Building a museum, brick by brick

A confession: I’m an AFOL—that’s internet shorthand for “Adult Fan of LEGO.”

As a kid, I spent many hours playing with my Classic Space sets. I’ve kept the bricks in an old green dishpan, occasionally getting them out for friends’ kids to play with or to cobble together something of my own. A few years back, my friend H. invited me on a trip to the LEGO store, where I built a couple of custom minifigs. I happened to pack one of those minifigs with me on a 2014 choir trip to Scotland. Along the way I started snapping pics of the minifig in various sites, resulting in the “The Adventures of Barry and Fitch.” (Tumblr displays the series in reverse chronological order, so you have to scroll down a ways to start at the beginning.)

Barry (a LEGO minifig) and Fitch (a mini cow) view a sweeping vista of the Scottish Highlands
Barry and Fitch take in the splendor of the Scottish Highlands

Later that year I came across a review of the LEGO “Museum Break-In” set by the head of security at the Getty Museum. I couldn’t resist going out and buying it as a Christmas present to myself—my first adult LEGO set purchase. It sits on a bookshelf in my museum office, with LEGO Bob Ross alongside painting a scholar stone.

LEGO Museum and Bob Ross
Bob Ross paints in plein air, oblivious to the shenanigans ensuing at the LEGO Museum.

More recently, I purchased a box of assorted LEGOs at IKEA to keep on my office desk (the lack of inscrutable building directions in the box seems like a missed branding opportunity). When I need a moment of decompression or creative spark, I pull out some bricks and start building. One of my first LEGO “doodles” was something that could pass for MOCRA’s building. Intrigued, I took my little model home and supplemented it with some of my dishpan bricks: LEGO MOCRA Mark I.


Before long I thought, surely I can improve the proportions. So, I went back to my trusty dishpan and cobbled together a patchwork LEGO MOCRA Mark II prototype. With the help of Bricklink, and some spare bricks from H., I procured the pieces to realize Mark II—only to discover that I still hadn’t quite got the proportions I was aiming for. Once again it was back to the dishpan and then Bricklink to arrive at LEGO MOCRA Mark III.

The essentials, the lines, the structure, were all there. Now I could focus on tweaking aspects of the build to achieve finer details. One more trip to Bricklink and finally: MOCRA Mark IV. You’ll note a certain Director welcoming visitors to the museum; the cat hairs on the slacks are an added element of verisimilitude.

For comparison, here are some shots of the actual building.

Maybe it’s fitting that I had the impulse to craft a LEGO MOCRA, as I’ve been involved with MOCRA almost since its inception, and thus had many opportunities to help shape a respected and vibrant small academic museum. Since creative play can provide inspiration and insights into the “real world,” here are some reflections on LEGO MOCRA and the actual museum.

The big picture and the details

Just as a good metaphor draws out the essence of the object of comparison, a model can help us see the clear outlines of a scenario by omitting extraneous detail. Models make projects or problems more manageable through generalization, or by focusing on one dimension in isolation. 

Building LEGO MOCRA provided an opportunity to visualize the museum’s physical plant in a new way, as I closely considered the proportions and interrelationships of the elements of the building. Working at microscale, I knew that there were certain details I could only allude to, like the narrow upper clerestory windows. LEGO MOCRA expresses the essence of the building.

Planning exhibitions and programming often begins with a degree of generalization, sketching ideas in broad strokes, followed by a period of refinement, of sharpening details and trimming away what is unnecessary. Hopefully the result is clear alignment with the museum’s mission, a focus on what is essential, and an efficient use of resources. On a larger scale, scenario planning uses narrative models to imagine possible futures, consider their implications for the museum, and explore possible paths forward to meet those futures.

Going back to the dishpan

As I developed LEGO MOCRA, I tried out a variety of approaches to modeling different features of the museum. Some worked, some didn’t. The process was akin to musical improvisation, where an underlying chordal structure or other rubric grounds a musician’s spontaneous expression. LEGO bricks have a certain logic and established ways of using them. But sometimes you turn a “headlight” around and suddenly you have a stained-glass window.

I bought a number of bricks I ended up not using. I had to be willing to recognize that what I thought would work, didn’t, and return to the drawing board. Yet my ventures to Bricklink weren’t wasted: going through the catalog of parts, I discovered bricks and colors that opened new possibilities.

