From one sacred domain to another? Religious buildings as spaces for the arts

When studying the conflict that could arise when religious groups proposed zoning changes, I encountered a number of creative efforts by religious congregations to generate income with their building. Here is another use: creating spaces for the arts.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

“The problem is that, particularly in New York, congregations are housed in large, historic properties, with large amounts of deferred maintenance,” nonprofit leader Kate Toth told Religion News Service. “At the same time, membership in most religious communities is declining. Those are two difficult trends to square.”

But Toth has a solution to offer. Enter Venuely, a space sharing website launched this month. The interfaith platform borrows from other space sharing models like Airbnb to match houses of faith in New York Citythat have surplus space to short-term renters in search of a deal. It’s also founded by two nonprofit organizations (Bricks and Mortals and Partners for Sacred Places) that aim to develop capacity for faith communities, not line their pockets…

“We’re turning (the space) into an outreach mission for theater community, and because we’re nonprofit we can offer the space at a very good price,” said Hutt. “Churches have a lot of unused capacity. It makes a lot of sense for that space to be available for other organizations, especially when you have a mission match like we do with the theater community.”…

Looking ahead, St. Luke’s plans to use Venuely to rent its stained-glass adorned sanctuary as well as a multipurpose room to members of the arts community. For Strasser, opening the space up for nonprofit arts groups is an extension of what the church does on Sundays.

Many religious buildings are constructed with the idea that their spaces are sacred or can become sacred or are imbued with the sacred. They are physical buildings constructed by people yet when people of faith come together and experience fellowship and worship, the building is something different. My colleague and I wrote a book about this.

What then happens when the building is used for a different purpose? The religious congregation itself may do this; not all of their activity may be sacred in the same way or draw on sacred themes. There may be more profane activities in the buildings as well such as cleaning or people engaging in more mundane activities inside.

For some religious traditions and congregations, the arts is a relatively close domain to religious sacred space. Through music, art, theater, and other forms, the arts can invite creators and audiences to consider big questions and reflect on life. This all can be enhanced by a physical space that works with the creation. (Other religious traditions might be less open to this. Evangelicals, for one, are not known as a group that encourages the arts and may not want to share spaces.)

It will be interesting to see how Venuely does and how congregations, creators, and audiences respond to the possible venues.

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