I know several members of the Temple Art Committee well. Over the years, I’ve also interacted with many artists whose work has been accepted and declined for use in temples. Below, I have reconstructed four conversations that, I hope, will clear up much confusion about how art is chosen for temples.
Most people have never heard of the Temple Art Committee. But, for those of who have, few subjects elicit more gossip and frustration. The Temple Art Committee is the bottleneck through which all art hung in LDS Temples is passed. Many artists have spent careers submitting work to the Committee hoping for the Church’s imprimatur on their careers. Few have successfully had a work approved by and even fewer are permanent inductees to that pantheon, no longer subject to the Committee’s approval.
Very little is publicly written about the members or workings of the Committee. Its meetings are closed. Its deliberations are not made public. And, frustratingly for many artists, the reasons for accepting or declining a work are generally not explained. This lack of transparency breeds confusion. I could tell stories — lots and lots — about how artists have been unfairly treated. I am sure that just writing this article will prompt others’ stories to be shared in the comments.
Resist that temptation.
The purpose of this post is not to air grievances or create a “gotcha” moment for members of the Committee or the Church. For this reason, I have deliberately left out the names of individuals who were kind enough to talk with me. (I don’t want them receiving a deluge of emails from readers, nor reprimands from their colleagues.) The purpose of this post is not even to offer solutions. Instead, I just want to explain what I have learned over the years through conversations with artists and various people involved with the Committee.
CONVERSATION ONE: WHAT DOES THE COMMITTEE DO?
First of all, it is not officially called the “Temple Art Committee;” although that is what I have heard others, including Committee members, call it for the past fifteen years. Officially, it is called the Art Evaluation Committee (AEC).
The AEC, is comprised of eight appointed, unpaid volunteers and a few Church employees. These employees work for the Church architect, and are there to put forward the needs for each temple. Of the eight appointed volunteers, four are local art dealers based in Salt Lake City; three are former or current directors of Utah museums. One is a retired professor of art. Six of the eight have sat on the committee for more than twenty years.
Me: Are there term limits for Committee members?
Expert Witness (EW): Yes, there is an original document that was written in the 1980s, when the committee was formed, that set down term limits. But most members have far exceeded the time limits.
Me: Is that a problem?
EW: It’s hard to know. They all have very good intentions.
The AEC meets quarterly (i.e. every three months). The concerns of the AEC are principally about the artistic merit of works that have been proposed for a particular temple.
Me: Do you often have well-meaning but bad submissions?
EW: Yes, many are well meaning and driven from a deep sense of spiritually.
Me: What do you tell them?
EW: If we make a decision to decline a submission, we have to be careful. Some artists feel that their works are meant to be in the temple. We try to reassure them that the Committee’s decision to decline their submission is not a reflection of their testimony or spirituality.
In a Church where the line between communal and personal revelation is often overlapping, these kinds of conflicts are inevitable. For artworks in temples, the AEC draws that line. Setting aside these obvious non-starters.
Me: How many paintings do you see in a given meeting, on average?
EW: Somewhere between 25 and 40. Two thirds of those are by contemporary artists.
Me: Where do those paintings come from? Are they submitted directly by the artist? Dropped off at a desk?
EW: Those works are usually advanced by designers or someone on the Committee.
Me: Who do you have to know?
EW: About 85% of works come from temple designers or members of the committee.
Me: Who are these designers?
EW: Each temple project is assigned a designer, who is responsible for doing the interior decorating from furniture to lighting to paint to artworks in a particular temple. The designers, and sometimes committee members, approach artists they know and semi-commission artists to conceptualize a work for a particular temple or place in the temple.
This “semi-commissioning” is the source of much confusion about expectations and obligations:
- Committee members and designers know about an upcoming temple project.
- The Commitee member or designer reaches out to his or her network of artists for help.
- The artist is asked to create conceptual works (e.g. drawings, color studies) of how a finished product might look. (Depending on the project, this may take days or months of the artist’s time.)
- There is a back and forth between the designer and sometimes more than one committee member.
- The work is brought to the quarterly AEC meeting.
All of this happens before a work is voted on by the AEC, which does not have the power to pay anyone or, even, make a final decision for the approval of a work.
Me: Are the artists offered any guarantees of pay for their work?
EW: Muralists are generally given retainers. But, at this point no one else is. I think there should be retainers for other artists, especially figurative artists, because their work requires so much time. For now, that is how it is.
Me: Does this affect the kinds of works that are submitted? Do figurative artists feel that its simply not worth it?
EW: We are losing our figurative artists. We have more than an adequate number of landscapes submitted. There are several cases of figurative artists moving to landscape. As a result, the concern is that we are not going to have enough figurative artists in the future. I think the only solution is to give those figurative artists a retainer.
