Rapid Blog: Monroe Community Church builds community through ArtPrize

This op-ed is part of Rapid Growth's Rapid Blog series, which highlights the voices of leaders making positive change in Grand Rapids. This week's post comes to us from Steve Fridsma, curator at Monroe Community Church, which has served as an ArtPrize venue since its inception. Fridsma's essay is his own, and does not necessarily reflect the views of Rapid Growth, or its parent company, Issue Media Group.
This week's Rapid Blog comes to us from Steve Fridsma, curator at Monroe Community Church, which has served as an ArtPrize venue since its inception. Fridsma explore's the church's evolution as a public art space, and how the congregation uses art to connect to its community.
In April 2009, my former architecture firm’s marketing director returned from a public announcement downtown. She gathered a group of designers and excitedly told us about the very simple concept for ArtPrize: venues…artists…no entry restrictions… and huge prizes. She encouraged a group of us to enter, which we did as a firm. I remember also thinking, “Hey, my church, Monroe Community Church, is downtown; we could be a venue.”

Steve FridsmaOnly a few weeks later, I was at church helping to brainstorm the language for the church’s mission statement. We eventually settled on “Connecting our downtown community to our life-changing God.” How do we do this? We were already very involved in the North Monroe business community, we hosted the Condo Dwellers Association, and we sponsored various ministries in the Belknap neighborhood. We sought an additional sphere of connection, and discussed ArtPrize. As the only art major in the room, I agreed to take it on. As a result, we had just stumbled into our third area of connection to our downtown community: the arts. But how could we leverage ArtPrize to “connect to our life-changing God?"

In Acts 17, the apostle Paul was at the Areopagus (also known as Mars Hill) in Athens trying to figure out a way to connect to the learned Greeks. He noticed a statue entitled, “To an Unknown God.” He went to the Forum, took his turn on the dais, and launched into a speech where he proclaimed that he had quite possibly identified this “unknown god” in the person of Jesus Christ. He also used language from two popular poems of the day, “Phenomena” and “Ode to Jupiter” as bridges of familiarity. So, Paul used three works of art as vehicles through which to preach the news about Jesus. With this as a model, we envisioned a series of worship experiences where the theme did not originate in the biblical text, but in the artwork we hosted.

As our team sought out art and reviewed submissions to our venue, we discussed the biblical notion of image-bearing—that artists by their very nature are co-creators with God. We agreed that there would not be a “faith test” for the art or artists that we host, nor would we be prudes. We established criteria, in no particular order:

Is it skillfully made? Is it beautiful, inventive, or original? Does it speak to our human condition or explore spirituality? Does it demonstrate renewal, transformation, or social justice? Is it just plain fun? And finally, is it something that could generate a topic for a worship experience?

Monroe Community Church does not have a lobby, narthex, or gallery. Our main space is a former warehouse attached to the office building at 800 Monroe Avenue NW, a warehouse that was at one time the shipping center for Jonathan & David, Inc., the originators of Precious Moments. When the church took over the space in 2006, it had been storing elevator equipment and the horse-drawn carriages used for prom dates and wedding receptions. For ArtPrize, we had no choice but to install the artwork in and around our main assembly space. We re-painted walls, installed display rails, bought yards of cable, and added display lighting.

The first year was a huge success. As ArtPrize One was winding down, we abruptly realized that the space was about to feel quite barren. We hurriedly asked our local ArtPrize artists if any of them had additional work, and if so, would they consider having a show here for six to eight weeks. One agreed. We then had another show, and another, enough to bridge the gap until ArtPrize Two.

Fast forward seven years. As we prepare to install ArtPrize Nine, to this day, we have been without art on display exactly one week out of 416 weeks.

Monroe Community Church’s ArtPrize efforts have been called one of the best “out-of-the-way” venues by a visiting San Diego art critic, a can’t-miss venue by several local arts writers, and have been covered by local media, art blogs, our denomination’s magazine, and even Christianity Today. We have been invited to present at the bi-annual Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) Conference in 2015 and the Creative Church Conference in Indianapolis in 2016. Two years ago, we had the honor of hosting a jury finalist, “Something Old, Something New” by Lisa Williamson.

Assembling amongst the art. One of the things our leadership team underestimated was the simple act of worshipping in the middle of all of this art. To be singing or praying or exploring the Bible together surrounded by terrific artwork is a unique experience. Another feature we underestimated was the connections we’d create with the artists, who are often invited to stay at members’ homes, to join them for meals, or are even given rides to the airport or out to see Lake Michigan for the first time.

We had assumed that it would be the venue and the artists as the “actors,” ministering to the many guests as our “audience.” We underestimated the impact of our ministry on the artists themselves, many of whom fell in love with our congregation and who have remained our friends to this day, and come back to worship with us. Our artists may or may not be people of faith; but all report being blessed to have shown with us, especially those who, as part of our sermon series, have had their artwork extrapolated into a further exploration of Christian spirituality as part of the sermon series.

As a venue, we wish we could be closer to downtown. We are outside the apparent “racetrack” of venues that seem to host perennial popular vote and juried finalists. As a curator, I am faced with the annual dilemma of wanting the very best art for our venue, but having to be real with new artists. We receive applications from established artists who are far from Grand Rapids, sometimes from other countries, who are new to ArtPrize and want to show with us based upon our venue profile, and intend to come to Grand Rapids for three weeks to work hard to win the popular vote. I refuse to bait and switch them, and always explain how voting and tourism works. Still, some choose to remain with us, like Heather Haynes and her “Wall of Courage” last year, which many viewers felt could have been a finalist in a more central venue. Also Robin Protz, who quietly showed with us in her first year, became a frequent finalist at the Amway Grand Hotel.

We could easily get discouraged and feel left-out because of our location; nevertheless, what church would turn down the chance to have as many as 7,500 friends and neighbors come through its doors in a three-week period? Monroe Community Church has found ArtPrize to be an amazing vehicle to meet our neighbors, support the fine arts, and connect our downtown community to our life-changing God.
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