Six years ago, in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, a Gen X church plant merged with a 110-year-old congregation to form a new “missional community devoted to the life-changing reality of Jesus Christ.” Since then we have been in a constant process of discerning how our church is to be the Church for others. Paul Tillich defines the Church as “a group of people who express a new reality by which they have been grasped.” Our Gen X forerunner had incorporated the arts in worship since its inception, but a sense of our new locale and “missional” identity led us to commission the artists in our midst as ministers in the creative expression of that reality and to recognize the arts as a point of connection between our Christian community and a neighborhood that values creative expression. The arts wake us up to the existence and state of our souls. Unfortunately, in our area of the world, most people don’t think of the Church as a place to go for that experience. We want to be part of setting that right.
The gallery model outlined below is by no means “the” gallery model for churches. It is not even the only model we use. We cobbled together this particular multi-media mongrel of a model based on our unique circumstances, experiences, gifts, callings, pet peeves, personal obsessions, and seminary assignments. We continue to experiment with it and adapt it to our context, as I hope you will if seems in line with where the Spirit is leading your community. I’m specific here about how we do things not to dictate a particular methodology, but to ground the conversation in the situational rather than the hypothetical. I present these considerations for hosting a gallery in a church not to issue how-to instructions, but to inspire more logistical ingenuity and to raise the kind of questions that require concrete answers before the idea of having art in the church can become a reality.
Think outside the canvas.Your gallery need not consist solely of two-dimensional visual art hanging on walls. What outlets and venues do the songwriters and woodworkers, the videographers, performers and poets in and around your church have for their spiritual imaginations? Many times our gallery space consists of a back wall in the sanctuary decked out in paintings, prints or photographs, but we’ve also dabbled in garden shows, open mics, and offsite guerrilla art projects. Twice a year we plan large, juried group shows on themes selected to complement the focus of the church in that season and to create dedicated space for reflection and meditation for ourselves and our neighbors. By soliciting artistic work in various media, we expand the number and form of visions and voices taking part in the conversation. Adding sound, movement and reading stations seems to enhance interaction with the work and contribute to the sense of being immersed in the theme. It also attracts people who don’t think they “get” visual art, but enjoy music, film, and/or the written word. Overall, we have found that organizing semi-regular, open-call, temporary, multi-media, themed galleries has been a low-budget, win-win way to support artists of various stripes and to enjoy quality work that contributes to our worship environment and corporate discipleship even though we lack the funds to commission or purchase major pieces.
Invite wildly. We publish a call for submissions of writing, music, visual art, and video not only in the church bulletin, but on local arts council websites, sundry Facebook pages, e-newsletters, and bulletin boards at arts centers, community colleges, and artist supply stores. As you continue to develop relationships with artists and organizations you’ll find it easier and more fruitful to spread the word through these more organic networks.
Money matters. Not charging a submission fee alleviates some concerns of legitimacy. Offering modest prizes for best of show in a couple of categories provides incentive and generally demonstrates our hearts are in the right place.
It’s not cheating to have ringers involved. We make sure a few of our artists love the theme and are raring to get to work on something new or raid their portfolios for something relevant. We run our own pieces through the adjudication and curation process with all the other electronic entries received so we can select submissions that work and play well together, but we’re emboldened to start talking up the gallery earlier in the process knowing the show will go on even when the bulk of submissions inevitably come in the days and hours before the deadline.
Add value with amateur professionalism. We design professionally printed promotional postcards using electronic images from the submission process and distribute them liberally to participating artists, the congregation, libraries, coffee shops, and the like. We put together a catalog with prices, artist bios, statements, and contact info to facilitate deeper engagement with the work and to facilitate sales without having to handle any money. Opening night we host an artist reception and the gallery is always on the monthly neighborhood Arts Walk. To further promote our artists, a local mailing campaign would be ideal, but that’s consistently beyond our budget, so we rely more on free publicity like community calendars, social networking and our Arts Walk affiliation.
Incorporate the gallery into church life. If the theme, tone and fact of the gallery tie in with other things going on in worship, such as church season or sermon series, install it as part of your sacred space. Otherwise, consider giving it its own space in one of the other rooms of the church – preferably one with good access, space, light, and walls. Most social halls fit that bill. Assuming your church is not open 24/7, planning staffed open times that coincide with neighborhood and church events can make it easier for people in the church and community to drop in. Inviting contributing artists to staff the gallery along with interested members of the church community ensures you have experts on both the art and the facility on hand welcoming people on multiple levels. Consider how you can play docent for your congregation, supplying some interpretive framework for each exhibit in the bulletin or newsletter or from the pulpit.
Visual presentation poses a challenge for writers. Writing can be projected, alone or interspersed with video, but we prefer it when writers come up with something for the wall. It promotes collaboration, encourages creativity, and keeps the gallery more visibly intact for all the activities of the church. Simply matted print-outs paired with smaller pieces of visual art encourage viewers to pause and consider both more closely in relation to one another than if they were surrounded by large canvases. Alternatively, one section of a large wall may be devoted to writing, forming its own sub-gallery with less visual competition.
Music also has to be played by ear. A set of two to four musical submissions may function as a soundtrack for the gallery if they can hold their own when people pause to listen, but not draw so much attention that people can’t focus on other pieces in the room. Usually we have one or two pieces that are simply too interesting to be going on simultaneously with other work. In this case I put together a mood and theme based soundtrack for the gallery as a whole, and the original songs get their own listening stations: music stands with the lyrics and/or artist statements attached and a couple of one-button mp3 players with headphones.
As I said, this list of practical considerations for setting up a gallery in a church is hardly exhaustive or one-size-fits-all. What is your experience? Have you found a gallery to be a valuable addition to your church? What has been the most challenging or gratifying aspect of trying to establish a gallery space? What plans, questions, or tips do you have to share?
 Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), 212-213.
Image used with permission of the author.