feel a part of it.  As I write this, the festival is just a bit more than one month away. People ask me if I’m nervous. No, I tell them, not really. I’m excited.

Glen Nelson

Mini-scholarship

One of our primary goals with the Center is to conduct research on the topic of Mormon arts of all kinds–music, film, literature, visual arts, dance, design, architecture, etc.–and to share it as widely as possible.

This week we plan to inaugurate a periodic newsletter. We’ll aim for once a month and see how that goes. The first issue will feature the story of a 12 year-old boy who left his home in the rural west to study and to become a prize-winning and important American composer. He is perhaps the first great Mormon artist. It’s fitting that our newsletter scholarship begins with him.

One of the fun things about this series will be links online to allow you to explore the artist or the topic in more depth. For example, the first newsletter will have a link to a YouTube rare recording from more than 50 years ago of a symphonic work from 1927 that every Mormon who loves art should know.

How do you get on this list, you ask? Make sure that you add your email address on our website. We’ll send the newsletter out to all donors, patrons, committee and board members, and friends who request them.

Glen Nelson

Christo

One of the works in Immediate Present, is J. Kirk Richards’ Christo (series) (2014). It was acquired by the Church History Museum the year it was made and after it came down from hanging in the exhibition Mondo Mormon: the Utah Biennial. It currently hangs now in the Lower Level gallery of the CHM and will return to that gallery after its brief trip to New York.

It was part commission. Here is the history—I heard Kirk speak about his Christo series at the Association of Mormon Letters annual conference in 2014. I was there to present on artist Christian Jankowski’s Casting Jesus—a project similar to American Idol where actors “try out” for the role of Jesus and are then judged by a Vatican priest, a Vatican art critic, and Vatican film maker. Part of what that project does is reveal the cultural construct behind images of diety. At the end, the juror selects a Floretine, who looks like a Guido Reni—an Italian Baroque painter.

So, representations of Christ (and how they are created) were saturating my thoughts when I heard him speak. And I thought the abstraction in Richard’s Christo series was smart in that it blurs the often troublesome portrait-ness of images of Jesus. By removing the portrait element so often present in renderings of Jesus—it removed the personhood (which was just a model anyway)—which allowed me to just think about the meaning of Jesus, of the atonement.

Further, I saw Francis Alÿs’ St. Fabiola installation at the LA County Museum of Art, which was 307 different devotional copies of St. Fabiola. Alÿs’ piece explores different ideas than Richards (simulacra being one). But, I thought that the multiplicity found in 307 similar, yet distinct images, was very powerful because it drew out and revealed the constructed features of the saint—the markers and signifiers that create Fabiola—the red veil, the side profile, the young face. For me, I think it shows the various, multiple and individual ways a beloved devotional image can be rendered and in that, it suggests an individual relationship and an individual singular devotion.

There are, of course, markers that also apply to images of Jesus—the brownish beard, the robe. I don’t think that these signifiers and markers are negative. So, when I asked Richards to make work for Mondo Utah: the Utah Biennale, I also asked him to look at Alÿs in connection to the Christo series.

The end result, to me, remains very powerful.

Laura Allred Hurtado

A Day in the Life

On Tuesday mornings, I set the alarm for 6:45 a.m. to remind me that at 7:00 a.m. our Finance Committee call begins. We use Dave Checketts’ conference call network because he is a member of the committee and has a number already set up for his business calls. Jeff Holt, chair of the finance committee, sets the agenda, but everyone pitches in. We hear reports on recent donations and plot strategies for getting the word out. Jeff keeps an exact running total on how much has been pledged and how much has been received, who made the contribution, has a thank you note and receipt gone out, mailing information, and which member of the committee has a personal connection. We try to be careful about handling money responsibly no matter the amount.

On Thursdays we do lunch. The Executive Committee, which is responsible for putting the Festival together, usually meets at Glen Nelson’s apartment, though to save travel time we are experimenting with Skype meetings. Since Allyson Chard, the managing director, has moved to Annapolis she cannot always be there in person. Here we go over the hundreds of details that go into publicity, ticket sales, reservations, event planning, renting space, etc. Recently we had a launch, where the website was opened and ticket sales began. A hundred details had to be worked out just to get Pay Pal up and running, not to mention the social media releases, post cards, and much else.

About every six weeks, the working committees meet in our apartment on Riverside Drive, by coincidence just three short blocks from the venue for the festival, Riverside Church. Earlier we put out a call for anyone interested in helping out, and in good Mormon fashion, many hands were raised. The committee chairs come together at our place to report on progress and coordinate with the other committees. Some of the best ideas get hatched in our living room as we go over in our minds what will be going on three blocks away at the end of June.

