As Center for Latter-day Saint Arts closes gallery in NYC, it preps for a diverse show in SLC

“There’s really amazing stuff coming” — Conference Center performance and exhibition will showcase the works of Black, Indigenous and people of color.

(Center for Latter-day Saint Arts) Kevin Jones Giddins, co-director of the center's Race, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, performs during the center's 2019 festival in New York City.

The Center for Latter-day Saint Arts, an independent nonprofit, will bring LDS artists of color and their work to downtown Salt Lake City for a performance and exhibition June 18 at the Conference Center.

The event, which coincides with the closing of the center’s New York City gallery, represents the culmination of the organization’s ongoing efforts to support and spotlight diverse Latter-day Saint performers, dancers, writers, musicians and fine artists from around the world.

Tickets are free and available through the Temple Square events website.

The showcase, titled “I AM: The Journey,” will feature performances by Alex Boyé and the Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir, in addition to winners of the center’s grant program for artists and scholars who belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and identify as Black, Indigenous or a person of color.

Kevin Giddins, co-producer and co-leader of the center’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, framed the event as a response to church President Russell M. Nelson’s recent calls to stand against racism and “build bridges of understanding.”

“In today’s culture, diverse perspectives are viewed as divisiveness,” Giddins said in a news release, “but art allows us to see diversity as perspectives, to activate inclusion.”

Connecting identity, faith and art

(Kwani Povi Winder) Native oil painter Kwani Povi Winder.

Kwani Povi Winder sits on the same committee with Giddins and served as one of the jurors of the grant program, as well as the curator for the free-standing visual art exhibition associated with the June event.

A Native oil painter whose heritage is from the Santa Clara Pueblo Tribe, Winder described the grant selection process as a profoundly meaningful experience.

“Everyone’s story was so unique,” she said, and yet “I was jurying these applications and just kept thinking, ‘Oh my word, they have the same experience that I have.’”

She said she especially related to the applicants’ descriptions of their own struggles to connect their identity and faith with their art.

Early in her career, Winder was sitting in a seminar at Temple Square when she had what she called an “aha moment” as it dawned on her that she had built a wall between her faith and her art. Right away, she set out to find a way to unite the two.

The upcoming exhibit represents the same efforts by creators whose work is meant to reflect, per the grant call, “the difficult-to-articulate complexities” of each artist.

Visitors will be able to view the gallery throughout business hours on June 18 in the lobby outside the Conference Center’s Little Theater. It will also be on display June 20 through July 31 at Deseret Book in nearby City Creek Center.

Supporting diverse artists

(Michelle Franzoni Thorley) Mexican American painter and illustrator Michelle Franzoni Thorley.

Overall, the experience has convinced Winder that Latter-day Saint religious art is on the cusp of a sea change as more and more attention and resources flow in the direction of diverse art and artists.

“There’s really amazing stuff coming,” she said, “now that there’s support and there’s awareness, and there are eyes on these artists.”

Speaking at the center’s New York City gallery in 2019, Mexican American painter and illustrator Michelle Franzoni Thorley emphasized the need for additional funding to minority artists, particularly minority women, who are disproportionately affected by poverty.

“You may wonder why there are not more LDS women of color artists, particularly oil painters,” Thorley said. “Lack of educational opportunities and money to buy supplies are huge reasons. … Food, bills and medication are always going to come before painting supplies.”

Big Apple center closing

(Center for Latter-day Saint Arts) Lita Little Giddins, co-director of the center's Race, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, performs during the center's 2019 festival in New York City.

Meanwhile, in New York City, the center’s gallery was poised to close May 31, when its one-year, nonrenewable lease expired.

Adjacent to the church’s Manhattan Temple and across the street from Lincoln Center and Julliard, the one-room gallery staged multiple art exhibitions, lectures and speakers since opening to the public in June 2021.

Glen Nelson, co-founder of the center, described the space as one where members and nonmembers of the faith came to connect with art and one another during the difficult and isolating days of the pandemic.

“I saw it again and again,” Nelson said. “People would come in and just bare their souls,” a development that surprised the New Yorker unaccustomed to that level of vulnerability from his fellow city dwellers.

“I would know all about the people that they lost during COVID and deaths and suicides and divorces and breakups, and sometimes funny things that had happened to them,” he said. “And they would always insist on knowing my name and giving me their name before they left.”

Starting in January, the center began hosting weekly Friday night events, among them drawing classes, film screenings and recitals.

In all, Nelson estimated an average of 400 people visited each week, 70% to 90% of whom were people from the community with no ties to the faith.

“That was one of the biggest surprises,” he said, “and the happiest one for me.”

At the moment, Nelson said the center has no plans to try to re-create a similar space elsewhere but instead is focusing its efforts on the types of events like the upcoming showcase at Temple Square.

The organization also has teamed up as a co-sponsor of this year’s Mormon History Association annual conference, “Landscape, Art and Religion: The Intermountain West and the World,” to take place June 2-5 in Logan.