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.

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“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.

New arts centers in cities, like a Lucas museum, don’t bring in all the benefits suggested

Chicago may have landed the George Lucas museum but a new book suggests such arts centers don’t lead to all the benefits suggested:

“In terms of the study, our major hypothesis was that these major facility projects—new museums, new expansions—would have these positive net benefits to the surrounding urban area,” says Woronkowicz, a professor in the school of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University Bloomington. “And that they would have potentially have less positive or even negative effects on surrounding organizations.”

Through case studies, surveys, and construction-cost analyses, the Cultural Policy Center report found that the museum building boom didn’t bring the net benefit to communities predicted by the so-called Bilbao Effect. While poverty rates fell and property values generally rose in communities where new cultural centers or expansions were built—good news!—poorer residents also suffered displacement in those areas. Beyond the standard gentrification effect, the researchers’ evidence shows, supply may have outstripped demand over the course of the U.S. arts center building boom—leaving some cities with the responsibility to maintain or even pay for cultural centers that they don’t entirely need…

“The types of leaders who provide the passion and drive to build structures of this sort [major performing arts centers] are successful men and women who are accustomed to relying on their own experience and judgment,” the book reads. “They depend on what they might describe as ‘inside knowledge’—knowledge gleaned from their own experiences, and those of their collaborators’ experiences.

“What tends to be absent in their thinking, however … is ‘outside knowledge,’ such as what statisticians refer to as ‘the base rate’ regarding the distribution of projects that did not go as planned,” the book continues.

Other traps that civic leaders fall into include hindsight bias and consistency bias: People’s memories about decision-making for projects tends to change over time, and people tend to revise their memory of the past to fit present circumstances.

There are similar findings regarding sports stadiums: they tend to benefit the teams more than the city.

It sounds like arts centers can be explained by growth machine theories. Cities want to promote growth and cultural relevance so bringing in a building dedicated to the arts looks good. It helps a city be more cosmopolitan, connect to famous names, promote tourism, have a new starchitect-designed building (if the city goes that route) or revive an existing structure, and even create jobs. A mayor can look back and say, “I helped bring that institution to the city and further confirm our world-class status.” Yet, such buildings may not do much for the entire city. Who pays for the land, new building, and maintenance? What if the new structure doesn’t draw as many people as planned? What if the institution moves away later? How much tax money does the arts center contribute to the city and where does that money go?