This process reminds me of design thinking.  This methodology has gained traction in the museum field, with its process of identifying a problem, ideating and exploring possible solutions, iteratively prototyping and testing possible solutions, and implementing the final solution. Design thinking benefits from patience, humility, and a good sense of humor, and it entails a degree of risk by encouraging the involvement of end users (i.e., giving up a measure of control) and embracing failure.

Keeping up on inventory

I got some ribbing from friends whom I was updating on the progress of LEGO MOCRA, because I was drawing up parts lists and documenting each stage of the build.

And to be sure, it was sometimes a hassle, especially when I realized mid-build I could do something in a better way. I would disassemble back to a prior step, and start again, taking fresh pictures and updating the parts lists. 

My artist friend Con has sold me on the value of documentation and reflection when working on a project, especially a collaborative one. Arriving at the end of one problem-solving process is often the start of the next one, and it’s helpful when you can review where you’ve been, and why, before figuring out where you’re headed next. Documentation takes time and it’s tempting to gloss over it. But it’s invaluable for continuity at a museum from one generation of employees to the next, or even for long-time employees to pause and ask, why are we doing it this way again? What was the original reason for doing this, and do those conditions still exist, or is it time to reassess?

At MOCRA, this happened a couple of years ago when we changed our public schedule to add some evening hours. After twenty-some years with the same public hours, we realized that MOCRA wasn’t open at times students were likely able to visit. The public hours initially had been set to reflect a typical office work week, and weren’t that different from those offered at other area museums—and we had never re-examined them to see if they were working for the visiting public.

Reflection, revision and rebuilding are critical in the bigger picture. As was highlighted at the recent conferences of the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries, COVID-19 has disrupted museum financial and operating models and exposed inequities and unexamined biases in staffing, collecting, and interpretation. It has brought to the fore questions about who is welcome at museums and the barriers that museums raise. (You can find some of my musings on this topic here.)

Scraping the bottom of the dishpan

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” it’s said, and scarcity can inspire creativity. To prototype LEGO MOCRA, I rummaged scuffed, faded bricks from my bin to combine with fresh bricks and even some off-brand ones (shhh). The result was charming, in a scruffy kind of way, but far from polished. As a “small-but-scrappy” museum, MOCRA operates on a modest budget with a minimal staff complement. As at many small museums, it’s sometimes a hand-to-mouth existence. But we’re adept at making the most of our resources and finding creative solutions with frugal means.

With both LEGOS and life, economic realities sometimes help clarify what is essential. I thought I’d try out the “headlight” piece in a few different colors to see what would best simulate the lower gallery windows . . until I discovered that one of those colors was extremely rare, and the only supplier who had the dozen I would need was charging $10.50 apiece for the part. $130 was not in the budget for an option I might or might not use. I only ordered the clear transparent version—and it turned out to be exactly what I was looking for.

Similarly, economics can sometimes rule out a course of action, freeing a museum to let go of an untenable option and invest resources in better ways. For instance, a members program could be a great way to build an engaged audience and raise financial support . . . until you realize the high upfront and sustained investment of staff time and budget needed for a successful program would compromise the museum’s primary work. And so you seek other ways to raise funds and to engage audiences.

However, sometimes the better choice is to invest the money and staff resources to accomplish the goal at hand. While the parti-colored LEGO MOCRA prototypes achieved the right dimensions and shapes, I needed to custom order parts in the correct colors to achieve the desired finish. The prototyping process allowed me to accurately determine what I actually needed, rather than spend in a scattershot way. This leads to a final observation.

Minding the gap

In any project or endeavor, there will be a gap between our intention and the realization, between the plan and the execution of the plan. Sometimes those gaps spur us to revisit and refine our plans, to make LEGO MOCRA Mark II and Mark III and Mark IV. And sometimes we realize that there’s no sense in letting perfect be the enemy of good. Or, as Seth Godin says pithily, “If it doesn’t ship, it doesn’t count.” 

The gap can be uncomfortable, especially for those of us with perfectionist tendencies. It might feed a lurking impostor syndrome, or stoke envy of museums with more robust staff rosters and budgets. But it’s also a helpful reality check, an opportunity to inventory your resources and prioritize what you’re going to do with them. And the gap leaves space to move, to adjust, rework, and improve. If there’s no gap, there’s no more to be done than maintain, and creative energy dissipates.

