Museum of Contemporary Religious Art

September 10, 2011

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

April 9, 2009

Good Friday on Good Friday

It seems that every time I post I’m explaining the infrequency of our updates. But I’m pleased to say it’s just because we have been so busy.

The “Art and the Religious Imagination” conference was well received. Pamela Ambrose and Gerald Bolas gave distinct but complementary reflections on the way art museums can present the religious art in their collections in innovative ways. Charles Bouchard used the works in Good Friday to examine theological thought on the question of human suffering. (Sadly, Kevin Burke had to cancel due to a family emergency, but we anticipate inviting him back next spring.) A dynamic question-and-answer session followed, with some excellent insights from audience members.

A few pictures are included below, and we’ll try to have summaries of the talks available soon.

In the meantime, we are preparing for Good Friday on Good Friday. MOCRA’s Easter weekend hours are:

Friday, April 10, 2009 (Good Friday) 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Saturday, April 11, 2009 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m
Sunday, April 12, 2009 (Easter) closed

To our readers observing Pesach or Holy Week, we wish you a season of peace and holiness.

March 17, 2009

We’ve been busy: Part 2

In addition to preparing our “Reflecting on Good Friday” booklet, we’ve been assembling a conference, to be held on March 29, 2009. Titled “Art and the Religious Imagination,” it will feature a panel of distinguished museum directors and theologians discussing the roles that secular and religious art museums can play in the presentation of art with spiritual and religious content. Panelists will also explore how spiritual and religious art has the potential to invite viewers into a deeper interior journey.

You can find a list of the panelists and the titles of their talks on the MOCRA website.

I’m hopeful that some of the concerns I mentioned in my previous post about the booklet will be considered during the discussion. For instance,  how does an institution produce reflection materials that have a chance of speaking to a broad range of visitors? Can such materials cross the borders between different faiths, or even different spiritualities within one tradition? How are specificity and universality balanced in such materials?

If you will be in St. Louis on March 29, please join us from 1:30 to 4:00 p.m. and add your voice to the proceedings.

–David Brinker, Assistant Director

We’ve been busy: Part 1

It’s been another busy stretch at MOCRA. The response to Good Friday has been tremendously positive, with a higher-than-usual number of groups scheduling visits. We’ve also been busy with two projects:

MOCRA's "Good Friday" booklet

MOCRA's "Good Friday" booklet

The first, supported by a grant from the VOICES project at Saint Louis University (funded by the Lilly Endowment), is a booklet of reflections on the artwork in Good Friday for use by visitors who wish to approach the exhibition in an attitude of meditation or prayer. The booklet takes a different approach from our wall texts/didactics. While those provide relatively “neutral” information about the iconography of the work or the artist’s expressed intent, the booklet explicitly puts the works in a (Christian) faith context. You can see a sample page on the MOCRA website.

This is something we’ve been interested in trying for a while now — bridging art appreciation with theological reflection and catechesis (religious education) — and this exhibition presented an excellent opportunity to experiment. So far feedback has been encouraging.

The challenge ahead will be to develop similar resources for future exhibitions (which may not have such clearly religious themes) and for visitors of other faith traditions. Also, we will be exploring what sorts of activities are “appropriate” in a museum setting–either sponsored by the institution, or simply permitted?

We’d welcome feedback from our blog readers. If you would like a copy of the booklet, send us a message with your snail mail address and we’ll send one your way.

[contact-form]

–David Brinker, Assistant Director

December 5, 2008

Sanctuaries

Filed under: Exhibitions, MOCRA mission, Sanctuaries — Tags: , , , , , , — mocraslu @ 1:33 pm
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.

(more…)

December 4, 2008

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

December 3, 2008

Genesis

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

December 2, 2008

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

October 30, 2008

Hold that thought

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — mocraslu @ 8:16 pm

This is the soon-to-be home of a blog for Saint Louis University’s Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (MOCRA).

MOCRA is the world’s first museum of interfaith contemporary art. Officially opened in 1993, MOCRA is dedicated to the ongoing dialogue between contemporary artists and the world’s faith traditions, and to serving as a forum for interfaith understanding. Located in a spacious chapel that was used for over 35 years by Jesuits studying philosophy at Saint Louis University, MOCRA offers a unique, meditative setting for the display of its permanent collection and changing exhibitions. MOCRA’s exhibitions demonstrate the range of contemporary religious and spiritual artistic expression, presenting the work of artists of regional, national and international stature. Exhibitions are complemented by lectures, symposia, performances, and other public presentations.

MOCRA’s current exhibition, Pursuit of the Spirit, is the first of two exhibitions celebrating MOCRA’s fifteenth anniversary. We hope that this blog will be a means to

  • review what we’ve been up to for the past decade-and-a-half
  • survey and discuss the present conversation between art and religion
  • spark inquiry that leads to future developments in the dialogue

Please check back with us in the near future. In the meantime, please visit MOCRA’s website, and consider signing up for our e-newsletter.

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