Commissioning: Revitalising the Church through Art?

In an earlier post, I drew our attention to the recent increase in church commissioning of the arts within the UK.  This renaissance of sorts led a British journalist to see the arts as a potential means of church revitalisation in a society where church attendance and Christian awareness has been on the decline.  Not only has the British media picked up on the trend but organisations are also starting to track and assess what’s happening, most specifically ACE and their Ecclesiart project and the recent publication of their book, Contemporary Art in British Churches.

The book includes reflections from artists who have been commissioned by churches and cathedrals, specifically considering how the process of working for a sacred space differs from their usual creative process.  Artists commented on the sense of responsibility to the community and to the space, the frustration and joy of having to please a committee or a congregation with their work, as well as how they used this commission to express their own view of God or the world.  While some analysis of the reflections by the editors would have been helpful, reading through the responses was nonetheless fascinating.

A majority of the work included in the book and noted by Ecclesiart is art commissioned specifically by cathedrals – Chichester, Salisbury, Canterbury, Portsmouth, Winchester, Gloucester, Liverpool, and Durham – just to name a few.  While it is encouraging to see the Church supporting the arts in such a way that draws the most well-known artists to accept its commissions, are we really entering into a renaissance of church arts?

While cathedrals are primarily sacred spaces, they are also destinations for the modern-day pilgrim, the tourist.  While I do not want to suggest that the primary motivation for commissioning art is to get more tourists through the doors of the church, I fear that this is the greatest outcome.  The importance of the building historically, the beauty of its architecture, the sense of awe and wonder it creates — all these things (and more) draw the traveler into the space.  A work of art by a well-known artist makes the church all the more intriguing.  And certainly, while they are there, they might have a sense of something Other than themselves.  The problem is that they then leave the space for the next thing they want to see and experience.  Perhaps the Other captures their imagination but I fear is quickly lost as other visual stimuli crowd in to take its place.

This begs a question – Is this really a revitalisation of the church, especially when one understands the church to be the people of God?  A revitalisation of the church is not filling its building with more admirers of its art.  It’s a transformation of people into the body of Christ.  By limiting art to this definition of revitalisation, do we not also end up reducing how art can contribute to the transformation process?  Yes, art brings people into a building.  But it has the potential to be so much more in the life of a church.

Are you a part of a church that commissions artists to create work for the church?  If so, how has the art impacted the life of your church?



  • Sara Schumacher is the editor and a regular contributor to Transpositions. Prior to life in academia, Sara worked as a graphic designer in Oxford where her experience as an artist and a Christian raised many questions, ultimately leading her to pursue further study in theology and the arts at St Andrews. Sara holds a B.S. in Graphic Design and an A.A. in Cross-Cultural Services from John Brown University and has recently completed an M.Litt in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Andrews. She is currently working on a PhD at St Andrews, focusing on church patronage of the arts.

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  1. says: Steve S.

    I’m glad you raise the question about the eventual outcome, morally and spiritually, of this trend. I, too, am glad to see churches and artists working together, but one hopes for a better outcome than merely turning the church into a museum. (By the way, have you read Philip Larkin’s poem “Church Going?”) When making art for sacred space, the artist personally needs to reflect on how his or her art is likely to be used, even though the artist often cannot control or even foresee misuse. The commissioners of the art have a similar but limited responsibility in this area, and it’s hard to know the motives of any person who commissions a work of art. Public works of art often inspire unpredictable reactions from the public.

    Having done some very minor commission work for a church I used to attend (I’ve since moved to another city), I’m not sure the work had any direct impact on the worshipers at all, even though the piece (a cross) was fully visible during all the regular services. I hope it turned their attention to Christ, but their use of that object was completely outside my control once I finished and installed the piece. In making it, I knew I was operating on several constraints: (a) it had to be a certain size and scale to fit into the provided space, (b) it had to have a color and texture that would harmonize with its surroundings, and (c) it could not contain any distracting features. Perhaps I was setting the bar too low if I was merely trying not to create a distraction from worship, rather than trying to create an aid to worship. But it’s an aspect of ecclesiastic art that’s too frequently overlooked.

    I’ve also dabbled in church music, which I found to be far more demanding (because more noticeable) than visual art in a church. A work of verbal art has to remain within the bounds of a certain orthodoxy, or it fosters debate rather than worship in unity. One must also be on guard against putting on such a complex or virtuosic show such that the congregation becomes a mass of purely passive observers rather than participants. The church must be composed of worshipers, not connoisseurs.

    -Steve S.

    1. says: Sara

      Thanks, Steve, for sharing your experience and for letting me know about Larkin’s poem! I hadn’t come across it before. I’m interested to know a bit more about your experience of being commissioned by the church — what do you think were their motivations that led them to approach you? If you could do it again, what would you do differently so that the work became an aid to worship?

  2. says: cardiphonia

    Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis houses an incredibly lively conversation of arts and artists known as The Harrison Center for the Arts, many who contribute to the beauty of the church.

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