In between times, the email traffic is heavy and constant. Five or ten emails a day come across my screen and I am only seeing a small fraction of the total. Allyson is at the nerve center of all this, keeping track of everyone and thinking through each tiny detail.

To add to all this, we now are thinking of the post-Festival world. Today I received a ten-page attachment from Glen Nelson presenting ideas for 2017-2018. What are we doing next? To help with the plans, we are getting input from a thirty-person Advisory Board made up of engaged patrons, artists, scholars, and arts leaders. We will soon send out a set of proposals for their comments, and in June we will meet to ratify a plan. Our goal is to announce an outline of next year’s program at the Festival.

Overseeing all of this is the Board of Directors. We are now incorporated as the Mormon Arts Center, have a bank account, and will soon have by-laws. The Board of Directors has the last word. We do not foresee any conflicts, however, since it is made up of the same people who meet every Tuesday morning and on Thursdays do lunch.

We think of ourselves as a center where much of the work goes on but that is in touch with people all over. At first, we called this group the National Advisory Board to indicate we were not exclusively New York. But then Campbell Gray, who directs the University of Queensland Museum in Australia joined, and we had to drop “National.” We would like more international representation as time goes on. The Board should help us think broadly. Ideally a concert we plan for Carnegie Hall in New York would be performed in Phoenix or Salt Lake or Bueno Aires. We hope to be a center in the sense of a focal point for activity wherever there are Mormons and art is being produced.

Richard Bushman

An Invitation to a Donation

This week on our website, we set up a way for people to donate to the Mormon Arts Center through PayPal. Previously, people had written checks–and thank you very much for them–but website donations are new territory for us. To be honest, it was tricky to set everything up properly, and some of us wondered whether it was really worth the trouble.

Imagine our surprise when, within a couple of days of starting the PayPal option, we received significant support from several people. I don’t know how they even knew about the Center and this upcoming Festival, but they found us, and I guess you could say that now we have found them, too.

I have followed friends who launched Kickstarter campaigns. One of my closest friends arrived home a few months ago to discover that his entire painting studio had been burned to the ground. He had no insurance. Everything was gone. An online crowdfunding initiative came to his rescue.

Our fundraising isn’t like a campaign with a fixed window and matching amounts. Ours is an ongoing effort. We’re simply inviting people to donate to the Mormon Arts Center. And I mean “invite.” I am beginning to see that people are eager about being part of this. The time is right. They feel, like we do, that this is an exciting moment, and they want to join in with their support. My wife and I donated this week, as well.

If you would like to be a donor to the Mormon Arts Center, which is tax-deductible, the easiest way to do it is to click on the “donations” tab on the website. People have been very generous so far, and it’s much appreciated.

Glen Nelson

Sing!

Of all the events of the Festival, the most fun might end up being the giant Sing-in led by the marvelous choral conductor Craig Jessop and accompanied by Bonnie Goodliffe.  Have you ever sung in a 300-voice choir? It’s the sonic equivalent of driving a racecar with a 300-horsepower engine. It purrs when you want it to, it revs up just loud enough to scare the neighbors, but when you want to set it free, it roars.

For the Sing-in, attendees to this free event will sit in vocal sections–soprano alto, tenor, bass–and be given scores to use and then keep. The gift of thousands of dollars’ of printed music has been made possible by generous donors to the Festival.

Last week, Craig sent Claudia Bushman (the event organizer) and me his working set list. Wow! It’s an amazing group of works new and familiar, from the very first hymnal to music whose ink is still wet on the page. In addition to reading through the music, Craig has a few surprises up his sleeves. Best to keep them secret, for now.

Glen Nelson

Catalog

Today, I’ve been working on the catalog. I can say without hyperbole that it will be an absolutely amazing take away from the festival and an example of the type of work to come as the Mormon Art Center blooms and continues long after the festival. For it, twenty-three artists are paired with twenty-three writers from disparate fields—an activist, a poet, a writer, a lawyer, a doctor, a composer, a psychologist, and a game warden, to name a few. These writers are responding to the work anyway they want. We gave them full creative control—they aren’t novice art historian’s writing Mormon art criticism. So, they are speaking from their own expertise developed out of their unique fields. And in speaking from their own perspective, the results that are trickling in, are fascinating, layered, insightful, nuanced, and smart. For example, here is Claire Åkebrand poem which is paired with Brian Kershisnik’s Death Suite of 2015.

Kershisnik’s Death Suite emerged from his trip to Slovenia and his genealogical work there. But Åkebrand took the concept of death and completely abandoned genealogy, which would have been perhaps too literal. Rather, she turned her response to Lazarus, and told the story of his four-day death and like the speaking dead in Kershisnik, she gave Lazarus a voice, to speak of his temporary death, even if the speaking ultimately isolated him, turned him into being seen as, “a door left ajar.”

