Submission to Arts Council England consultation

commission4mission aims to encourage the commissioning and placing of contemporary Christian Art in churches, as a means of fundraising for charities and as a mission opportunity for the churches involved. It is an emerging arts network based in East London and the Diocese of Chelmsford, and its patron is David Hawkins, The Bishop of Barking, who is himself a practising artist.

Our consultation response is a generalised response based on comments from our members but relates most closely to Q5. What do you think are the most important things to focus on in order to ensure more people value and enjoy the arts? and Q8 Do you agree with our thinking regarding the future role the Arts Council will play in partnership with others? Do you have alternative ideas? 

Supporting the links between faith and art

Faith communities are part of the wider community of engagement with the arts and it is important that they are recognised in the matrix of how and why people value and enjoy the arts.

Faith is an influential context for people’s lives: it influences how people see themselves, their relationship with others and their environment, and how they create a sense of meaning and identity, which in turn influences how they behave.

Members of faith communities may enjoy art which (although not exclusively) touches and nurtures their spiritual lives. Members of c4m (as both artists and audiences) talk about the value of art in their spiritual growth and understanding. Art has been an important medium through which communication about faith and belief has taken place over centuries, and as a result the church has enjoyed a long partnership with the arts, though this seems to have eroded in recent decades.

Faith is not something that sits in isolation from art or any other area of people’s lives: it is part of a complex unity. Increasing numbers of Britons report a sense of deepening ‘spirituality’, a seeking for something beyond the material life – 76% according to recent research (Hay/Hunt, Frequency of report of religious or spiritual experience in Britain for years 1987 and 2000, Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality, Blackwell, 2007, pp 417-441.) This is not an insignificant sector of the public, but a majority.

Thus it is important that the connection between art and faith in England is sustained by Arts Council England (ACE) – initiatives which recognise and nurture this (such as the Faith and the Arts website) are sustained and developed, that regional offices are encouraged to see faith organisations as valuable partners, and that funding is available for activities that enable artists and communities to connect faith and art.

Churches as creative spaces and Christianity as an influential theme

We wish to flag the significance of churches as: spaces in which artworks are and can be displayed; venues for community art initiatives; places for accessing community members for consultation and/or participation in community arts initiatives; holders of significant arts collections; and as a continuing source of inspiration and encouragement for artists. The recent trend of placing significant art work in church venues (e.g. Antony Gormley, Flare II, St Paul’s Cathedral), and the development of church-based arts spaces (e.g. Wallspace) and mainstream artists drawing on Christian themes (Mark Wallinger, Ecce Homo) has to be seen in the context of this.

Christianity has been one of the great historic narratives and themes for art, and remains such, and this still needs to be acknowledged and encouraged.

As the Bishop of Barking notes: ‘For centuries one of the principal subjects that the great masters have depicted have been biblical scenes. This was partly because the church was a significant patron of fine art but also the bible [like Greek mythology] provides epic and iconic themes which evoke the whole range of human emotion and which plumb the depths of divinity and depravity and of good and evil. If our art galleries were divested of all the paintings depicting biblical subjects our national collections would be severely depleted. Just because church attendance and Christianity in general is less fashionable than it was in previous centuries this is no reason to sideline works of art which depict Christian themes or are being created from a Christian motivation.’

The commissioning of visual art work for public spaces indicates there is still a demand for art on a Christian theme, or by Christian artists. This forms part of the hidden economy of the arts which needs recognition and support.

c4m supports and encourages the commissioning of contemporary Christian art work in public spaces. Recent commissions in which it has been involved in the past 12 months include: Queens Hospital Romford, St Paul’s Church Goodmayes, St Peter’s Church Harold Wood and St Edmunds Church Tyseley.

Christian art projects and social engagement

Christian arts projects are also offering a point of engagement and nurture for people who are socially excluded or marginalised – the Crypt of St George’s Leeds, involved a professional artist working with homeless people to produce a mural. Work by c4m members in East London is starting to reach out and engage with diverse communities in community-based arts activities in churches.

Developing an active partnership

At a time when the Archbishop of Canterbury has said that ‘the church needs more artists’, the church and Christian organisations need to be seen as valid partners for the arts.

We commend an active and sustained engagement with churches, cathedrals and Christian organisations as partners with ACE and arts organisations in the creation, delivery, and display of artworks and arts initiatives. The value of this partnership has previously been recognised on occasion (e.g. involvement of Church organisations in consultation on ACE rural arts policy) but lacks sustained energy and dialogue at a national and regional level.

These partnerships and dialogue should be encouraged across all regional offices. Regional offices may need confidence and encouragement to engage with and talk to churches and faith organisations – ACE should provide support and guidance on this.

Funding guidelines (e.g. Arts 4 All) should be reviewed to ensure they are not discouraging or disbenefiting organisations with a faith background which can demonstrate that their work has a wider community benefit – many can. Funding and art form advisors should be encouraged to support, and not dismiss, applications from faith organisations.

ACE should stimulate this partnership by documenting local and national partnerships between the arts and churches, what they achieve, how they evolve and what artists and audiences they engage with.

ACE should find ways of supporting commissioning of Christian art works e.g. by extending the ‘Own Art’ scheme to churches and other faith organisations to enable them to spread the cost of commissioning and purchasing works.

ACE should work in partnership with organisations such as c4m to develop the skills and capacity of faith/church organisations to commission art work – through supporting the development of guidance, case studies and access to professional advice.