Churches rehab buildings for artist spaces

(RNS) On the north side of Indianapolis, the historic First Presbyterian Church is now the Harrison Center for the Arts. Its owner, the upstart Redeemer Presbyterian Church, is landlord to two dozen artist studios, three apartments, four galleries, an annual music festival and the Indiana office of VSA, the John F. Kennedy Center’s nationwide arts program for people with disabilities.

Redeemer is among a host of churches that own old buildings and have embraced the arts as a way of enlivening hallowed spaces, breaking down barriers with neighbors and paying the heating bills.

“There’s a lot of churches that are saddled with these huge buildings, and they’re trying to figure out what to do with them,” said the Rev. Karyn Wiseman, a Methodist liturgical scholar who teaches at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

The Rev. Donna Schaper speaks during her 40th ordination anniversary. Photo courtesy of Judson Memorial Church

If, in the past, churches gave Western civilization its greatest artwork — Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and Bach’s cantatas — now those same churches are partnering with artists once again, not as patrons but as landlords.

Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village is a pioneer in the movement.

After World War II, when immigrants left the neighborhood and artists moved in, Judson started offering free space for emerging artists to practice, perform, exhibit or even reside.

Judson helped launch such names as Yoko Ono and Claes Oldenburg and movements like postmodern dance. But when the Rev. Donna Schaper took the job of senior minister 10 years ago, Judson was down to 75 members and deep in the red. Schaper insisted from the start that if Judson was to survive, it needed to generate income from its Italianate architecture, a gift from John D. Rockefeller in 1895.

“We were down to one toilet working in the women’s bathroom in the front, and it was the scuzziest, most rat-infested, disgusting place that I’d ever seen,” said Schaper.

Now, Judson has tenants — lots of them: “The Gym” theater, a Sikh film agency, an experimental dance school, the West Village Chorale, nonprofits serving undocumented immigrants, a Muslim advocacy network and congregations for Korean immigrants, gay Catholics, the homeless and people in recovery.

The building is active 24/7, because of Judson’s commitment, not only to social justice and the arts, but also to the environment.

Many of Judson’s 350 members now show up five times a week for official worship or for live music, dance, theater or activism.

“Any church that’s not full all the time is not green,” said Schaper. “I don’t think they should ever be dark.”

Nathan Marion at Fremont Abbey Arts Center in Seattle. Photo courtesy of Jumay Designs, Fremont Abbey Arts Center

This attitude is catching on. A decade ago, Seattle arts booster Nathan Marion assisted the young Episcopal-Lutheran Church of the Apostles with redeveloping the old St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, which was rechristened as Fremont Abbey, an arts performance venue named for one of the city’s northern neighborhoods.

“A lot of these churches nowadays, especially around here, don’t have a huge congregation. Maybe it’s 50 to 80 people,” Marion says. “They really just want to use the buildings one or two days a week and have an office and a little chapel. It’s not like a building should be only used by its members. That’s something a lot of other churches are starting to see. That change seems to be occurring around the country.”

His experience developing Fremont Abbey led Marion to found Lonely Buildings, a nonprofit consulting firm that helps congregations figure out how their often old, oversized, expensive-to-maintain buildings might actually produce some income and serve their surrounding communities at the same time. Some of his clients have opened coffee shops, music venues, offices or galleries that double as worship space.

“It’s a great mixed model,” Marion said. “This neighborhood, in upper Fremont where we’re at, used to be pretty sketchy when we moved in.” Now, he said, “it’s just a much healthier neighborhood than what it was before. We don’t take all the credit for that, certainly. But we’re right in the center of it.”

Partners for Sacred Places, which has offices in Philadelphia, Chicago and Fort Worth, Texas, helps modestly funded organizations, usually in the arts, rent spaces from religious communities that need extra income to maintain their antique facilities.

“To help small congregations survive and thrive, helping them use their space more effectively was going to be really important,” says PSP executive director Bob Jaeger.

In a recent survey in Baltimore, PSP found that three-quarters of artists think the city needs more performance and rehearsal space. It also found four historic congregations with more than 13,000 square feet of underutilized space that could be dedicated to the arts. The group is conducting similar surveys in Detroit and Austin.

In Indianapolis, Redeemer’s arts patronage has snowballed into a broader neo-urban movement. Harrison Center staff found themselves giving so much real-estate advice to would-be urban pioneers at First Friday art receptions that they opened “City Gallery” as a place where they could answers questions and encourage homeownership throughout the week. They also started “Porch Sessions” and “City Suppers,” where neighbors and potential neighbors can sit and eat together.

From time to time, tenants have left the Harrison Center’s 24 artist studios for New York City’s more bustling art scene. To combat this, Redeemer members worked to establish Herron High School, an arts-centered public charter school that aims to educate its 700 students as a new generation of arts patrons. This project enabled Redeemer to preserve not only the old church but also three historic buildings that once housed the Herron Institute of Art and Design.

“This whole movement of church and arts is bubbling up out of necessity,” said Judson Memorial’s Schaper, who recently taught a workshop on “real estate as sacred space” at Hartford Seminary and has a whole course on the subject scheduled for Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif., in the fall semester. “Churches are broke. We don’t have money. We don’t have huge congregations. These buildings are treasures, not problems.”

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