I’m pretty happy with LEGO MOCRA at the moment. This round of ideation, prototyping, and implementation is complete. Still, I’m sure eventually there will a Mark V (and perhaps the Director will get a pair of slacks without cat hair on them). Or maybe I should grab some bricks out of the box on my desk and start dreaming up an expansion to the museum with an experimental gallery and community gathering spaces . . . 

David Brinker
Director, MOCRA

“Let go of certainty and grab hold of creativity.”

Those are the words of Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, welcoming me and other “attendees” last week to the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) virtual conference. The theme of “Radical Reimagining” seemed prescient in a moment when Americans are called to radically reimagine social structures, policies, and priorities.

Some people have been doing the risky work of challenging the status quo for years, rooted in painful personal experience. Some have given lip-service to the idea of reform, but have not felt the urgency to act. And some actively oppose any change to a system that, to them, seems to work just fine. I occupy that middle group, as a white cisgender male who has benefitted from systems of housing, education, and employment that favor folks who look like me. I am thankful that my privilege included a Jesuit education that cultivated critical reflective skills and emphasized the call to be women and men for others. But the murder of George Floyd and everything that has followed since, have made clear to me that my complacency and acts of omission far outweigh the actions I have taken to work for change.

There’s a yawning gap between letting go of certainty and grabbing hold of creativity—like a trapeze act working with no safety net—but it’s time to launch into that void.

For at least two decades, diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI) have sounded a steady drumbeat in the museum field. Progress has been halting and uneven, from tentative steps like gearing exhibitions toward underserved communities, to more equitable relationships where museums involve those communities in decision-making. Museums are confronting difficult questions about their roots in, and role in perpetuating, the injustices of colonialism and racism. They must examine the makeup of their boards, the sources of their income, and inequities in their staffing and compensation.

MOCRA is a relatively young museum, but even so, we must undergo this same self-evaluation. Thus, we respectfully acknowledge that our building sits on the traditional, ancestral lands of the Osage Nation. The process of knowing and acknowledging the land we stand on is a way of honoring and expressing gratitude for the ancestral Osage people who were on this land before us.

In 2016 the Jesuits of the USA Central and Southern Province, and Saint Louis University created the Slavery History, Memory, and Reconciliation Committee, which shed light on the fact that SLU’s early Jesuit leaders brought six enslaved men and women from Maryland to St. Louis in 1823; eventually the Jesuits owned as many as thirty-five to forty slaves. We acknowledge that we, too, have benefitted from the forced labor of those men and women. 

Looking over MOCRA’s collection, exhibitions, and programs, I can point to times when we brought to the fore Black artists and artists from other marginalized identities, or confronted difficult and painful issues directly tied to America’s racist history. I also humbly admit, on my own part and the museum’s, to moments of presumption, naïveté, and missed opportunities to affirm that Black lives matter. 

Museums can no longer look away from their history of complicity in racist and white supremacist structures. Yet Lonnie Bunch (14th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institutions and founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture) reminded us during an AAM keynote address that museums are a glue in our communities. At their best, museums highlight our common humanity, provide a space for healing, and help us envision a better future. Bunch exhorted us not to retreat from the uncertainties of the present moment, but to commit to the work of justice and equity.

On behalf of MOCRA, I join with my colleagues at the Saint Louis University Museum of Art and Samuel Cupples House, in affirming that the Museums and Galleries of Saint Louis University stand together with the SLU community in stark opposition to the systemic racism and structures in our society that oppress Black people and other people of marginalized identities. We must bring hateful rhetoric and dehumanizing violence to an end. Solidarity and community mean that we never have to face such evil alone. With a firm belief in the capacity for art to articulate grief, fear, and anger, to inspire empathy, compassion, and solidarity, we pledge our support and join with those working for justice and equity in our community. MOCRA’s mission prompts us in a particular way to bring to the fore, through art, the ways in which the religious and spiritual dimensions can be transformative positive forces, while never being blind to the ways religion can be twisted and perverted to sustain unjust structures and beliefs. 

Thank you for taking the time to read these thoughts, which I share as a way of holding myself accountable, and asking you to help hold MOCRA and me to account. I am aware that they may resonate with some people, provoke anger in others, and fall short of the mark for yet others. I welcome your responses, thoughts, and suggestions. You can e-mail me at david [dot] brinker [at] slu [dot] edu, or leave a message through Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

May you and yours remain safe and healthy amid the ongoing pandemic, as we travel together through this uncertain terrain, seeking a better future.

