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Judson Memorial Church: A Commitment to the Arts

Judson Memorial Church

Judson Memorial Church is an extraordinary institution for countless reasons; its architecture, its dedication to inclusion, its history of providing free healthcare, its outspoken advocacy on issues of civil rights and free expression, to name just a few of its exemplary attributes.  But today, we wish to focus on its dedication to the creative arts.

Judson Memorial Church has served for decades as a home for experimental, boundary-pushing art.  Their mission statement says it all: “We believe that artists have the potential to serve as our modern-day prophets. They show us where we’ve been, who we are, and what we can become.”  Judson Memorial Church truly lives up to its mission statement and has done so for decades.

In a city bursting with budding artists, the ever-growing scarcity of open, inviting space is especially disheartening. Judson  offers a haven for creative activity and development. In fact, the leadership considers the act of creativity as a sacred thing.

Beginning in the 1950s, the church supported an arts ministry. The church made space available to artists for art exhibitions, rehearsals, and performances. The church also assured that this space was to be a place where these artists could have the freedom to experiment in their work without fear of censorship. In 1957, the church offered gallery space to Claus Oldenburg, Jim Dine, and Robert Rauschenberg, all unknown at the time.  The Judson Gallery has shown work by Tom Wesselmann, Daiel Spoerris, Red Grooms, and Yoko Ono, among many others.

Photograph by Peter Moore / VAGA at ARS. © Barbara Moore

The Judson Dance Theater was formed in 1962.  It nurtured the creative work of Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Steve Paxton, David Gordon, and Yvonne Rainer. Among others, these dancers and choreographers shaped dance history by creating postmodern dance. For the past several decades, Movement Research has presented concerts of experimental dance at the church on Monday evenings during the academic year.

The Judson Poets’ Theatre started in November 1961 – with a play by poet Joel Oppenheimer. Judson helped nurture the work and careers of the likes of Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, and Tom O’Horgan, and Maria Irene Fornes.

Angels of the theater: Maria Irene Fornes and Judson Memorial Church Photograph by PSBW Portraiture

In the 1980s, the church sponsored various political theater performances, such as those by the Vermont-based Bread and Puppet Theater. These performances included Insurrection Opera and Oratorio under the direction of its founder, Peter Schumann, using opera and the company’s now signature oversized puppets to convey a powerful  anti-nuclear message.

The church celebrated its centennial in 1990 with performances and symposia involving many of the artists who had been involved with the arts ministry in the 1960s and 1970s. It continues both its support of the arts and its social outreach to the community.

In the words of the recently departed, much beloved playwright, Maria Irene Fornes, “Al (Church pastor) would get on that piano, and it would be magic. That church was sacred. What happened there was magic.”

Judson Memorial Church and its various programs, including its arts programs, were the recipient of a GVSHP Village Award in 2011.  You can read more about the church’s history on our website via its New York City Landmark Designation report and it’s State and National Register of Historic Places listing report here.

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