The Church of the Ascension in Manhattan has sold an iconic mural by the late artist Keith Haring for a whopping $3.9 million. The church’s pastor, Fr. Daniel Kearney, hopes this sale will keep the doors open for this LGBTQ-affirming Catholic Church.
Keith Haring was known for his graffiti and pop art depicting bright and cartoon-like silhouettes, a body of work that became closely associated with the early AIDS crisis. Haring died of AIDS-related complications at the age of 31 in 1990, after a brief but powerful career as an artist.
Haring, a gay man, had a complex relationship with Christianity himself. Deeply influenced by the evangelical Jesus Movement as a child, religious imagery continued to appear in his art throughout his career, though he no longer considered himself religiously affiliated. Most notably in his “tag”(a small image on his art identifying it as his) during his early years, a small outline of a baby with rays radiating from the figure, referred to as the Radiant Child.
The Church of the Ascension housed this rarely seen mural of 13 figures in the stairwell of a building that formerly housed a Catholic Youth Organization home, known as Grace House. It is estimated Haring painted the mural some time in 1983 or 1984, at the suggestion of friends who lived there. The Grace House property was recently sold to an anonymous buyer earlier this year, a hard decision deemed necessary by a struggling parish. Kurt Pohmer, a trustee at Ascension, says the church has been losing $300,000 a year, and the sale of Grace House was deemed necessary in order to keep Ascension open.
Fearing the future of such an important piece of LGBTQ history and work of art, the parish got to work preserving the mural. Pohmer says $900,000 was spent cutting out the 85-foot images from the wall. Though the sale is a bittersweet parting, the money ensures the future of Ascension as it approaches its 125th anniversary. Says Pohmer:
“I think we did the right thing. We were good stewards of the murals. We’re not art dealers, that’s not our profession. We’re here to help the community, to help people out. We have a lot of other projects to do and hopefully this parish will thrive for another 125 years.”
Fr. Kearney agrees. Haring’s part of Ascension’s history is important for the LGBTQ-friendly church. Kearney personally ends each mass by telling LGBT people, divorced and remarried people, and anyone else rejected by their faith that they have a place here and are always welcomed:
“It’s almost as if the Lord has his hand in this in some way. I can’t help but think that as [Haring’s] legacy is being kept alive; I think there would be some amount of contentment on his part in knowing that it was this particular parish that’s preserving his legacy.”
Though it’s sad to see a Catholic church lose such an important part of LGBTQ history, the Church of the Ascension’s efforts have secured the preservation of Haring’s work, as well as keeping the doors of a much-needed, LGBTQ-friendly parish open.
—Melissa Feito, January 2, 2020