On a recent Sunday afternoon, I walked through the dimly lit galleries at the Indianapolis Museum of Art on a docent-led tour with two friends, the docent’s wheelchair-bound mother, and an ASL interpreter even though none among us was deaf. We stopped at a dozen or so pieces, mostly paintings, depicting various Christian saints, and one by one the docent explained the historical context, the artist’s technique, and the symbolic attributes of the composition. We looked at Tiffany stained glass, Romanesque frescoes, Tuscan altarpieces, and various triptychs that once had graced the European cathedrals of centuries past.
Having been through these same galleries before on my own—and having taken similar tours in the past where some of these exact paintings had been featured—I had become very familiar with the artwork. So, too, with the stories behind several of the pieces. I knew the Angel of the Resurrection Tiffany window had been commissioned by the widow of President Benjamin Harrison. I remembered the painstaking process of removing the frescoes from the Spanish cathedral and shipping them across the Atlantic. I recognized the familiar haloes over the heads of the saints.
I learned a few new things, too. On another tour, I heard a different story of the budding staff held by Joseph in Francisco Rizi’s The Dream of Joseph, and I didn’t recall the symbol of the cross in the halo over Jesus’ head before. But of course, it was right there. I also hadn’t heard of the lurid interest of religious artists in the stories of St. Sebastian, who was stripped down and tied to a post before being riddled with arrows. According to the docent, Renaissance artists particularly liked to depict St. Sebastian because it gave them opportunity to practice painting the naked male form.
For years now, I’ve accepted as common knowledge that early churches were filled with art as a means of biblical literacy among non-reading congregants, among other noble purposes. The tour of the saints also confirmed my theory that church history as well has been carefully preserved in paintings, stained glass, sculpture, and more. But the stories depicted in pigment and stone are not just an illustration of words, and it’s not just the illiterate who learn and worship in the presence of public religious art.
As I walked through the galleries, my heart told me this was my art now. These were my stories to hear and learn and retell. This was my religious history, my Christian worldview, being depicted on canvas or stucco or glass. I didn’t feel that way the first few times I saw these paintings. Their symbolic depictions and dramatic colors unnerved me, distanced me, even, on my early encounters. But time, exposure, knowledge: these helped bring art to life.
But what about those for whom exposure to art, much less religious art, isn’t readily available, or those whose negligible or nonexistent interest in art prevents them from seeking out opportunities to view it? And beyond the history of a single religion, what happens when a city, a nation, or a society loses the stories art tells because its masterpieces are not made public, but instead are tucked away, reserved for only the elite or the interested?
A few weeks earlier, my husband and I were driving home on a different route than usual in a part of town we rarely frequent. Our small, Midwestern city used to be a railway hub; the section with the old roundhouse and track switches is nearly deserted now except for a local trash collection company and a small ice cream factory.
As we turned off the main drag and wove through the aging industrial section, I noticed a billboard that seemed out of place. Is that a Mary Cassatt painting? I wondered. I didn’t have time to snap a photo with my iPhone, but I did notice in the corner a simple URL: ArtEverywhereUS.org. I tucked it away in my mind, hoping to look it up later.
When I did finally type the URL into my Chrome browser, I discovered that my city was part of a national campaign to display some of America’s greatest art in public spaces normally reserved for advertising: billboards, bus shelters, subway posters, dioramas in airports, videos in health clubs, trailers in movie theaters and more. Fifty-eight paintings were chosen from five leading art museums in the country and were featured in more than 50,000 digital and static displays. The paintings depicted significant moments in American history and culture and were displayed in locations where Americans would pass by them often in the course of everyday life.
“Throughout the entire month of August, cherished American artworks will be seen by millions of people every day when they are commuting to work, taking the kids to school, hailing a taxi, shopping in a mall, catching a bus or pursuing other routine activities,” the Art Everywhere promotional material said.
Preserving culture through art starts with national art campaigns like this one or with required art appreciation and art history classes taught in public schools, but it’s only really accomplished when the stories told through various media are made available and accessible to people in the course of their everyday lives. Art in churches worked because people went to church regularly. Art in churches would still work for those who go. But placing all types of art in all the other places people go in the course of their regular lives allows people not only to view but to become acquainted with the context, the technique, and the attributes of the artists and their stories. Their art becomes our art, and the stories seem a little more familiar every time we see them.
I quickly fell in love with the Art Everywhere US project, especially with our own copy of Mary Cassatt’s The Boating Party right in the middle of one of the most run-down parts of the city. I couldn’t wait to tell others. A few days after my husband and I first saw the billboard, I was driving around with a friend and asked her if she had seen it. She hadn’t, so we drove by.
That very Sunday afternoon driving home from the saints tour at the art museum, I asked the friends I had gone with—an art teacher and her artist daughter—if they had seen the billboard. They hadn’t either. I was surprised. Apparently the campaign had not been well publicized in our area. So with the saints and their haloes still fresh in our minds, we drove to the other side of town, and this time parked and snapped photos.
A few days later in her art class, my friend used The Boating Party as a sample for a writing assignment. One of her students said, “I know that painting—it’s over by Winski’s.” Even if she knew nothing of Mary Cassatt or The National Gallery, she was right.