Mormon Art in New York

Glen Nelson is a ghostwriter of twenty books, with three New York Times best sellers to his credit. He founded Mormon Artists Group in 1999 and remains its director. MAG has created 30 projects with 90 LDS artists. As a librettist, he has written three operas, five song cycles, two cantatas, and has published poetry and essays and collaborated with artists on many projects. He and his wife have published a book on their art collection, The Glen & Marcia Nelson Collection of Mormon Art. Nelson arrived in New York City 30 years ago, the year his driver’s license expired, which he has not renewed.

It started out as a dare, almost. Richard Bushman asked me what I would do if I won the lottery. Those weren’t his exact words, but he was curious to know what a seven-figure windfall might mean for Mormon Studies. He challenged me to identify the big ideas that could transform the ways Mormons think of themselves, interact with the public, and connect with each other.

For me, the solution was a single word: art.

Mormon Arts are in a strange place these days. On the one hand, there are Mormon artists of great accomplishment everywhere (the 10 Mormon artists in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art is just one example), but on the other hand, few LDS members know anything about our own art, or they think of Mormon art in terms of propaganda and kitsch.

It’s kind of bizarre that we are clueless about our best artists, if you think about it. Imagine walking on campus at Howard University and asking an African-American student if he has ever heard of Langston Hughes or Duke Ellington, Maya Angelou or August Wilson. It is nearly inconceivable that the answer would be no. Or chatting with a Bryn Mawr student about Toni Morrison, Flannery O’Connor, Helen Frankenthaler, Joni Mitchell. Would she have heard of them? C’mon.

For whatever reason—and there are reasons—we simply don’t know our own arts.

A quick definition of terms: for me, I want to be encyclopedic and inclusive. I’m interested in all arts, high and low. But most specifically, to the question of what “Mormon” means, this is what I’ve been saying: if you self-identify as Mormon and you’re making art, the art you’re making is Mormon Art.

So Richard and I have been working for the past 18 months and have created a new, nonprofit arts organization called the Mormon Arts Center, for which we are co-executive directors. It is based where we live in New York City, and its goals are these three: to present exhibitions and performances of Mormon arts in New York; to conduct and encourage scholarship and publishing regarding the totality of our artist output, 1830 to the present, worldwide; and to gather an archive for study of our music, visual art, design, architecture, literature, film…all of it.

A curious thing has happened as we’ve begun talking to people about our plans: checkbooks have opened wide. Maybe Richard wasn’t so far off with his lottery-like premise. And people of influence have rallied to become colleagues, advisors, and board/committee members. To me, it feels like there’s something in the air. The time has come.

Richard Bushman is fond of saying a couple of things that really connect with me. One is that Mormon Arts is now where Mormon History was 50 years ago; it is the new frontier. And second, scholarship and advocacy are key components of art. There is no Jackson Pollock without Clement Greenberg. We simply have to do a better job of exploring and explaining our artists. For me, the individual components of Mormon culture are in place, but they are like islands needing some serious bridge-building.

The first event of the Center will be a three-day arts festival at Riverside Church in New York City, June 29-July 1. As luck would have it, 2017 is the 50th anniversary of President Kimball’s aspirational Gospel Vision of the Arts speech in which he prodded BYU professors to imagine the creation of a generation of Mormon Shakespeares, Wagners, and Goethes. We’ll use the anniversary as a loose theme to ask where we are now.

The Festival will have a full-day symposium, a series of concerts and presentations, and a large art exhibition of works completed in the last three years. Four publications will be the result of the Festival. For whatever reason—timing or goodwill or something else—everyone we’ve invited to participate has agreed. It’s something like a Who’s Who.

I was speaking recently with a Church authority, and I posited that the Visitor’s Center model is broken. At least where I live, people on the street simply aren’t going to walk into a Church visitor’s center…but they would go to an art exhibition, a concert, a lecture series if it were done at professional standards, sans preaching.

So I wonder where this might lead. A permanent home in NYC? Maybe a place with rotating exhibitions, residency, publishing programs, concert series, ongoing scholarship? Well, actually, some of those things are already in the works. Stay tuned.

Information about the Center and the Festival this June can be found on the website, mormonartscenter.org. We announced the Festival last week. I would be really curious to get your feedback on this venture. It seems to me that the good readers of BCC are the perfect audience to chime in on what is possible.

Comments

  1. Michelle says:

    I love it. When you mentioned “permanent home,” I thought of Doris Duke’s Shangri La–the beautiful home and collection of Islamic art in Honolulu. They host artists-in-residence, concerts, lectures, dinners, and other special events–it’s really wonderful. Maybe something like this could be done with Mormon arts, on a smaller scale?

  2. .

