I’d been working as a freelance art critic for years, gallivanting between exhibits in Europe and the United States, before I finally decided to put down roots in Sydney to focus solely on the scene in my adopted city. It took less time than expected to familiarise myself with the artists, curators and art world figures shaping Australian art. I’d attended to the mainstream, the bespoke and the provocative—from avant-garde to neo-conservative, and soon I expected to receive all-access invitations to exclusive shows and early viewings of anything open to the public. I prided myself on my ability to anticipate trends, acting frequently thrilled, but never surprised—that is, until I received a conspicuously uninspired flyer in my mail, inviting me to The Gallery of God.
The terms “All welcome” and “Free admission” were just two of the many repugnant features of the feeble advert in my hand. In addition to the noticeable omission of any recognisable artist, there was no distinguishable reference to a specific collection or style of art. Due to the lack of relevant information, there was no mistaking that “The Gallery of God” was intended to be self-explanatory. I had to admit that whoever this hotshot artist was, they weren’t shying away from inflating their status. Still, I thought, calling themselves “God” was a bit OTT; were the curators were being ironic, naïve or self-deprecating? I realised I was both surprised and intrigued for the first time in a long time, so I decided to attend.
As I passed through a park en route to this mysterious “gallery”, I noticed a young guy in his mid-thirties, casually dressed, handing out flyers to the strangers sitting on park benches and lounging on the grass. I normally detested these presumptuous and intrusive individuals, and would have made a deliberate detour had it not been for the words “The Gallery of God” emblazoned on the back of the guy’s otherwise plain white T-shirt.
“Excuse … me,” I stammered, suddenly self-conscious.
“Hi!” A bespectacled face beamed back at me.
“What is this?” I asked without any real conviction.
“The Gallery? Oh, you should come check it out.” The guy wore a name tag that read “Evan Gelist”. I would realise why that was important later.
I noticed he was attempting to hand me a flyer. “Oh, I’ve got one,” I said, vaguely waving my hand.
“Great—you’re gonna love it! Have you ever heard ‘his Word’ before?”
“Hiz Werd? Is that from the Vienna school? I can’t place it …”
“What? No, it’s not a name; it’s ‘his’ … ‘Word’. God’s word. It’s on display today, and when you hear it, you will see how glorious it is and realise where you belong in his Gallery.”
I only recognised two words in all that—“display” and “gallery”—and presumed that everything else would make sense once I had immersed myself in the experience. This was often the case with art exhibitions.
“Do you see those open double doors?” Evan pointed to a well-established, early twentieth-century sandstone building at the far edge of the park.
“If you just head in through there, you’ll meet someone wearing this same T-shirt. They’ll show you around.” One last grin and a nod in the general direction of the doors, and Evan had sent me on my way. I didn’t even remember to say “Thank you”.
I made my way through the park and noticed that Evan had already made quite an impression wherever he had passed: several people were studying flyers as they too headed towards the gallery. However, a considerable number were disgruntled—bordering upon outraged—at what I assumed was Evan’s audacity. Some people will never appreciate art, I reflected. I hoped Evan would be okay, and remembered how his smile projected a deep assurance—a quiet courage.
I think he’ll be fine, I mused to myself.
As I made my way up to the double doors, another T-shirt-wearing guy appeared on the threshold, anticipating my arrival.
“Hi!” He also beamed. “My name’s Stew Ard. Welcome to The Gallery. Were you sent here by Evan, or did you hear about The Gallery from a friend or family member?”
“Ah, I have this … ” I held up the flyer, which was now looking rather crumpled and moist from being clutched in my nervous hand. “Oh, and Evan—he also told me where to go.”
“Great!” said Stew. “Come on in!”
As much as I appreciated these welcoming gestures, I figured I was now in my domain, and sought to quickly eschew Stew. I continued to walk through into the foyer, trying to dismiss him with an, “Oh, I’m all right, thanks. I’ll just show myself around from here. Thanks for your help.”
Stew just smiled again. “Sure. Do you know who you’re here to discover?”
“No.” I tried to smile back. “But I’m sure I’ll figure it out.”
Another knowing smile appeared on Stew’s calm face. “Okay, well, the exhibition’s showing soon and I don’t want you to miss anything. So how about you follow me to get a tea or coffee, and then I’ll take you to your seat?”
A little taken aback by the rudimentary complimentaries on offer, I feigned gratitude and followed Stew to a trestle table adorned with hideously large silver urns and disposable coffee cups.
“Do you carry a Keep-Cup?” he asked.
“Ah, I must have left it at home. You know, I’m feeling okay, but you go ahead.”
