Why, at age 90, historian Richard Bushman frames art as ‘essential’ to the Latter-day Saint story

He points to the Salt Lake Temple as the “greatest work of art ever produced by Mormon hands.”

(Rebecca Reed) Historian Richard Bushman blows out the candles on his 90th birthday cake during a celebration at a Salt Lake City hotel Sept. 25, 2021.

Artistic expression is not what normally comes to mind when outsiders conjure up what they know of Mormonism, but famed historian Richard Bushman thinks it should.

Art has been integral to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since its early days, Bushman said at his recent 90th birthday celebration in Salt Lake City.

The faith’s first important piece was the Kirtland Temple, the second was the Nauvoo Temple, and “the greatest work of art ever produced by Mormon hands is the Salt Lake Temple,” he told the assembled 500 well-wishers Sept. 25 at the Salt Lake Marriott Downtown at City Creek. “It’s a glorious, magnificent piece.”

Temple rituals could have been offered “in a barn,” but that was “not enough for [church founder] Joseph Smith,” Bushman said. Latter-day Saints “had to build these glorious buildings, put their hearts into it … when they hadn’t the finances to do it.”

Smith was “hopelessly in debt all the time because his vision drove him on to projects like those temples, those gorgeous big sun stones and the moon stones and the stars [on the Nauvoo Temple],” the historian said. “The saints kept working away on that when they were about to be driven from the land. That beautiful core ceremony was so treasured, it had to be in the right kind of environment, a beautiful environment.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The sun rises on the Salt Lake Temple in 2019. Historian Richard Bushman calls this temple the "greatest work of art ever produced by Mormon hands."

That’s why Bushman, in his 10th decade, now is dedicating his considerable talents and contacts to a Center for Latter-day Saint Arts in New York City.

In 2016, Bushman, emeritus professor at Columbia University and author of an award-winning biography of Smith, joined forces with Glen Nelson, a New York artist and Latter-day Saint who has been sponsoring faith-filled art for decades.

Together they came up with the idea for the center (previously known as the Center for Mormon Arts) and hosted several art festivals before the coronavirus pandemic made that impossible.

The goal was to “foster conversation among artists and academics, to sponsor scholarships, to produce an encyclopedia of Mormon arts, a catalog component,” Bushman said a year later. “We are investigating Mormon art, not just observing and appreciating.”

The independent, nonprofit center has a threefold mission: “to display and perform art by Latter-day Saints and elsewhere; to publish scholarship and criticism about [LDS] art to a wider public; and to establish a comprehensive archive of Latter-day Saint arts from 1830 to the present.”

In 2020, the nonprofit raised enough money to buy the space next to the faith’s New York City temple — across the street from Lincoln Center — and establish the Center Gallery.

It hopes to be a place, the founders said, to “engage the community with fine art exhibitions, lectures, concerts and educational gatherings.”

(Rebecca Reed) Karl Bushman, left, Ben Bushman, Richard Bushman Jr. and Serge Bushman sing at a 90th birthday celebration for their father, historian Richard Bushman, at a Salt Lake City hotel Sept. 25, 2021.

At Bushman’s birthday bash, Nelson announced several significant initiatives:

• A multiyear project to survey Latter-day Saint art, starting with the publication of “A Guide to Mormon Art,” featuring the work of 24 scholars.

• An inclusive 2025 exhibition of this art in a New York venue on Fifth Avenue near the Metropolitan Museum, followed by another installation in Salt Lake City in the Church History Museum and the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. It will then travel to other Latter-day Saint population centers.

At the party, Latter-day Saint apostle Dieter Uchtdorf offered his perspective on the value of art.

Drawing on his experience as a pilot, the convivial German said “from a higher position, you will see the larger scale of things, and it’s often quite striking how similar one side is to the other. … Yet other-side thinking causes us to focus on differences rather than the similarities.”

(Rebecca Reed) Latter-day Saint apostle Dieter F. Uchtdorf, left, chats with historian Richard Bushman at a Salt Lake City hotel Sept. 25, 2021, during a 90th birthday celebration for Bushman.

Art is a universal approach “to see things from a thousand feet up,” Uchtdorf said. “Art in any form … can give us a new perspective, more holistic and more inclusive.”

One of the great virtues of art is that it can tell a story “in a subtle and human way. It can connect one person’s mortal experience to another’s. … Expression through art is one of the ways we can help bridge the divide,” the apostle said. “Art can transmit a message of hope, light and truth anchored in Jesus Christ.”

And, Uchtdorf says, it “always comes back to Jesus Christ.”

Those are the sentiments Bushman drew on by helping to found the center.

Art helps Latter-day Saint believers express “our yearnings and our strivings,” he said. Artists can “plunge into these things to tell us that story, as well as the glorious stories of salvation.”

The longing for beauty “is a universal human desire and is manifest in every culture and every part of the world and every period of time,” the scholar said. “And we are part of that great effort.”

If art is so essential to Mormonism, he asked, “why don’t we know more about it? Why don’t we think of ourselves that way or have others think of it that way?”

Bushman and others hope that by establishing a “benchmark for measuring Latter-day Saint art,” by creating a space to display it, and by producing books about the role art plays in the faith, outsiders can no longer ignore what he believes is a “deep truth.”

The world will finally see, he said, “we are an artistic people.”

(Rebecca Reed) Claudia Bushman listens to a speaker during a 90th birthday celebration for her husband, historian Richard Bushman, at a Salt Lake City hotel Sept. 25, 2021.