The prospectus for what would come to be MOCRA cites the Mission Statement of the Society for the Arts, Religion, and Contemporary Culture (ARC)–authored by a group including theologian Paul Tillich and Alfred Barr, the founding Director of the Museum of Modern Art:
Religion in isolation from the arts is starved of concrete insights into the fullness of human life. Art gives religion the eyes to see man [sic] in all his dimensions, the ears to hear the voice of his inner life, and the instruments with which to communicate with man in his actual condition. At the same time, our knowledge of the past suggests that the arts excel when realized within that transcendent, unifying vision which is the heart of religion.
The prospectus also recognizes that the actual situation was more of “an uneasy relationship between organized religion and the visual arts,” “often characterized by suspicion and misunderstanding,” with the result that “one of our most important avenues to religious experience, the imagination, has been deprived of contemporary, evocative images that point to God.”
The prospectus offers an alternative vision. It takes note of “a growing number of artists” who have “created art that reflects faith expressions of, or explorations into, the religious dimension. … As diverse as these expressions are, they all are marked by a sense of profound respect and genuine awe.”
This vision was explored concretely in the doctoral dissertation of Jesuit priest Terrence E. Dempsey, S.J. Fr. Dempsey studied at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, with such noted art historians and theologians as Peter Selz, Jane Daggett Dillenberger, John Dillenberger, and Doug Adams-all pioneers in the study of art and religion. Fr. Dempsey’s focus was the re-emergence of sacred content in American art of the 1980s.
His research brought him into contact with hundreds of artists throughout the U.S. as well as gallery and museum personnel who assisted him in his quest. The word of mouth spreads quickly in the visual arts community, and soon artists who had spoken with Dempsey were letting other like-minded artists know about Dempsey’s research, and they, in turn, began contacting him.
In 1990 Dempsey was hired as an assistant professor of art history at Saint Louis University (SLU), and as the assistant to Maurice B. McNamee, S.J., founding Director of Samuel Cupples House on the SLU campus. Though Dempsey curated small-scale shows in the Cupples House basement gallery, he was uncertain of where to go with his ideas and his research.
Then an opportunity presented itself: the chapel of Fusz Memorial Hall, a building that for 35 years had functioned as a house of philosophical studies for Jesuits in training to be priests or brothers, was vacant. Fr. McNamee suggested that the spacious chapel would be an ideal space for Fr. Dempsey to present large-scale exhibitions. Dempsey’s proposal to use the space as a museum was accepted by SLU President Lawrence Biondi, S.J., and on March 20, 1991, Fr. Biondi formally announced the development of a new interfaith museum of contemporary art.
As with all such projects, there were some hitches and surprises along the way (as we’ll see tomorrow), but on February 14, 1993, MOCRA officially opened to the public with an exhibition titled, Sanctuaries: Recovering the Holy in Contemporary Art.
–David Brinker, Assistant Director