As he made his coffee, Stew proceeded to tell me about how he’d first come to be at this “Gallery” and how it had made such a difference in his life, and so on. As I listened, I started looking around for framed photos: if this exhibition had any credibility, I knew I would find it by examining the major patrons, whose faces usually adorned the walls in prominent places. I spotted a group portrait of men and women—a portrait which could have been mistaken for a timeline of librarians through the ages. The accompanying caption read, “In thankful recognition of Arch I Vist.” I had not heard of him and, judging by the portrait, it was unlikely I would ever identify him in a crowd. The caption continued,
We are so grateful to God for your faithful efforts in meticulously recording the exegetical insights of our forebears, making them available in many languages, and painstakingly digitising them for easy availability. Those in leadership are indebted to you. God bless those appointed to administrating (1 Cor 12:28).
I didn’t recognise “1 Cor 12:28” as a reference, but I appreciated that these people took this kind of thing seriously, at least: without archivists, there would be nothing to exhibit.
Stew hovered behind my shoulder. “They may not look like much, but they’re our unsung heroes,” he said.
“No doubt,” I said, aware now that Stew had committed himself to being my personal chaperone.
“Come! It’s about to start.”
As Stew led on into the exhibition, I saw a neat, middle-aged man walking around, closely followed by two energetic assistants carrying folders and tablets. The assistants appeared coiled, ready to spring into briefing mode at a moment’s notice. Finally, somebody important, I thought to myself.
“Who’s that?” I asked, pointing to the neat man.
“That’s the exhibition guide, Guy Dantz,” replied Stew.
This was odd: either the exhibition guide was a last-minute ring-in who needed some support, or this gallery was also taking the guide role very seriously.
“And the two following him?”
“Wow! This Guy Dantz is a big deal then?”
“No. Guy has no interest in profile; The Gallery just places a premium on exhibiting. And because it’s been entrusted to Guy, we make sure he’s well-supported. We’ve had some incredible ‘guys’ throughout the ages, and all of them have relied upon faithful assistants. In fact, our Guy only has a little team. Some of our sister Galleries throughout the world have guys with entire full-time staff-teams. We believe that our exhibition warrants that level of care.”
I felt small. Not only had I been unaware of such a global art enterprise, I had also never come across a group of people so committed to the standard of their exhibition. My anticipation at viewing what must truly be a magnificent collection grew even stronger, and I was so caught up in my own thoughts, I almost careened straight into three technicians completing final checks on their equipment. Fortunately Stew held me back.
“Woah! Thanks,” I said. “Techies! Am right?” I blurted, rolling my eyes in disapproval.
“Are you kidding?” rejoined Stew. “Our artist loves all of his technicians. He’s personally given each one of them a role to play in the exhibition, and has even provided them with the skills they need to make sure our guests have the best possible opportunity to focus on the art. I’m telling you: from the groundskeeper to the bookkeeper, there’s just something about working with The Gallery that makes what they do special.”
Stew’s chest had swelled; he obviously really liked the tech team. Maybe he even wanted to be one of them.
“But it must cost a mint on overheads to keep them here, right?”
Stew let out a big goofy laugh. I frowned. Were they cooking the books? Had I just uncovered the dodgy secret behind this unusual operation?
“Overheads?” he exclaimed. “These guys are all volunteers. We don’t have to pay them; they want to be here for every exhibition. We all have jobs to do here, and we do them gladly. But we just can’t get enough of the art! That’s the drawcard, you see.”
This was surreal. This is a paradoxical oddity of an outfit, I thought to myself. On the one hand, the gallery was evidently displaying world-class art that I assumed was priceless; on the other hand, admission was free, and they supported their exhibitions primarily with volunteer staff. Did they not realise that they could be profiting from this?
Suddenly a small troop of brightly dressed, lanyard-wearing men and women passed in front of us, leading what appeared to be an endless train of frenetic, happy minors.
“Child-minding service—tick. It’s so essential these days, isn’t it—especially if you’re trying to appeal to the family demographic,” I said.
Stew gave me another big, goofy laugh. “They’re not just minding those kids, mate. They’re teachers: they run programs that teach those kids about the artist and how to appreciate his art. From cradle to grave, The Gallery serves to teach and impress on others who the artist is and what the significance of his work is for us. Oh,” he added, “in case you were wondering, they’re also volunteers.”
“Here for the art …”
“Got it in one,” he replied, nodding.
I’d never been particularly fond of children, but I had to admit these youngsters looked like they belonged here—like they were home. I even envied them: clearly, they understood what was going on here better than I did. Like Stew, they probably would have laughed at me too.
That said, there was something about Stew’s laugh that wasn’t humiliating or condescending; it was a knowing laugh, extending empathy—reassuring me that nothing I had said was new or even off-putting. He laughed as though someone had told him that people were going to say things like this, and now he was simply enjoying my acting out this role on cue. I began to wish I’d paid more attention to his story about how he came to be here. Maybe if I asked, he would tell me again; he didn’t strike me as someone who was easily offended. But instead, I enquired, “How is the art handled? How do you make it interactive for kids?”
“The kids have access to all the same exhibits.”
It’s clearly not priceless art, then, I thought.
