GTU Voices - Spirituality in the Gallery

Spirituality in the Gallery

By Elizabeth Peña and Lydia Webster

The Center for the Arts & Religion’s Doug Adams Gallery is currently closed and will re-open in its new location in Fall 2023. This hiatus provides us with time to reflect on some of our past exhibitions and think about how our visitors infused their own spiritualities into the gallery, giving new meaning to the art.  Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, considering that our focus is on art and spirituality, we continually have been amazed by the depth of transformative experience felt by visitors.  

The Doug Adams Gallery has been our very own sacred space, a space apart, where students and faculty can let their minds and spirits wander. This idea is not new: the museum has long been conceptualized in this country as the new cathedral, occupying a third space in our society that can offer us solace, community, and the opportunity for spiritual learning. 

“The museum setting, almost by definition, displays ritual objects out of context,” says Joan Branham, “thereby stripping them of circumstance and purging them of original function and significance.” And yet, when we reflect on the very first exhibition we as a team put on (Summer 2017), Sacred Garments: Orthodox Christian garments from around the world, an exhibition of finely embroidered clerical vestments acquired by Metropolitan Nikitas Lulias (former Director of the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute) during his years of service around the globe. We were struck by how many Orthodox believers approached the garments with awe.  They had seen the garments and ritual objects from a distance in Church but getting close to the items in the gallery allowed them to experience sacrality in a museum space. The tinkling of the vestments’ many bells was a giveaway, as we listened from our nearby office, that someone had been unable to resist the powerful urge to touch the beautiful robe hanging on the gallery wall. 

In Spring 2018, with Religion and Resistance, we pivoted to a more politically engaged perspective, compelled by the recent election to reinforce the connection between faith, art, and social change. Protest posters, both contemporary and from the archives, showed how religion and spirituality have worked in the public sphere for decades, and how believers have used tenets of their faith to try to make the world a better place. While the objects on display would not be considered sacred, treating protest signs as art, and placing a protest T-shirt in a museum case contribute to a feeling that these objects, too, carry a kind of sacrality.  In the Doug Adams Gallery, we wanted to provide a place to seek solace and to demonstrate the role of faith-based activism in the ongoing struggle for social justice. With the brutal exposure of institutional racism in the summer of 2020, we realized that while COVID prevented us from inviting people into the Gallery to have critical conversations, we could still “invite people out.” In “Art Window, artists of color from our Bay Area community displayed their work in our street-facing window. Passersby could engage with these art installations, which considered topics from the senseless murder of Breonna Taylor to the landscapes traversed by migrants on their perilous journeys in search of a better life. The quasi-sacred aura of the Gallery was transposed to the outside.  

This trip down memory lane has helped us to recognize the ability of the Doug Adams Gallery to act as a space for learning, reflection, and inspiration for our GTU community. As we look toward the next couple of years online, we must wrestle with the question of how to provide this sacred space in a virtual environment. There is no going back to our “ordinary lives,” but what’s next?  In our new gallery space, we’ll work to integrate lessons learned from our on-line exhibitions with the power of “in-real-life” shows. There are so many ways to approach spirituality in the gallery; we look forward to exploring and learning more.  

Art Window exhibition featuring Breonna Taylor Was Murdered by Police (2020), Tahirah Rasheed and Meryl Pataky 

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