Introducing art in churches is difficult, and it’s often contentious. It is important that the projects are collaborative, with a church partner that is really open to an artist, but also able to take an active role in developing what the artist produces. You’d hope that the people who are intimately involved with the building itself would help to steer the project away from anything that works against it. Meanwhile, good artists can draw out interesting elements in the architecture which might be overlooked.
Curating usually reflects a temporary assignment to a specific project, usually an exhibition. Mine is a two-year post to make people aware of Art and Christianity Enquiry (ACE), and encourage them to get in touch for a particular church, or with a general idea. My job is to enable that connection between artists and churches, helping good projects to come about.
ACE was founded in the late-1980s by the late Tom Devonshire Jones, who formed a group of individuals passionate about art and Christianity. Following its first series of seminars in 1991, it became a charitable trust in 1994. We maintain a programme of lectures and events, and set up a biannual conference. In 1995, we began publishing our quarterly newsletter for an international audience, now called Art & Christianity. My post is funded by the Jerusalem Trust and the Headley Trust. We’re based in London, but work nationally.
I’ll be involved in the development of a number of exhibitions, and I’ll be writing up case studies on existing exhibitions. I’ll also support churches and cathedrals by offering guidance on best practice.
There currently exists an ACE guide for commissioning permanent works for churches and cathedrals, but this is about the practical nuts and bolts of temporary installations, and working with living artists: contracts, payments, insurance, legal and administrative stuff. My experience is in a museum context; so I’ll be learning how this works in a church, too. There are challenges working in old buildings which are not set up for showing art with the security that museums have.
I’m developing ideas for exhibitions, although it’s early days. The first is a project inspired by connections between medieval ideas of living matter with the contemporary concern with materiality, or the dynamism of materials, in artistic practice. Matter was seen as quite powerful, kind of alive; so it affected how people interpreted art and objects. Lots of contemporary artists are interested in their materials and their inherent trajectory of change. I’m talking to artists to see who might be interested in exploring that in a new project.
The second is a collaborative project: an artist-residency programme in churches for refugees and resident artists to respond to the theme of residency. I have a connection to Platformer, an organisation that supports refugee artists in all art forms. They have a festival in Newcastle in November, and I hope to draw on their huge network of artists.
I began working for Artangel in 2015, following a longish spell working in temporary exhibitions at the British Museum. Artangel commissions and produces art projects, typically by mid-career artists, in unusual spaces. For instance, in the past year I worked on a group exhibition at Reading Prison, and a film installation in one of London’s earliest cinemas.
I’ve always loved churches; so, when I saw this post advertised, I saw an opportunity to bring some of the expertise I’ve developed to projects in these wonderful buildings.
I grew up in Cambridge, which is a great place to be a child. My friends and I would set out on our bikes to the many green spaces, or head down to the river. I was lucky that our house was full of books, including art books, and we visited museums and historic buildings regularly as a family. Trips out often included visits to churches. I was resistant as a younger child and teenager, but began to appreciate them more when I started studying for my art-history A level. My interest in art and architecture really took off then.
The two shaping early experiences were seeing Hamlet with my dad in Cambridge, and visiting the Musée d’Orsay, both when I was about 11 years old. I’d always liked looking at pictures in books, but these encounters were about art as a collective experience. I think the capacity of art to simultaneously engage the personal and the collective is still important to me. It’s one of the things that interests me about churches.
The relationship between the artist and the Church is fascinating, and it continues with some exciting new works in sacred spaces. For me, art’s always an end in itself, and I think the Church has historically supported, and continues to support, creativity in ways which are open to individual creativity and interpretation. If supporting and nurturing great art is your focus, education, new audiences, and so on will follow.
Things that people share together, like listening to the same music at a concert, creates a community. For me, living in London, this is quite important, because you can feel very isolated. I’m wary of using the word “ritual”, but I’m also interested in rituals and how anthropologists think of rituals, or entering a space where you are out of time. It’s powerful, transformative. Theatre is a classic example, because you enter another world. The installation art that Artangel does is very much about creating an environment in which people experience something transformative.
The other side of the coin is the sense that some kind of installation art can be overly a spectacle. Criticism can be launched against certain kinds of immersive art experiences that they are ultimately shallow, the “experience economy” — spectacular, but ultimately a bit empty. That can be true, and it’s important to think about. You need to be grounded in something that is meaningful.
Cathedrals are quite used to having a programme for artists and getting funding, but churches don’t tend to do that so much, unless perhaps for a particular festival. Funding’s a big issue. Some churches, though, have a very strong connection with the arts, and it’s organic: people pull together to make something happen.
You should work with what’s already there rather than create something new. It’s certainly difficult in such loaded spaces, full of history — so different from the white cube that contemporary artists are used to working in.
Any artist can enjoy this collaboration, and there can be an interesting pairing of the people who care for the church, and who have a deep theological understanding, with an artist who comes in with a different take; so I wouldn’t want to be confined to working with Christian artists.
Like many young women, I loved Frida Kahlo for her use of art to define and assert her identity. Her use of a traditional, culturally embedded visual language, Mexican votive painting, to say something new, still interests me very much. Matisse and Cy Twombly delight me, while I look to Louise Bourgeois and Joseph Beuys for something different, which is their negotiation of space and metaphor, very pertinent to the kind of site-specific projects I’m often working on.
I like waking up at night and hearing the sound of trains rumbling past.
My Dad read a lot of poetry to me as a child, and I find it a great joy and solace. Elizabeth Bishop, Don Paterson, Derek Walcott, and Seamus Heaney are favourites. I find that jazz is good to listen to when I’m working: it seems to help me think. I like Charlie Mingus and Miles Davis; and my all-time favourite is Joni Mitchell.
There’s so much to be angry about politically. There seems to be plenty of thoughtful, sustained, productive anger channelled through protest and direct action at the moment, which is a good thing.
The way young people choose to vote gives me hope. They seem to be becoming more politically engaged. It gives me hope that our immediate future is not our long-term future.
I’ve always loved travelling; I’m exhilarated by new places and new ideas. But, increasingly, I love being at home. London has endless new experiences to offer.
My parents have been the greatest influence on my life. My mum is a therapist, and my dad is an environmentalist. They’re both endlessly interested in the world, and have made such positive contributions to it.
If I was to find myself locked in a church for a few hours with someone, I’d choose Louise Bourgeois. She was an incredible artist, and whenever I see her work I’m so struck by how complex and layered it is. I’d love to have the opportunity to talk to her about it. She did produce some work for a church, and I imagine she’d be an incredibly sensitive artist to work with in that kind of space.
Laura Purseglove was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. acetrust.org