Biola University, an evangelical Christian school in La Mirada, will use a $750,000 grant from Orange County philanthropists Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. and Roberta Green Ahmanson to launch a new program to support artists whose Christian faith informs their vision, and to "promote rich thinking about faith and art."
The Center for Christianity, Culture and the Arts will be established during the academic year that begins next fall. Annual programs will include an artist-in-residence, an international symposium of artists and academics, and a regional conference for artists in various disciplines to discuss their work and its ability to influence today's culture.
The grant from Fieldstead and Company, which oversees the Ahmansons’ assets, will cover costs for the first three years. University provost David Nystrom said Biola aims to cultivate other donors who can help perpetuate and expand the program.
He said the initiative rose partly from a recent controversy over the only public artwork on the campus -- “Logos (The Word),” noted muralist Kent Twitchell’s 27-foot-tall image of a red-robed Jesus holding a book of scripture. Since it was completed in 1990, the piece has been the subject of debate, including ethnic and multicultural objections to its representation of Jesus as a white man.
With the mural needing conservation, there was contention in 2009 and 2010 over whether it should be restored or expunged, according to coverage in Chimes, the campus newspaper. Ultimately, university President Barry Corey decided to keep it, and Twitchell, a former Biola professor, carried out the needed conservation.
Meanwhile, Biola leaders used the controversy as jumping-off point for an ongoing focus on the arts. They declared the 2011-12 academic year a “Year of the Arts.” The Ahmansons, known for funding conservative and Christian causes as well as for their arts philanthropy (Howard Ahmanson was a leading funder of the 2008 campaign for Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California and is now headed for the U.S. Supreme Court), were closely involved in Biola’s art-year programming.
Roberta Green Ahmanson served as “visionary in residence,” and others who came to the campus for arts-year events included poet and former National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia, pianist Paul Barnes performing music by Phillip Glass, and artist Makoto Fujimura, who gave the university’s commencement speech in May.
Out of that, said Nystrom, came the idea of establishing an ongoing program -- the newly announced Center for Christianity, Culture and the Arts.
While Christianity has been a powerful force for artists since the Middle Ages, “in certain wings of Protestant tradition there has been a kind of allergy” toward the arts, Nystrom said.
With the new center, he said, Biola hopes to create “an ongoing tradition that we hope will grow steadily over the years. What we’re trying to say here is that we would do well to think about the arts more deeply” in a Christian context.
“As Christians we believe God is the creator par excellence, who imparted to human beings that creative energy and power, and we ought to use it. Art is a great tool,” Nystrom said.