An essential element of MOCRA’s personality as a museum is the building itself. It began its existence in 1954 as a chapel, part of the Fusz Memorial complex that included dormitories and dining facilities for Jesuits studying philosophy at Saint Louis University.
By 1990, the Jesuits had relocated to a different building nearby, and the University acquired the Fusz Memorial. The dorms and dining hall were quickly repurposed for student housing, but the chapel remained vacant until University President Rev. Lawrence Biondi, S.J., accepted Rev. Terrence Dempsey, S.J.’s proposal to use the space for a museum of contemporary interfaith art. The transformation of Fusz Chapel into MOCRA was soon underway.
Much about the chapel has changed over the years, but for MOCRA’s first fifteen years there has been one constant anchor to the building’s history:
We don’t know exactly when this General Motors Frigidaire was installed in the chapel sacristy. It’s quite likely that is was chugging away for over fifty years without complaint. (Although, we might have neglected to defrost the freezer compartment as frequently as we should have — the frost free models apparently did not show up until 1958).
Recently we gave in to the inexorable press of progress. Last week the venerable GM Frigidaire was defrosted for the last time and its plug pulled (likely the first time that has happened since it was first put into service). Its place has been taken by a new Frigidaire, one that is more energy and space efficient and several decibels quieter — yet rather generic in its lines.
The new Frigidaire crest, though it strives to evoke a retro space-age feel, loses any panache when expressed in plastic.
So we bid a fond farewell to our old Frigidaire as we begin stocking the new one (and enjoying the luxury of frost-free living). It’s another little mile marker as we continue into our sixteenth year at MOCRA. It’s also a prompt to pause and remember all who, like that old refrigerator, have labored reliably and consistently, often underappreciated, over the years.
For all who work to fulfill society’s basic needs, and do so with quiet determination, we say thank you. And to all who live with uncertainty in this patch of economic quicksand, we offer support and hope.
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.
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.
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)
(Professor of Art History, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA)
(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.
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.