Art and religion have gone hand and hand through the centuries. The expression of religious feeling or doctrine is really the story of art until the Reformation - with notable exceptions, of course.
Yet, aside from those devoted to ecclesiastical or sacred art, modern museums often display religious art as if somehow its context and meaning could be separated from its form. The museum's function has been seen as a secular repository for community treasures, and most have kept their focus fixed more or less on the primary functions of acquiring and preserving art and offering in-house education about art.
Museums' changing role
But the role of the museum may be changing. Nancy Renick, associate curator of education at the J.B. Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky., says that a lot of museums in recent years have branched out to have an almost social-service aspect to them. The Speed has found a unique response to its community's perceived needs: It has taken upon itself an ambitious project called "Interfaith Education Through the Arts" - a complex approach to religion and art, inside and outside the museum walls.
"One of the real jobs of an art museum is to make art relevant to people's lives," Ms. Renick says. "Talking about things that are very contemporary and very personal - things like religion - that's a way to make art from hundreds of years ago part of our everyday lives." And, she adds, Louisville has a pluralistic but devout heritage. With well over 900 churches, three Christian seminaries, and a Bible college, it's a town in which religion is very visible and lively.
Renick and museum director Peter Morrin see the museum as a kind of crossroads for the community, providing a neutral ground to learn about other religions. The Speed's art collection is diverse but heavily weighted in Christian art - Old Masters and also ecclesiastical arts including vestments and ritual objects, Renick says. And so the Speed hosted an exhibition of Judaica from the Jewish Museum in New York in 1992. There was tremendous support from the interfaith community, and the show was a big hit.
That exhibition was an important impetus for the new project - as was the pluralistic religious background of Louisville itself, according to Mr. Morrin.
The local peace and justice movement in the form of the Council on Peacemaking helped put together a steering committee of town clergy and laity for the museum's Interfaith Education project. A small grant set the wheels in motion for the current preliminary series, "Art and Soul: Spirituality in the '90s," in which local faith communities invite the public into their church or synagogue and discuss how the visual arts play a part in worship and the communication of doctrine. Each of the participating congregations runs its own show. One synagogue, for example, brought in the artist who had created its stained-glass windows.
Many lectures and discussions have taken place at the museum (currently closed for extensive renovations), and museum sponsorship of "congregational sharing" has made it easy for people of differing faiths to visit one another's places of worship.
"The museum is neutral turf," Morrin says. He points out that it's not always easy for a Baptist to visit a Catholic church or a Catholic to visit a synagogue or a Jew to visit an African-American Episcopal church, but under the museum auspices, people of different faiths feel welcome in other congregations. The whole idea is to promote mutual understanding among the congregations through art - to create, Morrin says, a common language, a language based on art and architecture.
The new project received a large grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, and plans are under way for September events. The museum has actively courted the advice and input of the local seminaries and co-sponsors events with them whenever possible.
In addition to the continuing "Art and Soul" series, a religion and film series will begin programming this fall. Renovation of the museum will offer new exhibition opportunities for its medieval and Renaissance tapestry collection (much of it religious). Bus tours, which have already begun, will continue to be offered each year to nearby cities where religious architecture is particularly interesting, and also to the Shaker and Utopian communities in Kentucky. Educational tools including curriculum packets and gallery guides will include an introduction to religion and art as well as information about how to "read" a work of art.
Panel discussions (with topics ranging from direct religious experiences as recorded in art to Christian minority religious traditions) and lectures by visiting scholars of religion have been greatly expanded. Renowned contemporary artists whose work reflects sacred concerns will also be solicited for slide presentations.
So far, community response has been uniformly enthusiastic, Renick says. "I think America is a lot more open now to religious diversity. It has always been a nation that treasured religious freedom. To me, [positive community response] also has to do with the changing millennium. It seems that in every age at the turn of a century, there is increasing religious fervor. But on top of that we have a world growing increasingly smaller." She points out, as does Morrin, that Islam is growing by leaps and bounds and that now, suddenly, many Americans have Muslim neighbors for the first time.
Social changes, too, like increasing poverty and changes in the welfare system, call for spiritual as well as practical responses, Renick says. Volunteerism is also on the rise, and charity is common in all mainstream religions. Issues of charity, justice, and social action show up in art, too. "We want scholars and artists from different faith communities to talk or write about that aspect of meaning in a work of art, too," Renick says.
One issue that helped sensitize museums was the repatriation of native American funereal objects; it made them more aware of the way native religious artifacts are displayed. And the changing face of government and private support has also had an impact on museum personnel: Some museum officials have begun to rethink and expand their notions of the museum's place in the community.
So while the museum is the newest venue for religious tolerance, it is still an arts-based institution. Says Morrin, "Our issue is to say we want to serve as a vehicle to interfaith understanding, but to bring that back to a fuller understanding of art."