Where Art Thou?
Priceless. That’s the official estimate for the value of the art held by the Catholic church, the Vatican in particular. With more than 70,000 works in its 26 museums and over 50 galleries, including 20,000 works on display, the Vatican’s massive visual trove has anchored its extraordinary institutional assets for hundreds of years, providing it wealth, prestige, and leverage.
But art is more than wealth. It is a powerful representation of culture, of identity, a visual imprint of how a group of people see themselves, the story they tell themselves about themselves. Given the Vatican’s riches, status, and identity are largely a function of its visual art, the possibilities of religious institutions in the Black community adding art, particularly African American art to their walls, are significant.
So with the recent popularity of the field, what would happen if a strong majority of the institutions that make up the Black church began collecting Black art?
“Black art tells Black stories of our history, of our people, and of our culture in general,” says art collector, author, and ordained minister, Romal Tune. “These images convey, on one level, a story through art, our legacy, not through the lens of struggle alone, but through our giftings and talents, through our journey before the enslavement of our people. And so art is able to educate on the walls of churches and, as people of faith, remind people of the presence of God in their lives and the power of God to bring about change.” Tune further explains how there are “many layers to what artistic expression can offer to a congregation on the educational front and on the spiritual front. In some ways, that type of art can remind people of who they are or remind them of their greatness while also telling the story of our resilience, our strength, our creativity, and our history.”
“Well, I am very much Afrocentric,” declares Qismat Alim, pastor of Payne Memorial AME Church in Baltimore. Black art adorns the walls of her church’s entryway, hallways, bathrooms, and Fellowship Hall. “That’s who I am and it’s in my DNA,” affirms Alim, noting “I was at a conference and ran across the picture of Christ coming down off the cross. It was a Black Jesus with Black disciples around him taking him off the cross. And I said, ‘That needs to go in the church!”
“Growing up, you saw all these images of white Jesus,” continues Alim, of her childhood observations in Hartford, Connecticut. “And that’s a good reason why I had strayed away from the church, because I had these images of white Jesus, and I couldn’t get with that.”
While Alim stresses the cultural implications of such imagery, Tune touches upon the economics. “In terms of the sheer economics of art, the right types of pieces—more specifically, originals—create a way for a church to have an investment. So as much as it for sharing the story and the spiritual journey, unique pieces carry value,” acknowledges Tune, noting that “it’s not that anyone ever wants to have to sell their art, but it is an investment in our people, in our culture, and it’s a financial investment that grows with time. So there’s that component of it.”
“There are places where that is going on now but nowhere near the type of presence and activities that I would expect from the churches and houses of faith,” submits Patric McCoy, art collector and cofounder of Diasporal Rhythms, a Chicago-based organization of collectors committed to expanding the appreciation of contemporary visual art by artists of the African diaspora. “The Catholic church is one of the richest entities on the planet based on the artwork it has acquired, mostly through theft,” McCoy acknowledges. Still, the “message is that a religious institution can accumulate a lot of wealth within the society through the collection of art and yet our churches tend not to recognize that they, in addition to selling their messages and so forth, could be accumulating a lot of wealth. So, to me, it’s a missed opportunity as the churches could be in the forefront of acquiring art.” Also, he continues, “they can be a part of directing what art is regarded as important because, if a religious organization identifies something they think is important for them to have, that resonates with a lot of people.”
McCoy would likely agree this missed opportunity is based, at least in part, in our unique history and experience as African Americans, in the unparalleled constitution of what has become known as “the Black church.” The collective term generally refers to African-American Christian congregations and their major Protestant denominations including the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the National Baptist Convention, the National Baptist Convention of America, the Progressive National Convention, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and the Church of God in Christ.
As a central institution in our community, its longstanding role has been diverse, acting as a social, political, economic, spiritual, and communal platform for a people burdened by enslavement and challenged by ongoing discrimination. It has served as a community gathering spot; as a refuge for those in need; as the locus for movements for civil rights and social justice; as a network for jobs and economic advancement; as a center for daycare, schooling, and education; as a grapevine for community news; and as a resource for social support, community improvement, and spiritual guidance.
The Black church has also served as perhaps the most relevant hub for African American culture. In his 2021 book, The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, noted author and professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. recognized that the “signal aspects of African American culture were planted, watered, given light, and nurtured in the Black Church, out of the reach and away from the watchful eyes of those who would choke the life out of it. We have to give the church its due as a source of our ancestors’ unfathomable resiliency and perhaps the first formalized site for the collective fashioning and development of so many African American aesthetic forms.” Consistently, such secular activities as drama, poetry, theater, music, dancing, rhetoric, writing and countess other dramatic forms and expressions were all part of the Black church, its history, and evolution. “We do the church a great disservice,” concluded Gates, “if we fail to recognize that it was the first formalized site within African American culture perhaps not exclusively for the fashioning of the Black aesthetic, but certainly for its performance, service to service, week by week, Sunday to Sunday.”