David Brinker
MOCRA Director

Shock and serenity

The tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, poses challenges to those who are somehow involved in the civic and cultural life of a community. There is little doubt that it is a significant occasion, but much harder to articulate the nature and interpretation of its significance, and harder still to shape and produce rituals, objects, or writings that meet the demands of the day. Nonetheless, we must try, and so here we offer a few reflections from MOCRA.

That September morning I woke up as usual with NPR’s “Morning Edition” on my bedside radio. So it was that I heard the first reports of a plane crashing into one of the Twin Towers. By the time I arrived at the museum the terrible events of the day were continuing to unfold, and I joined colleagues and students in a nearby classroom building, sickeningly spellbound by the ceaseless repetition of the footage of the buildings collapsing.

Andy Warhol's "Silver Clouds" at MOCRA
Andy Warhol's "Silver Clouds" at MOCRA.

I don’t recall that the work we had on display at the time (selections from the MOCRA collection) particularly spoke to the tragedy. But later that fall, we put up a show that did seem to offer a peculiar sort of consolation. MOCRA’s Director, Terrence Dempsey, SJ, gives this recollection:

“In the fall of 2001, MOCRA opened Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds. Our large chapel space was filled with over 60 of Warhol’s pillow-shaped, silver coated mylar balloons with just the right balance of helium and air and stirred about the space by over 25 fans. Some people likened it to being inside an aquarium with schools of fish gently swimming by; others likened it to being inside a lava lamp. At times we would play The Gymnopedies of Erik Satie to serve as a musical score for the Clouds’ improvised choreography.

One woman came into the museum and sat down in the center of the space for about a half hour, with the Clouds gently floating by her and brushing against her. After the half hour, she got up, walked over to me and with tears in her eyes, said, ‘You have no idea how important this exhibition has been to me at this time—thank you,’ and then she left. I don’t know what was going on in her life—whether it had anything to do with 9/11 or if it was some personal matter—but somehow that experience was a healing one for her.”

Something about the Clouds allows them to connect with all sorts of people. Perhaps it’s their immediacy and presence, or their ability to project a sense of personality. They seem liberated and resilient, yet at the same time vulnerable.

A year later, on the first anniversary of 9/11, the Silver Clouds were back for an encore presentation. That day we showed an HBO-produced documentary titled “In Memoriam” throughout the day. The Clouds were corralled into one corner of the nave gallery, restrained from floating for that first anniversary observance. It seemed to be an appropriate occasion for rehearsing and interpreting the events of the tragedy. Words and on-site footage were the order of the day. Still, the Clouds were flying again the next day, mute but speaking truths nonetheless.

A September 9 article in the New York Times describes contention over the role of clergy in September 11 memorial observations. Religion is bound up with September 11 and its aftermath, from controversies over the interpretation of the Koran to questions about whether the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a morally justified response. The clamor over a proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero and an expanded mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, shows that religion and its manifestations remain a divisive issue. Has the concept of “civic religion” run its course? How do we find common ground without sacrificing our specificity of belief and practice?

There are some moderate, nuanced voices in the wilderness. Public radio’s “On Being” has a new program out, “9/11: Who Do We Want To Become / Remembering Forward Ten Years After,” featuring The New Yorker‘s Hendrik Hertzberg, journalist and novelist Pankaj Mishra, and theologian Serene Jones.

In the St. Louis region at least, and I suspect in all quarters, the arts, especially music, are playing a prominent role in the memorial observances. For instance, a number of arts, religious, and civic organizations have come together to present “An Interfaith Memorial in Music commemorating the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001.” The organizers describe it this way:

This event, commemorating the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, will be religious and interfaith in character. It will be a program to inspire and allow reflection, express sorrow and regret, and unify the community in hope for peace. One statement of the message of the event: although we cannot directly bring about world peace, we can do what we can, in our community, together and in public. The program will include:

  • First Responders from the County Police and City and County Fire Departments, Presentation of the colors
  • Senator John Danforth, Invocation
  • Christine Brewer, Soloist, Opera Theatre of St. Louis
  • String Quartet, St. Louis Symphony
  • Religious musical expressions of various faith communities

It seems that this service is in part an outgrowth of interfaith dialogue that took place surrounding a production of the John Adams opera The Death of Klinghoffer at Opera Theatre of St. Louis in Summer 2011.

For those wishing to attend the Interfaith Memorial, it takes place on September 11, 2011, 5:30-6:30 p.m., at the Sheldon Concert Hall, 3648 Washington Blvd., St. Louis 63108. Click here for more information.