“That doesn’t mean the art isn’t precious,” Stew continued. “For as long as The Gallery has been around, efforts have been made to preserve the art and its integrity. The artist employs a number of dedicated experts. So whenever we’re looking to bring the art to a new audience, we have to balance exhibiting the art in its true form with making it accessible to all, regardless of age, gender, background, and so on. The artist has always insisted that this be a priority, because he wants his art to be appreciated by everyone. He regularly helps launch exhibitions in unreached parts of the globe. It’s remarkable how committed he is.”
“Yeah, I see that,” I replied, feeling smaller again. “What about advertising? Why haven’t I heard about The Gallery of God before?”
“Where have you been?” Stew smiled. “We advertise, but advertising’s not our core business. The artist prefers that his patrons join a Gallery and then commit themselves to sharing the art themselves, encouraging others to find their own place here.”
“Right—like an ambassador model?”
“Precisely. You met Evan; that’s how we do press.”
I looked down at my flyer. It lacked elegance, but it was backed by a groundswell of authenticity and dedication the likes of which I had never encountered before. It seemed like people were willing to give up their lives for this artist.
Stew was watching me closely. “You look like you’ve got an idea about galleries and art, but this isn’t what you expected.”
“Art critic,” I murmured.
He nodded as if expecting my answer. “When the exhibition is over, would you like to meet our local director?”
Even though I had been humbled by our conversation, and my admiration for this gallery and its people was growing, I heard myself reply, “No thanks. I’m sure they’re very busy.”
“He is: we work hard at freeing him up to spend time with the artist so he can ensure that our Gallery is exhibiting the art in a way that’s both pleasing to him and meets his intent. But part of that includes welcoming new people into The Gallery and helping them to discover the artist and his art. Our director loves people; he’d be glad to meet you.”
“Thank you,” I said, feeling a little stunned. Clearly the identity I wore so proudly—my profession—wasn’t significant here; the Director was going to meet me for no other reason than to support my personal discovery of the artist. He wasn’t going to engage in that regular dance of platitudes where we both subtly informed each other that we could do each other’s jobs. My ego could take a break.
It made me wonder if the artist was of a similar disposition. “Do you think it would be possible for me to meet the artist? Is he here today?”
“That’s the plan. He attends every exhibition. Guy will introduce him as he’s taking us through the art.”
Stew guided me to a seat and sat down next to me. I took a deep breath and the gallery began its exhibition. When it was Guy’s turn to lead us through the collection, he announced that today, we would have the privilege of beholding Exhibit Psalm 145—another unfamiliar reference. Then Guy did what all good exhibition guides do: he disappeared.
Even though I could see him standing behind his lectern, it was as if he had positioned himself behind us. We sat in a standard arrangement, and yet it felt as if Guy had arranged us in a horseshoe, brought us in close, and directed us to marvel at a piece of artistic craftsmanship—God’s craftsmanship. I was listening to the art, and—thanks to Stew, who had handed me a Bible—I was looking at the art. With gentle enthusiasm, Guy oriented our collective gaze, and with insightful commentary, he dialled in the lighting, moving it onto subtle features, directing us seamlessly from one wonderful detail to the next. Guy was conducting us, and yet it was like he wasn’t there, for we were swept up in the art.
I couldn’t tell you how much time passed, or even half of what Guy actually said, but I can still see the indelible image of the spoken word formed in my mind, etched upon my heart.
I will extol you, my God and King,
and bless your name forever and ever.
This was exactly what every member of the Gallery had been doing—unceasingly.
One generation shall commend your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.
This was The Gallery in motion, dutifully responding to this exhortation.
But the pièce de résistance of the entire exhibition was the moment Guy turned the spotlight on the artist’s Son, Jesus Christ: I beheld, the artist in the art, and the art manifesting the artist. And Guy read aloud,
On the glorious splendour of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
And I meditated. Then Guy read,
My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord,
and let all flesh bless his holy name forever.
and without any further prompting, praise tumbled from my lips: “Beautiful. I’ve never seen or heard anything like this. Only God could have done this.”
Stew, like one who had witnessed experiences such as mine on a regular basis, nodded with approval. “You now understand why we’re patrons in his Gallery.”
Well, maybe not altogether. But I was starting to get a sense.
Stew and I stayed in regular contact. We shared our appreciation for the artist—or rather, I rushed to update Stew with every artist-related discovery, and Stew generously continued to offer his support for my enthusiasm. He taught me to pray, and I used my direct line to hail the artist with wonder and gratitude and inquiries about his art. In addition, many times, I called upon the artist to forgive my ignorance of his work, and asked that he would point me once again to behold the magnificence of his Son—to study the details of his art, to trust in his promises that soon, he would come back to the Gallery in person, and that until that day, he would lead and guide his patrons by his Spirit.
Now, if we ever meet, chances are I’ll be wearing a bright, white T-shirt. If I’m out in the park handing out flyers, I am Evan. If I greet you with a beaming smile as you approach the double doors, I’m Stew. Wherever we meet, I am Christian. Will you join me in the Gallery of God?
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