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Undoubtedly, the impact of the Black church on African American culture has been massive and ongoing. That said, there are those who question some churches’ reluctance to engage with visual art.
“The Black church is under the same kind of misconceptions and misunderstandings of the importance of the visual image as is the rest of Black society, American society, and Western society,” charges McCoy. “They all automatically accept that this is an elitist activity, that there is a small group of very rich and intelligent people running the visual arts culture, and that since they’re not part of that rich, elite, educated group, they don’t have a part to play. So many people are of that mindset, and the church is no different.”
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Along with this unfortunate mentality, contends McCoy, “the church has concepts of visual imagery as being anti or against the faith, that the imagery is part of the world and sin and, therefore, it is not to be embraced.” Further, and more relevant to African American art, “the church also had an interest in the visual manifestations of its icons being limited to this concept of a Eurocentric presentation of the important people within the faith. And it would be problematic that they would embrace a lot of imagery that counters the narrative they have been promoting for the last several hundred years, that all of these folks are white.”
That said, McCoy, Tune, and Alim readily point to numerous Black churches in their respective states and about the country that proudly showcase or collect Black art. Examples include Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington, Maryland, and St. John’s United Methodist Church in Houston. “As we move more towards celebrating who we are as a people, you will see us being more representative in every aspect of life on our walls, in our sanctuaries, in our churches,” affirms Alim.
“We got our first collection in 1999 when we built a school for kids with AIDS and we made the walls a gallery in that building,” recalls Rudy Rasmus, pastor of St. John’s United Methodist. The downtown Houston church began with nine members in 1992 and now averages 6000 members annually, among them Beyoncé and Solange Knowles. Rasmus acknowledges the renowned art professionals who helped guide and curate the church’s collection from the start, including Robbie Lee from Black Heritage Art Gallery in Houston, art scholar Alvia Wardlaw, and art consultant and dealer, Eugene Foney. “We just renovated the building and we have one John Biggers and quite a few artists out of the Houston area in that collection.”
Rasmus hones in on the role of art in his church. “Well, first of all, our church is Black, and we are unapologetically Black. We have been that sort of space since day one. So it was really important to not only my wife and I, but to other leaders who started this ministry with us, to have relevant expressions of art.”
Regarding the economic implications of his church’s collection, Rasmus admits he has been less intentional. “You know, for us, the one thing we wanted to do was support Black artists. And it’s crazy, but we really didn’t think about the investment value of that support. We really didn’t.” Consistently, he acknowledges how “over the last several years, it’s like we had this wakeup call and realized that the thing we invested in 23 years ago is now worth a lot more than it was 23 years ago.”
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Still, for Rasmus, the value of his institutional art is primarily represented by an institutional investment in people. On August 12, 2010, the Art Project was launched at St. John’s, a therapeutic art and empowerment program designed to serve hungry, homeless, and transitioning individuals in the Houston area. Inspired by Rasmus’ wife and copastor, Juanita, and developed by mixed-media artist Lanecia Rouse, the nonprofit Bread of Life initiative had a mission to “empower our city’s homeless to become hope-filled artisans who will craft their own livelihood and create lives filled with new possibilities.” During its tenure, the Art Project touched thousands of Houston residents. “We were taking chronically homeless people and instructing them on not only how to create art, but how to monetize it as well,” explains Rasmus, noting the program ended five years ago. “Now the project no longer exists, but there are previously homeless folks who are now artists who monetize their art as a result of having been taught the game in the Art Project.”
Such programming is just one example of the beneficial processes that can occur at the nexus of art and the Black church, be they cultural, spiritual, or economic. And whatever the potential advantages of a massive and intentional investment by the Black church into art could be, Pastor Alim believes its value is better determined by its cultural impact more so than the dollar, a position which ultimately qualifies such an investment, similar to the immeasurable collection of the Vatican, as priceless.
“It’s for awareness,” promotes Alim, more so than “future wealth. It’s for broadening our perspective. It’s for being depicted in another form. It’s for letting people know that they can also acquire Black art for their own homes.”
“It is also for those younger generations, for the children, to see themselves in color.”
Featured artwork: "Worship" by Stacey Brown