— David Brinker, Assistant Director


Recovering the Holy in Contemporary Art, at MOCRA, 1993.
Installation view, "Sanctuaries: Recovering the Holy in Contemporary Art," at MOCRA, 1993.

MOCRA’s inaugural exhibition opened Sunday, February 14, 1993. Sanctuaries: Recovering the Holy in Contemporary Art featured more than 100 works from an wide-ranging roster of artists, including

Seyed Alavi Steven Heilmer Jim Morphesis
Lita Albuquerque Tobi Kahn Daniel Ramirez
Craig Antrim Paul Kos James Rosen
Nick Boskovich Frank LaPeña Susan Schwalb
Frederick Brown Charlotte Lichtblau Thomas Skomski
Michael David Stephen Luecking Kazuaki Tanahashi
Stephen De Staebler Bernard Maisner Michael Tracy
Eleanor Dickinson Ann McCoy Brian Tripp
Donald Grant

MOCRA’s Founding Director, Terrence Dempsey, S.J., noted at the time that

Sanctuaries offers an overview of a movement that gained momentum in the 1980s and has grown in strength in the early 1990s. A generation of artists have begun to renew their interest in the religious and spiritual dimensions of art, and within the last dozen years or so they have achieved recognition in the mainstream art world for the spiritual concerns which form the substance of their work.

Fr. Dempsey had assembled an extensive list of such artists in the course of writing his doctoral dissertation. These artists were generally in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. They tended to be disillusioned with the celebrity mentality of the 1980s and in response were seeking the “spiritual.” Their faith or religious practices were not always particularly orthodox, and in fact many would draw from various beliefs and philosophies.

Fr. Dempsey had concluded from his research that this artistic concern with the religious and spiritual dimensions was pervasive and yet not an organized movement, having no group manifesto. For the artists, this pursuit was risky. One artist, warned that his work would not sell, replied that the ideas were too important to ignore, whether or not the art was salable. Fr. Dempsey reflected,

For some of them, having faith is tough. They have to struggle. These are not commissioned works-they are the work of an artist pursuing personal vision or questions. … These artists have often been met with indifference and sometimes suspicion by religious and cultural institutions. Yet they have pursed this exploration even when it was financially unwise. They have done so because they perceived something was in danger of being lost: a sense of mystery, ritual, tradition-a sense that a major dimension of being human was being ignored.

The title Recovering the Holy in part alludes to the rediscovery by many contemporary artists of the power of art with a spiritual dimension to engage the viewer affectively. Indeed, said Fr. Dempsey, their art is compelling precisely because of the struggle.

Recovering the Holy In Contemporary Art, at MOCRA, 1993.
Installation view, "Sanctuaries: Recovering the Holy In Contemporary Art," at MOCRA, 1993. From left: Steven Heilmer, "Nativity Stone: Mother's Milk"; Don Grant, "Rope and Candle"; Craig Antrim, "Icon Wall."

And so, for this inaugural exhibition of what was believed to be the first museum of its kind in the world, Fr. Dempsey assembled 100 works by 25 contemporary American artists reflecting the country’s religious and ethnic diversity. Artists came from Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist and Native American backgrounds, and their styles ranged from traditional Western figuration to minimalist and geometric abstraction.

Continue reading “Sanctuaries”

The Artist and Sacred Space

Yesterday we looked briefly at how MOCRA came to be. Today we continue the story with some of the surprises that come with renovating an older building, and the encouraging response to a pre-opening conference.

Several months prior to MOCRA’s official opening in February 1993, St. Louis Post-Dispatch cultural news editor Robert W. Duffy reported on the “race to finish” the gallery prior to a November 7, 1992 meeting of the Society for the Arts, Religion and Contemporary Culture (ARC) to be hosted in the new museum.

Asbestos! MOCRA gets a new ceiling.
Asbestos! MOCRA gets a new ceiling.

Construction had begun in the spring of 1992, and with the target of a completion date of early September 1992, everything seemed on track for the November 7 opening conference with plenty of time to install the art. Then, in late August, asbestos was discovered in much of the museum’s ceiling, and all construction stopped until it was removed and a new ceiling installed. To describe the abatement process as messy would be a severe understatement. By the time the project was completed the museum had a new ceiling and new drywall around its whole circumference.

Fr. Dempsey and the installation crew consider a work by Michael David.
Just days before the conference, Fr. Dempsey and the installation crew consider a work by Michael David.