For me, the poem paired with the prints makes both richer and more complex, like a good wine and artisan cheese (or maybe for our purposes, a tall glass of coke and warm pizza).

Laura Allred Hurtado

The Locals

The congregations in the area are coming together in support of the Festival. Each stake in nearby areas of NY, CT, and NJ have selected an arts specialist to spread the word about the Festival. These are passionate folks who love the arts and the Church. Many of them are artists themselves and work in related industries.

For me, it was really exciting to see them gather together last week across the street from Lincoln Center and learn about our upcoming plans. Over the next few weeks, they will be reaching out to people locally, where they live. These efforts are under the direction of David Checketts with encouragement from our area authority. It’s a daunting task to put themselves out there, and I know they’ll be amazing.

Glen Nelson

The Here and Now

Above: Founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Robert Henri, oil on canvas, 1916. Minerva Teichert was a student of Henri and it was he that encouraged her to “paint her people.”

Above: Rachel Farmer, Ancestors Under Wyoming Skies, 2014.

This morning, I woke up to a post by Wonderland magazine which, in connection with Tiffany & Co., published five short videos about the upcoming Whitney Biennial, an exhibition that has existed since 1932. The Biennial was according, to artist Miranda July “just American art and just about right now, a snap shot of this moment and time.” Founded by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, at the time of its opening, the Whitney Museum of American Art was radical in its direction. Most museums of the time still looked to European cultural productions and largely dismissed their own culture. But Whitney support was revolutionary—it helped cultivated artists and elevated American culture.

And while watching, I couldn’t help but think of our little festival in comparison and the large similarities to upcoming exhibition Immediate Present—to display just Mormon art, created in the here and now, as a snap shot.

And let’s stop and define that (perhaps loaded) term.

In 1969, a year after President Kimball’s influential Gospel Vision of the Arts, M. Ephraim Hatch wrote, “Mormon art may be described as art which is created by Mormons, art which is created for Mormons, or art which is created about Mormons.” I agree. Art educator Herman Du Toit wrote in the opening catalog for the symposium Art, Belief, and Meaning, “the disparate array of interests, concerns, and points of view expressed by Latter-day Saint writers… clearly indicate there is no uniquely Mormon art on the horizon nor in the foreseeable future.” American art is similar—there is certainly no uniform truly “American” style nor, certainly, is there a Mormon one.

Like the Biennale, I see Immediate Present as a cultural slice. The exhibition is limited to 24 artists and as such, I’m certainly leaving others out, even important influencers that would be on other curators’ lists. I don’t intend this exhibition to be THE definitive canon. But, I certainly hope to influence definitions, cultivate greater artistic productions, and expand the notion of Mormon art, out of its perceived colloquial status, much like what Gertrude Whitney did for American art.

Laura Allred Hurtado

Mormons and Broadway

One of the questions I’m hearing about the Festival is this one: Why do it in New York? There are a number of responses. We want to place our art in context with what’s happening now, globally. No single city can represent the world, but New York is a pretty good surrogate. Another justification for the Festival here is to balance the scale. That is, New Yorkers don’t know a lot about Mormon Art. Perhaps this can be a first step to correcting misconceptions.

What do New Yorkers (and by extension, big cities of the world) know of our fine art? Well, theatergoers can step into a Broadway theater and watch a cast full of Mormon missionaries in The Book of Mormon musical. I wouldn’t say that’s representative of my views on Mormonism. But there are others shows, too. By the time the Festival opens at the end of June, three shows on Broadway will have characters onstage (or discussed onstage) who are LDS. In addition to BoM and its large cast of Mormons, there’s Chicago and Six Degrees of Separation, too. Frankly, I’d be happy to take back our message a little bit and provide to attendees of the Festival a broader picture of what Mormons are like.

Glen Nelson

Friends and Friends of Friends

The logistics of organizing a multi-national event are daunting. And starting from zero is intimidating. Fortunately, we have friends, and they have friends. In addition to our executive committee, our finances committee, and a national advisory board, we put out the word locally that we would like to organize additional groups to help to get the Festival underway.

Dozens of people descended on the Bushmans’ apartment, and we quickly organized into additional committees for: website, marketing, social media, technology support, registration/check-in, exhibition set up, presenters’ assistance, and social events.

Whew! Each of those committees has leaders and committee members who hash out ideas and come up with creative responses. Whenever a problem is introduced, the committees generate solution after solution. I’m reminded of the C. S. Lewis quotation, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”

Glen Nelson