Mormon art hits the big time, seeks permanent slice of the Big Apple

In 1967, LDS apostle Spencer W. Kimball bemoaned the fact that there were no Mormon Michelangelos, Shakespeares or Rembrandts to express their faith in marble, writ and oil.

"The full story of Mormonism has never yet been written nor painted nor sculpted nor spoken," the scratchy-voiced Kimball said in a plea he later would repeat as church president. "It remains for inspired hearts and talented fingers yet to reveal themselves."

Some 50 years later, Kimball's words inspired a tiny band of LDS artists and writers to launch an audacious effort — to establish a center for Mormon arts in the Big Apple where novelists, musicians, painters and poets could showcase their work.

"Mormon arts (visual arts, drama, film, music, dance, fiction, poetry) are resources to be cultivated for the good of our common enterprise," wrote LDS historian Richard Bushman, emeritus professor at Columbia University, one of the group's co-founders. "By situating Mormon arts in the contexts of other thought systems and histories, the center would be a bridge to Mormonism for people of diverse outlooks. No better place could be found for such a project than New York City, the art capital of the world."

Bushman, author of an award-winning biography of Mormon founder Joseph Smith, reached out to Glen Nelson, a New York artist and Latter-day Saint who has been sponsoring faith-filled art for decades.

"We want to foster conversation among artists and academics, to sponsor scholarships, to produce an encyclopedia of Mormon arts, a catalog component," Bushman said this week. "We are investigating Mormon art, not just observing and appreciating."

But finding a permanent home in Manhattan would require an astronomical amount of money and ongoing financial support, so the two opted to start by hosting a multiday symposium.

They assembled a team of organizers and formed a collaboration with Laura Hurtado, global acquisitions art curator at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City.

On Thursday, the Mormon Arts Center Festival opened in a small chapel and hall associated with the famed Riverside Church in Manhattan's Upper West Side. There were speeches, discussion groups and concerts — all beside a gallery of 23 works, mostly from the faith's permanent collection in Utah.

Although the event was not sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Hurtado curated the exhibition, "Immediate Present," on church time.

It examines Mormon art today, Hurtado said in her opening remarks, through a "broad range of works, from explicitly religious paintings to the varied artistic practices of those who self-identify as Mormon to works that shed light on Latter-day Saint themes."

Not surprisingly, the collection included devotional art of Jesus and some "uniquely LDS subject matter," she said, as well as pieces that explore "identity, particularly women's place within a larger dialogue."

Hurtado was particularly delighted to introduce the crowd to the work of Jorge Cocco Santangelo, a Mormon from Argentina. He dubbed his style "sacrocubism," a term he coined that combines post-cubist forms with religious subject matter.

The Utah-based faith commissioned Santangelo to create 16 paintings on the life of Christ.

The series, acquired in 2016, is "being considered" for the New Testament Sunday school manuals next year, Hurtado said, "shifting finally away from [Seventh-day Adventist painter] Harry Anderson."

The sold-out gathering attracted hundreds of attendees from near and far, including Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the faith's governing First Presidency, who attended with his wife, Harriet Uchtdorf, who is on the arts organization's advisory board, and their daughter, Antje.

In his keynote address, LDS author Terryl Givens called the festival "a seminal event in Mormonism's coming of age artistically."

The conference has been "a pretty amazing gathering — artists, scholars, patrons and fans," Kristine Haglund, former editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, wrote in an email. It was "densely thoughtful ... and wide-ranging, from Michael Hicks' manifesto about the second coming of Mormon music to Jared Hickman's discussion of Joseph Smith's genius for sacralizing everything, to Glen Nelson's compelling and copiously researched portrait of a once famous, but now nearly forgotten, Mormon artist from the early 20th century."

David Checketts, investment banker and former CEO of Madison Square Garden, signed on to raise money,

Gordon Smith, one of the church's area authorities, asked the financier to get involved, said Checketts, who described himself as "a passionate supporter of the arts." He readily agreed.

Organizers paid the airfare and housing for scores of artists, scholars and musicians as well as rent for the venue.

It was not tough to find donors, said Checketts, the founder and original owner of the Real Salt Lake soccer team. "Almost everyone thought it was a good idea."

In the end, he mustered more than double what was needed.

Ultimately, the group hopes to find a permanent home for Mormon art in New York, taking its place alongside other institutions such as the Jewish Museum of Art, located on Fifth Avenue near the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Checketts envisions a space close to the LDS chapel and temple in the Lincoln Center neighborhood.

He doesn't know how long it will take to build, he said, but "it's an idea whose time has come."