Creating Connections Between Arts and Faith Communities

Volume 51, Issue 3 :: Michael J. Crosbie

In cities and towns throughout the country, many shrinking congregations have room to spare, while artists are looking for affordable places in which to create. Why not bring them together for mutual benefit? How do congregations with space they are not fully utilizing find just the right collaboration with arts groups in search of a place to exhibit, perform, or pursue their work? How can artists and faith communities forge partnerships that help people of belief as well as those seeking a place to do art? Faith & Form talked with Karen DiLossi, director of the Partners for Sacred Places’ Arts in Sacred Places program, which seeks to develop long-term, sustainable relationships between faith-based groups and arts organizations. In addition to DiLossi’s comments here, visit the Partners for Sacred Places Website to see some of the partnerships they’ve helped create:

Brian Sanders JUNK dancers

Brian Sanders’ JUNK dancers rehearse in the fellowship hall of Shiloh Baptist Church in Philadelphia. Photo: Ted Lieverman.

Michael J. Crosbie: Karen, what are the implications of congregations working with arts groups to share space, thus extending the faith community into the larger community?

Karen DiLossi: The implications can be positive and negative. On the positive side the faith community is opening its doors, rolling out the welcome mat for more than just people in their congregation. Many of these congregations are already doing that through food pantries and AA meetings on-site. The key with artists is to make them feel welcome, as well as the people who follow the arts: students, audiences, funders, other people in the larger community. A congregation can expand their community footprint in a positive way. The more people going through a religious facility, the more people have a positive experience within those walls, the more people can be rallied to help a faith community if their buildings are threatened. On the “negative” side, it needs to be a match that works for both.

Workshop discussions between congregation and artist group

Documenting workshop discussions between the host congregation and the artist group is a good technique for understanding shared missions and visions. Photo: Karen DiLossi.

MJC: How are arts groups and the congregations “matched up,” and how does one assess what is possible within a given “host” space?

KD: These two questions are linked. Answering the second question is partly answering the first. It has to be the right mix of a lot of different things. It might be helpful to think of the “dating” analogy. There should be a physical attraction: aspects or traits that you admire. With arts groups and sacred spaces, it’s the same. The spaces suggest what can or cannot happen there: for example, adequate ceiling heights are necessary for dance performance, columns in the space would be a problem, the type of flooring might prohibit the space’s use. Sanctuaries naturally attract musical performances, those places were made for sound. Different spaces can accommodate different kinds of artists without having to make large changes to the spaces.

Then there are all the other things to consider. What is the mission of the arts group or the art they are producing, and how does that align with the mission of congregation?

What is the ministry of the congregation, how do they express it? How does this connect with the artist and what they are trying to accomplish? Is there chemistry between them? These questions need to be considered at the very beginning. Also, both the congregation and the artists have to be up-front about their resources and capacity. What can the artists afford to pay, how are costs are covered by the congregation to make the space available, such as upkeep and maintenance?

At Partners we’ve formulated “areas of discernment” that we use to match up congregations and artists. Mission and vision alignment is the most important. Personal compatibility is critical for possible conflict resolution. The artistic content needs to be considered: the artist should ask for permission, not forgiveness. The congregation has to know what is going on within its facility and if they are comfortable with it. Understanding the decision-making process on both sides is very important: who gives approval, makes decisions? Within some faith communities, the decision-making process is not clear. This information has to be shared early in the match-making process.

MJC: What kinds of internal questions do arts organizations and congregations need to ask themselves before committing to a partnership?

KD: Finances are a huge factor. Too often the artists think congregations can give space for nothing, or space can be changed to accommodate the artists’ use of it. If you’re an artist, you have to have a realistic “rent line”: How much can you afford to pay for the space and the other costs? Most congregations can’t give away their spaces for nothing (such income might be critical for a congregation to hold on to their facilities). The congregation has to be honest about their financial and personnel resources. They shouldn’t make promises they can’t keep. However, according to our research, among congregations willing to share their space and the artists they partnered with, the number one reason is not financial gain. It is mission fulfillment for both the congregations and the artists. How can a congregation and the artists help each other to fulfill their missions? They are both working for a common good. They often have more in common than not.

MJC: You mentioned artistic content as an area of discernment. How does a congregation address the issue of artistic content and censorship?