CONVERSATION TWO: IT’S NOT JUST ONE COMMITTEE
As mentioned before, the final decision to decline or approve and pay for a piece does not belong to the AEC, which is the first and lowest of three committees to look at works. These committees are:
- Art Evaluation Committee (AEC)
- Temple Facilities Sites Committee (TFSC)
- Temple Sites Committee (TSC)
Any painting approved by the AEC is then passed on to the Temple Facilities Sites Commitee (TFSC) for financial approval. The TFSC, as far as anyone I talked to can determine, is comprised of members of the Church Architecture, Engineering & Construction Division and a representative of the Presiding Bishopric. The TFSC is principally concerned with the cost of paintings. If a painting passes the balance-sheet test, it is shown to the final decision makers: The Temple Sites Committee (TSC).
The TSC is comprised of representatives of the of the Presiding Bishopric and the First Presidency. They briefly discuss each painting and give their final approval or disapproval. This is not the only work on the agenda. Fine art is only one aspect of building a temple.
The existence of these committees and, more specifically, the lack of communication between them is the source of a lot of tension. At this point, I ask if each painting only gets one chance to go through the various committees or if artists are able to amend their works and re-submit. Apparently, this is fairly common for some works; but, due to the hierarchical nature of the operation, the process is difficult.
EW: Sometimes we will spend 20 to 30 minutes talking about one work of art; passionately discussing its merits. While all of these discussions are recorded in the meeting’s minutes, they are not generally shared with the other committees, who are usually not as familiar with the art or issues as we are and do not understand why we approved it. The work is often declined.
Me: Are you given reasons for why it is declined?
EW: Most of the time we don’t necessarily know.
The implications are troubling, but not surprising. The lower committee, although comprised of professionals, is engaged for its expertise. Yet because its members are not general authorities, their suggestions are passed on, stripped of the rich discussions that led to a collective conclusion. The works are then re-deliberated (i.e. re-tried) in the other committees — whose members have little-to-no expertise in the arts — coupled with the pressures of making many other decisions. Understandably, the conversations held in these other two committees — because of the people involved — are not to be shared outside of that particular meeting. Only the resulting decisions are passed on.
This then begs the larger question, which I didn’t feel comfortable asking anyone: Why involve professionals in your decision-making process, if their opinions have such little weight in the process and, ultimately, non-professionals are the decision makers? By comparison, would a general authority with no computing experience demand that the Church’s web developers use Python rather than PHP because he likes one better than another? (I know the comparison between art and web programming is problematic; but, the larger point is arguable.)
CONVERSATION THREE: RULES & GUIDELINES
I was told by one AEC member that one general authority doesn’t like blue and another doesn’t like green.
Me: Sometimes, do you find yourself only able to recommend red and yellow paintings?
EW: You will often hear us say in meetings “[Insert appropriate general authority name here] will never go for this.”
Me: Are there written guidelines for what can or cannot be in a painting?
EW: No. We can only surmise by what has been declined.
Me: What are some considerations you have gleaned about what will not be approved by the other committees?
EW: No shadow on Jesus’ face. Paintings can’t be too dark. You cannot have a painting showing the moment before the miracle or during the moment of conflict. It has to be after. The resolution; never the conflict. Works can’t be too Tonalist; too moody.
Me: Give me an example?
EW: We would have trouble getting Carl Bloch’s works approved. Maybe The Pool of Bethesda [currently at the BYU Museum of Art]. But, wait, the beggar would have to go. Too dark.
EW: Well, these are very much mood paintings. They don’t want anyone walking through the temples and be overpowered by a work of art. The emphasis should not be on the artist but on the Temple space.
CONVERSATION FOUR: DECLINING A WORK OF ART
It is understandable that there are no hard and fast rules about what a work of art should or should not be. In fact, if there were some list of guidelines indicating what was allowed or not allowed, it would surely be controversial. How can anyone create a formula for what is or is not a good work of art or “temple worthy.” However, the lack of such a document or any rules then creates another set of problems.
Me: What do you tell an artist whose work has been declined?
EW: I have been assigned to artists who have had works declined and I didn’t know what to tell them. Within the process, we are trying to be advocates for the artists and to counsel them. But, we really don’t know what to tell the artists. It is so disheartening we don’t have enough information to tell them — valid or invalid — specific reasons for a work being declined.
When talking about the Art Evaluation Committee, most are inclined to side with the artists, who have often faced unclear and unmet expectations. But, if one were to take the role of a marriage counselor mediating the needs of each one in this somewhat dysfunctional but necessary relationship, it would be unwise to simply label one side of that relationship with blame without first understanding the motivations and causes for that behavior. It is my hope that this post will have done something to lay those motivations and behaviors more clearly in the light, if only to push the conversation — and potentially change — forward.
If you could have a conversation with a member of the Art Evaluation Committee, what would you ask?