    Of course, I’m on your side, Glen. If we can start it in New York, we can bring it to the West Coast and outward from Mormon population centers in the mountains. Thank you for being a doer. We have a lot more shoulders than doers, alas. We should all do a little bit more.

  3. When I worked at the BYU Museum of Art, I was awestruck by the diversity and depth of Mormon art. I try to share it as part of my EQ lessons whenever I can. Keep up the good work. I’ll put this on my calendar.

  4. Kim S Colton says:

    Glen, I am very proud of your work. I have followed you for a long time. Your insight that “the Visitor’s Center Model is broken” rings true, and so does your hope that art will transform the way we think of ourselves, connect with each other, and interact with our publics. I am encouraged to hear that checkbooks have been opened and to see influential people on your boards and committees. Congratulations! The view from here in the Promised Valley is that we especially need greater exposure to a broader range of Mormon art and artists–both historical and contemporary.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Very exciting. And I loved your visitor’s center insight.

  6. charlene says:

    When the Museum of Church History and Art first opened in SLC, I was thrilled with the variety and quality of the exhibits. Even when we’re being preachy, the work can be top notch. Thank you for providing more exposure and encouragement.

  7. Jason K. says:

    I cheer this development, and the inaugural event looks amazing. The visitor’s center observation seems spot-on. I think that Kushner nailed that one many years ago.

  8. ” …and to gather an archive for study of our music, visual art, design, architecture, literature, film…all of it.”

    All of what? And plz define “our”? Do you include literature by homosexuals who, in anguish, have exploded out the Church? (Is Angels In America Mormon art even though it was not written by a Mormon?) Do you include art – esp. literature – by writers who love the Church but consider its truth claims ridiculous, and whose work negotiates a journey away from literalism? Is Brian Evenson a Mormon artist, or an artist who at one time was Mormon? Is Altmann’s Tongue Mormon art? Is The Giant Joshua Mormon Art?

    You’ll have a difficult time with definitions apart from a variety of cheer-leading if you want to keep those wallets open – but I applaud your efforts. There is wonderful talent in the Church and your proposal is intriguing.

  9. Glen Nelson says:

    Hello everybody. Thanks for your kind words. As you can imagine, the Mormon Arts Center has spent a lot of time fielding questions about definitions of art. Ultimately, we have rested upon the notion of full inclusion. From a scholarship point of view, yes, plays about Mormons are worth exploring as well as plays by Mormons. Of course they are. When you know how Kushner’s initial idea for Angels in America came from an LDS actor-colleague and her gift of a Book of Mormon to him, for example, excluding the two plays from study entirely makes even less sense. I attended a presentation that Richard Bushman gave last month at the Church History Department at which he used Angels in America as an example of the way that pop culture and the Church itself have depicted the angel Moroni over time. I’m not assigning values to things. As cold as it sounds, I see everything as data. My mantra is collect the data; analyze the data. We can’t tell the full story of Mormon Arts without seeing the whole picture.

    I had a fascinating discussion with a composer recently. He is gay, left the Church years ago, but still loves it deeply. He tells people that he is Mormon, although it has been a long time since he has participated in an LDS congregation. He just finished writing an opera. Its subject is the Book of Mormon. Is he a Mormon artist? Is the opera a Mormon opera? I am hard-pressed to respond negatively.

    I’m fully aware that there will be a period of adjustment in all this. And if you look at the reception that “American Art” or “Jewish Art” received 50 years ago–both were deemed illogical and meaningless when Hal Rosenberg started speaking about them as categories worthy of study and inquiry–it’s clear that in some ways the labels aren’t helpful. But I would argue that identity is shaped in part by the artifacts of culture, and an ignorance of LDS art has limiting and negative effects on members of the Mormon global community. I would prefer to err on the side of the wide tent.

  10. MDearest says:

    I would totally go to this if I was free to travel to NYC that weekend. Sadly, I’m not. I may not be much of an artist, but I’m a pretty good museum-goer, art book collector, and symposia attender. I would find it exciting to attend.

    Just to satisfy my curiosity, who are the 10 Mormon artists in the MoMA’s permanent collection?

  11. Mary Lythgoe Bradfford says:

    This is wonderful news–Wish I could help!

  12. Eleven lousy comments on this piece, while the one directly prior, “Aphorisms on Pornography” has 146 and counting. Hmmm….
    Telling, interesting and (admittedly tangentially) suggestive, in that, if there is anywhere on earth where we’re going to finally “unpack” the (hilariously art-averse) Mormon male’s legendary susceptibility to pornography, it’s going to be within the under-appreciated arts of Mormondom.
    At some point consider curating an interrogation of Mormon porn. My guess: SRO for at least 6 months. NYT Arts Sunday cover story.
    Another admittedly tangential point: If the addict were able to get his dopamine sex hit from Samson & Delilah or Salome, he wouldn’t need porn.
    Opera, anyone?