It was billed as a discussion about "Mormon Michelangelo & Medici," the relationships between artists and their supporters in the Latter-Day Saint community. Surely it is niche subject. But, as the event neared, a simple, living-room conversation became a launch party.
Twenty-three award-winning artists sent their works from their studios, and more than 70 people, including several connoisseurs with museum-quality collections, came to the home of Tamara and Taylor Woods. Words were spoken, valets were hired, ahi tuna was consumed; yet, most of all, a new organization was formed: The Zion Art Society. It is anew forum for artists and art enthusiasts of LDS art.
For years Micah Christensen (PhD, University College London) has researched the creation and patronage of fine art in Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS Church), Christensen has recently become interested one of the art world's largest and least understood communities: LDS artists. Based on the number of artists submitting to key contests over the past 10 years, there are an estimated 4,500 LDS artists — perhaps as many as 10,000. Some 80 percent are working in the US, and about 90 percent of their work is bought and sold in Utah, where the Church's headquarters is located. Yet only thirteen percent of members live in the state.
With a membership of more than 15,000,000 members in 160-plus countries, the LDS Church uses art in many ways: to decorate meeting houses, in teaching materials, and as missionary tools. In 1972, the former President of the Church, Spencer W. Kimball gave a speech on the important role the fine arts play in the spiritual life of members. Titled "A Gospel Vision of the Arts," Kimball's speech also discussed the potential influence the Gospel can have on artists:
Take a da Vinci or a Michelangelo . . . and give him a total knowledge of the plan of salvation of God and personal revelation and cleanse him, and then take a look at the statues he will carve and the murals he will paint and the masterpieces he will produce. (See full text here.)
For many LDS artists, this speech is not new. Yet, for his topic, Dr. Christensen chose to focus less on the potential for a Michelangelo than on the need for Mormon Medici. "The transition from Medieval to the Quattrocento and, then, the Renaissance would never have taken place without patrons and audiences who were passionate and supportive of the fine arts. Michelangelo was nurtured in his youth by the powerful banking family the Medici. Then, he was commissioned by and collaborated with the visionary Julius II to create the Sistine Chapel," Dr. Christensen shared at the gathering.
Surrounded by works created by artists known both within and without the LDS community for their award-winning work, Christensen led a 90-minute discussion on how to get more involved.
The idea for the evening began with a family vacation to Southern California, where Christensen and his family often go to see their long-time family friend Boad Swanson. In late 2015, Swanson invited Christensen to speak on religious art at a local ward house. The presentation included a few works by contemporary LDS artists. "After the meeting," said Swanson, "I was inundated by people wanting to know where to find those works. No one had seen anything like them before." Tamara Woods approached Swanson about possibly hosting another event, this time at her house, to see more.
The list of people wanting to come was impressive. Woods is from a family of serious collectors and has several fine works in her home. So, it was perhaps no surprise that many of the people she invited were equally serious about the subject. "As I began to talk with people about coming, it became clear that this was a much bigger idea," said Woods.
"I remember getting a call from Tammy [Woods] saying that the kind of people coming to the event demanded that we do something that would be bigger than just a single meeting," said Christensen. For years, Christensen and Swanson had been discussing the possibility of holding a regular Mormon Art Week, akin to the Russian, Asian, and Old Masters art weeks held in New York and London. "Sometime in the 1990s, the auction houses and galleries realized that when there was a Russian-themed auction, all the Russians flew in. So, they coordinated their schedules. Now, about 90 percent of Russian art sold at auctions and galleries in New York and London is sold during one week of the year. Why can't we do the same think for LDS art during General Conference, when members travel to Salt Lake City in large numbers." While this had been in discussion for some years, according to Christensen, "It wasn't until Tammy [Woods] asked us to propose something big that it moved off the drawing board and into the planning stages."
Within three weeks, Christensen and his colleague, Eric Biggart, created a website, formed a non-profit, and discussed the plan artists. Both long-established artists, like Walter Rane and Jeff Hein, and recent award winners, like Mary Sauer and Dan Wilson, greeted the idea with enthusiasm. They, along with nineteen other artists, loaned works of art to Christensen and Biggart, who drove a Sprinter van from Utah to California and created an ad-hoc gallery in the Woods' Laguna Beach home.
The Woods, a family of eight, were remarkably gracious hosts. They spent days planning the event, clearing their house, inviting A-list guests, and arranging a last-minute valet service as more and more people wanted to attend. "By the end of the night, we had offers to hold similar events in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Washington DC, and Scottsdale. I was overwhelmed," said Christensen. "The next step, is organizing the artists. Letting them know that there is a hungry, educated audience."