Foundation Connects Faith and the Arts

Tyler Rollins, left, and Leeza Ahmady of the Foundation for Spirituality and the Arts

By Retta Blaney

Two longtime colleagues in the arts world have formed the Foundation for Spirituality and the Arts (FSA) to encourage artistic expressions of faith.

“We’re imagining a kind of hub on a very small scale, but significant enough for deep conversations to emerge and relationships to be built,” said Leeza Ahmady, director of programs for the foundation, which was incorporated in New York City last year. “We both have deep roots and connections to the arts world.”

Her partner in this venture is Tyler Rollins, who closed his art gallery in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan in late 2020 to become the foundation’s executive director.

“This kind of project is not a sidebar,” Rollins said. “It really requires full-time dedication.”

The foundation will offer residencies, gatherings, exhibitions and six-month fellowships for scholars and art managers to gain practical experience in administration, graphic design, fundraising, and programming.

The foundation held its first event November 1 in Charleston, South Carolina. “Reflections on Contemporary Art and Faith: An Inspiring, Poetic, and Discursive Evening” featured a panel discussion and Q&A. Rollins and Ahmady discussed their personal and professional experiences and their plans for the foundation.

Amina Ahmed

They were joined by Amina Ahmed, an artist working in New York, London, and Tehran. She gave a talk, “Standing Under Our Ancestors: Understanding Our Mother,” centered on the Virgin Mary’s revered role in Islam.

Elijah Siegler, a professor of religious studies and film scholar at the College of Charleston, moderated the discussion. The event was hosted by the College of Charleston’s Religious Studies Department.

Close to 45 people attended the free event. Intended as an intimate gathering, it attracted a mixed group of artists, students of art and religious studies, people of various faiths, and educators. A video of the program will be posted later this spring at the fellowship’s website (fsa.art).

“We had overwhelmingly positive feedback from people who said it’s such a needed organization,” Rollins said. “That was very affirming, that there would be immediate resonance in terms of what we’re trying to do.”

They are now preparing for a larger event scheduled for May in Charleston.

The foundation will welcome a new round of young religious scholars into its fellowship program this spring. Last year two fellows, one in curatorial experience and the other in graphic design, spent two days a week for six months learning from Rollins and Ahmady.

“They got their hands into establishing a foundation, seeing the birth of a new venture,” Ahmady said. “They can use that as a stepping stone to a real position.”

The foundation will also offer a fully funded residency program with juried selection, alongside less structured residency retreats for individuals and small groups. Based in downtown Charleston, FSA’s residency program will be offered to visual artists, writers, and composers exploring themes of religiosity and spirituality in their work.

Theologians, philosophers, and spiritual leaders will be invited to interact with resident artists and arts professionals in hope of prompting possible collaboration, exchanges, and connections between art and spirituality. Residents’ three- to six-week stays include travel, room and board, and private studio and workspace.

Rollins, 53, has more than 20 years of experience in New York City’s contemporary art world, gaining an international reputation as an advocate for artists from the Asia-Pacific region. In 2008 he opened a public gallery space, Tyler Rollins Fine Art, with a program focusing on internationally active mid-career artists from Southeast Asia. The gallery participated in some of the world’s top art fairs.

Amina Ahmed, during her presentation at the College of Charleston

Ahmady, who is in her late 40s, directed New York’s Asia Contemporary Art Week, the premier United States platform for museums and galleries dedicated to showcasing artists and dialogues from across Asia, including the Middle East. She began this work in 2005 and continued until leaving to work full time for the foundation.

Faith is important to both founders. Rollins, who grew up in a Presbyterian family in Durham, North Carolina, now worships at Grace Church Cathedral in Charleston. Ahmady, born in Afghanistan, is a practicing Muslim.

Through their experience, both founders observed a lack of support for artists of faith or spiritual leanings in the contemporary art world, though they realize there is nothing novel in the idea of linking spirituality and art.

“They’ve always been connected,” Ahmady said. “Our job is to uncover what might have been going on that hasn’t been framed. Modernity and secularism may have caused a seeming disconnect. Our conversations could tap into that and bring it to light.

“It’s a two-way street. The institutional art world can benefit from dialogue with faith communities, and faith communities can be incredibly enriched by creative people. We can have a stream flowing both ways in terms of inspiration.”

Rollins thinks the COVID-19 pandemic has fostered people’s appreciation for a spiritual connection to the arts.

“It’s something we’ve been thinking about for many years, conjoining faith and spirituality, for artists to have a space to kind of flourish in this nexus between the two,” he said. “There’s a kind of secular model of inspiration, and the sense of connection with faith traditions has been a bit sidelined in recent decades.

“Spirituality is hardly ever addressed as the channel through which all creativity flows. Certain sectors of our culture have sort of given up on each other. We’re hoping to be a force for positive change.”

Retta Blaney is the author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors, featuring interviews with Kristin Chenoweth, Ann Dowd, Edward Herrmann, Liam Neeson, Phylicia Rashad, Vanessa Williams, and many others.

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