KD: Artistic content has to come up. There should be an “artistic content clause” in the agreement between the two parties. The artist has to have the freedom to meet their mission through their art, with the knowledge that this is first and foremost a house of worship.

Sometimes circumstances undermine the original intent. For example, one of the first space- sharing matches we put together, the artists said they wanted to tell the stories that go untold—that was their mission. The congregation saw this as supporting their own ministry, which directly assisted people whose voices are unheard and stories are untold—such as the homeless or the drug and alcohol addicted. It spoke to them—a perfect match. But because the congregation was not honest about its financial situation, even with rental fees collected, it wasn’t enough and the building had to be sold. Another congregation was interested in buying the building, but one of the big sticking points for the seller was that the artists be allowed to stay. The new owner said certainly. The building was sold, but a year later the new congregation told the artists they had to leave. It came down to artistic content, which the new congregation was not comfortable with. It’s important for the congregation and the artists to know where is their own line in the sand, and if it is crossed, how is it addressed. Something else congregations should consider in these matters is that different spaces might have different levels of sacredness—one might be appropriate for the artistic content, while another space (perhaps the sanctuary) is not. Also, what is the use of the space: maybe a space is being used just for rehearsal, without an audience, and performances take place somewhere off site. We focus on finding the right match.

MJC: What about the issue of capital improvements to the space?

KD: We recommend a very measured approach, realistic, and supportable. You shouldn’t have to spend $50,000 to $100,000 to make a space useable. Cosmetic changes—a new coat of paint or replacing carpeting—are reasonable, but more capital-intensive investments in the space should be considered carefully. Spaces for the visual arts are sometimes more challenging. Does it require natural light? Can the space get dirty? Is the creation of dust or residue OK? It depends on the artistic medium—performers create less dirt and those same concerns don’t apply. Perhaps photographers or jewelry artists create minimal dirt or dust that the congregation can be OK with in their space. The most success we’ve had with visual artists is a co-working creation space in the Philadelphia Design Center, a former sacred place—a fellowship building that has been repurposed, adapted for use by visual artists of all kinds.

MJC: What might be the tax implications for artists and faith communities alike in terms of these partnerships?

KD: The laws are different depending on the place. My best advice would be to encourage the congregation and the arts group to do their due diligence by consulting with legal and financial professionals as to the implications. With such legal and tax ramifications as possibilities, we suggest framing the partnerships with “whereas, therefore” positions.

Whereas the mission of the congregation is such and such, therefore the work of an arts group supports it and is part of the congregation’s mission. But talk to a professional.

MJC: How can the art become a way of expressing the sacred for the faith community?

KD: I think it gets a faith community to think about the root or tenets of their faith. In terms of the art expressing the sacred, they might see it as we are all made in God’s image and we are all different. The congregation is supporting the artists to express their view, to tell their story, lifting up their individual image. We do a workshop with congregations and artists about their mission and vision, and while they are reporting back to us, we write down words on a big piece of paper that express similar ideas on both sides. These are the things that resonate with both. It’s about a shared vision. From my vantage point, each side is trying to make the world better than the way they found it. That might take the form of bringing laughter into people’s lives, or inner peace. So a congregation might share these values with a landscape artist, or someone who paints still lifes. The work might provide us with a connection to the earth, where we all have to live and coexist. As an artist, this might be a way to express your joy with the Creator. This is present across denominations, can be found among them, as part of our shared human experiences.

MJC: Through partnerships between congregations and artists, how might the sacred be extended into the civic realm? In other words, how is it possible for the greater community to experience a sense of the sacred through the arts?

KD: “Sacred” means different things to different people. For me, when I went to college the theater building became my sacred space. The experience could be similar to sitting in a pew and seeing your shared community of people around you. Artists tend to gravitate towards sacred spaces because they are beautiful. They have an appreciation for the art, the care, the craft, and the detail that goes into sacred spaces and places, especially historic ones that have existed in a community for many years. When you have shared experiences in those kinds of spaces, I believe you are in a way extending that sacredness into the civic realm. Maybe the church becomes a castle-like backdrop for a theatrical performance. Maybe it has the only cared-for garden space in a neighborhood that people can enjoy. Maybe the sacred building is illuminated at night as a glowing landmark for the whole community. A lot of new buildings are just big boxes (I call it “lazy architecture”). But these older buildings are special, and they have that dimension of sacredness.

Michael J. Crosbie is the Editor-in-Chief of Faith & Form and can be reached by email at