Undaunted, Fr. Dempsey and the small MOCRA staff turned their energies to the ARC conference. The last of the scaffolding was removed on November 4, and the entire inaugural exhibition (which was to be previewed at the conference) had to be installed in two days. On top of that, there was an overlap between the installation completion and the arrival of the artists, speakers, and guests for the conference. Adrenaline and frayed nerves were in evidence—but it happened, and the museum was ready for the conference.

The program, titled The Artist and Sacred Space, featured lectures and reflections from a number of distinguished speakers (titles and institutions are given as at the time of the conference):

Dr. Jane Daggett Dillenberger (Professor of Art History, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA)
Dr. John Renard (Professor of Theological Studies, Saint Louis University, St. Louis, MO)
Rev. Terrence E. Dempsey, S.J. (Founding Director of MOCRA and Assistant Professor of Art History, Saint Louis University, St. Louis, MO)
Doug Adams (Professor of Art History, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA)
David Miller (Watson-Ledden Professor of Religion, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY)
Rev. Maurice B. McNamee, S.J. (Professor Emeritus and Founding Director of Samuel Cupples House, Saint Louis University, St. Louis, MO)

These presentations were followed by a panel of 12 artists participating in MOCRA’s inaugural exhibition:

Seyed Alavi (Oakland, CA) Charlotte Lichtblau (New York, NY)
Lita Albuquerque (Los Angeles, CA) Stephen Luecking (Chicago, IL)
Craig Antrim (Los Angeles, CA) Bernard Maisner (New York, NY)
Frederick J. Brown (New York, NY) James Rosen (Augusta, GA)
Eleanor Dickinson (San Francisco, CA) Thomas Skomski (Chicago, IL)
Tobi Kahn (New York, NY) Daniel Ramirez (Madison, WI)

The artists and the audience engaged in an animated conversation on why many of today’s artists were addressing the religious and spiritual dimensions in their work.

The conference and its discussions reflected the excitement among the participants about the imminent launching of MOCRA. Artist Eleanor Dickinson remarked, “Art of the spirit and the soul is not very saleable. This museum is something we’ve needed for a long time to counter the excessive commercialization of art.” Over 120 people from across the country—St. Louis, New York, Washington, Chicago, Syracuse, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Houston—attended the conference, including about 30 members of ARC.

After the excitement of the conference had subsided, it was now time to attend to the final preparations for MOCRA’s grand opening.

–David Brinker, Assistant Director


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.

Terrence Dempsey, S.J., and Maurice McNamee, S.J., discuss the installation of MOCRA's first exhibition.
Terrence Dempsey, S.J., and Maurice McNamee, S.J. at MOCRA in Nov. 1992, during the installation of the inaugural exhibition.

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

Beginning with a look back

The February 1993 issue of Art News included a notice penned by art historian Peter Selz announcing the opening on February 14, 1993 of “what may well be the first interfaith museum of contemporary religious art…”

It’s been over 15 years now since Saint Louis University’s Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA) opened its doors to the public. The numbers are impressive enough for a small non-profit arts entity: 35 exhibitions, over 160 artists exhibited. But this is a museum rendered unique both by its space and its mission: a former chapel that is now the world’s first interfaith museum of contemporary art that engages religious and spiritual themes. MOCRA is dedicated to furthering the dialogue between contemporary artists and the world’s faith traditions, and to serving as a forum for interfaith understanding.

MOCRA is celebrating this anniversary year with two exhibitions–Pursuit of the Spirit in Fall 2008 and Good Friday in Spring 2009–that draw mainly on the museum’s collection and aim to showcase both the breadth and the depth of the work that has been shown since 1993. Since we hope that this new blog will introduce many readers to MOCRA, we thought that our readers might appreciate a survey of MOCRA’s previous exhibitions. So in addition to posts about current activities at the museum, each week we will feature a previous exhibition, giving a summary of what the exhibition was about, the artist or artists included, any special programs that accompanied the exhibition, and a sampling of images from the show.

This week we will start, as a very sensible nanny once counseled, “at the very beginning.”

  • Tomorrow, we’ll explore in brief how MOCRA came to be.
  • On Thursday, we’ll eavesdrop on a major conference that took place even before the museum opened.
  • Finally, on Friday we’ll look back at MOCRA’s inaugural exhibition, Sanctuaries: Recovering the Holy in Contemporary Art.

–David Brinker, Assistant Director