The big building with the spire at the corner of 36th and Spenard Road in suburban Anchorage, Alaska, was supposed to be leveled for a parking lot. Instead it helped a housing agency discover the power of art to connect people. No longer used for religious purposes, the Church of Love is now a temple dedicated to art, performance, and community. Run by the Cook Inlet Housing Authority (CIHA), an affordable-housing nonprofit with properties all over the city, it’s a vibrant community center/art space/performance venue that, if not exactly artist-run, has been artist-inspired and artist-developed for years. It’s helping revitalize Spenard, a proud, gritty community near the airport that’s long struggled economically but inspires intense loyalty in its denizens.

A BRIEF HISTORY: THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE

The Church of Love began life as the Lake Spenard Baptist Church. Later, as Love Church, it had a Korean-American congregation. When the congregation relocated, the church, which is next door to the headquarters of the CIHA, sat vacant for years. CIHA eventually bought it and decided to tear it down to give the growing agency more parking space.

Then the artists got involved. Sheila Wyne and Bruce Farnsworth, founding members of the Light Brigade, a local troupe of site-specific performers, needed a space to fabricate some sculptures, explains Candace Blas, who manages the Church for CIHA.

Soon CIHA was agreeing to let other artists use the space. “They ran amok and had a blast,” she recalls. “The magical thing that happened during the artists’ use of the church was that they demonstrated to CIHA that there was a real need for a space like this in our community.” About that time CIHA got a $3 million community development grant from ArtPlace America to “[explore] the intersection between the arts and culture sector and community development,” and the idea of keeping the Church and using it to further that goal took shape.

Community development investments by ArtPlace, which will sunset in 2020 after 10 years of major funding for the arts in the United States, took a different approach to supporting the arts. “The point of the grant was not art as the final output, but rather the artistic process and involvement of creatives or artists in resolving a community-led project,” Tyler Robinson, the director of development, planning, and finance at CIHA, told The Spenardian.

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“WE LEARN SOMETHING EACH TIME WE USE IT.
THE ARTISTS ARE TEACHING US HOW TO USE THIS SPACE.”

—Sezy Gerow-Hansen,
Director, Public and Residence Relations, CIHA, in the Anchorage Daily News

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FROM THE OUTSIDE: THE “RECLAIMING ASPHALT” PROJECT

In 2016–2017 CIHA used ArtPlace America funds to invite landscape architects and artists to enliven the asphalt-heavy streetscape around the agency’s multi-building campus, centering on the Church of Love. “We really want to portray Spenard Road as something with the potential to be very vibrant and alive; something that’s illuminating,” project lead Chad Taylor of Anchorage’s Intrinsic Landscapes told the Anchorage Daily News. “Everything has an aesthetic value to it, but it’s more about how people use space.”

ON THE INSIDE: A COMMUNITY COLLAGE

After community input drove the decision to keep the Church of Love, says Candace Blas, CIHA started to get booking inquiries from other community members as well as artists. “‘Can we rent it for our nonprofit? For our all-ages rock show? For our breakdance competition?’ It was this explosion in the use of the space that impressed CIHA. It showed that the building could lift up Spenard,” says Blas.

What has happened and continues to happen within the Church’s walls runs a gamut: new-circus performance (a local group called System of Strings), hip-hop and dub shows, art installations, a singer-songwriter showcase called Spenard Song Circle, the Spenard Jazz Fest, design workshops, yoga classes, movie nights—in short, a collage of events that fuse down-to-earth community with challenging art. Some of the programming is by CIHA, but community groups rent the space as well. There are also for-rent artist studios in the back, as well as the Anchorage Community House, an intimate community-center-within-a-community-center that holds book club meetings, food swaps, classes, cooking lessons, and retreats.

Jon Spayde is the senior editor of Public Art Review.

From Public Art Review #58, where this article originally appeared in Powerful Spaces as “For Love of a Neighborhood.”
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