Sanctuaries Become Art Hubs Thanks To New Space-Sharing Website

Por Kathryn Post
art gallery church
People view an art exhibit in a house of worship space. (Photo courtesy of Venuely)

Blocks away from the Empire State Building, a stunning, mid-19th-century Gothic-style brick church is nestled between steel skyscrapers in New York City’s NoMad neighborhood. The Church of the Transfiguration — affectionately known as “The Little Church” by its congregants — is home to an active Episcopal community and is a national landmark. The basement of the rectory was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and the church gave sanctuary to several dozen Black folks under attack during the Civil War draft riots.

But like many century-old churches, Church of the Transfiguration is struggling due to the cost of upkeep — plus the trials of COVID-19.

“The problem is that, particularly in New York, congregations are housed in large, historic properties, with large amounts of deferred maintenance,” nonprofit leader Kate Toth told media. “At the same time, membership in most religious communities is declining. Those are two difficult trends to square.”

But Toth has a solution to offer. Enter Venuely, a space sharing website launched this month. The interfaith platform borrows from other space sharing models like Airbnb to match houses of faith in New York City that have surplus space to short-term renters in search of a deal. It’s also founded by two nonprofit organizations (Bricks and Mortals y Partners for Sacred Places) that aim to develop capacity for faith communities, not line their pockets.

“There is a huge dearth of affordable, below-market rental spaces,” noted Venuely owner Toth, who is also executive director of Bricks and Mortals. “This really opens up an entire new market of space that’s available, probably thousands of hours of rental spaces that would not otherwise be available. And all these congregations are really interested in providing space specifically to mission focused organizations.”

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Katherine Hutt, a parishioner and vestry clerk at Church of the Transfiguration, told media she’s eager to use Venuely to offer affordable rehearsal space. In addition to its historic ties to anti-slavery, the church has a longtime relationship with the local theater community; in the 1860s, it became one of the first churches in Manhattan to conduct funerals for actors. Inspired by its connection to the arts, Hutt has become a co-founder of Houghton Hall Arts Community, a new rehearsal space in a modern building attached to Church of the Transfiguration that will begin renting to arts groups in the coming months.

church art
The Church of the Transfiguration, known as “The Little Church,” in Manhattan, New York. (Photo via LittleChurch.org)

“We’re turning (the space) into an outreach mission for theater community, and because we’re nonprofit we can offer the space at a very good price,” said Hutt. “Churches have a lot of unused capacity. It makes a lot of sense for that space to be available for other organizations, especially when you have a mission match like we do with the theater community.”

When it opens its doors, Houghton Hall plans to fill out a profile on the Venuely website that allows potential renters to view available spaces, prices and any rules for the space, including whether guests can consume alcohol. Houses of worship can sign up on Venuely for free.

Toth told media she expects at least 50 host sites to join Venuely initially, with the hope of many more — including in other locations — eventually. Venuely asks a 5% processing fee that goes toward running the site, but the organization is largely funded by a grant from the New York Community Trust. Venuely is currently only open to host sites and will begin welcoming renters in September.

Christ Church Cobble Hill in Brooklyn also enjoys sharing space with artists and other faith groups, including a local Buddhist community, but won’t be able to rent out the church’s historic nave, at least for the time being. Built in the early 1840s, the nave was forced to close in 2012 when lightning struck the church’s tower, causing it to collapse and tragically kill a passerby. Once the tower and roof repair is completed, the Rev. Mark Genszler told media, the church would be open to using Venuely.

“I could see Christ Church and other Episcopal churches using something like Venuely for the interstitial moments, both to be involved in neighborhood services and to become known as a congenial space to do short term work, and as a way of introducing yourself to a whole community of people,” Genszler said.

church art
A panel discussion is held at Judson Memorial Church in New York’s Washington Square. (Photo courtesy of Venuely)

The roadblock keeping many houses of worship from gaining supplemental income via space sharing is the perceived risk to their tax-exempt status, according to Toth. But Samuel Brunson, an associate dean at Loyola University in Chicago who researches religion and the tax system, said there is almost no circumstance where renting will put a house of worship’s tax-exempt status at risk.

“If a church is renting out its property to other people, as a general rule, that’s not going to affect its federal tax exemption,” Brunson explained in a recent phone call with media. “The caveat is, if it suddenly stops holding worship services and a significant portion of what it does becomes renting real estate, then it might lose this exemption because it’s no longer pursuing its exempt purpose.”

Moreover, because the IRS doesn’t normally count tax-exempt organizations’ rental income as unrelated business income, houses of worship generally won’t need to pay federal taxes on rental income. However, Brunson added, if faith communities begin providing paid services such as meals or cleaning, they may need to pay taxes on the income earned from those services, but it won’t compromise their tax exempt status overall.

States hold different rules when it comes to tax exemptions, Brunson said, but for New York, rental income doesn’t impact tax exemptions as long as the exempt entity is renting to another tax-exempt entity.

“If you lease your property out to a nonexempt organization, then you owe property tax on that portion of your property you leased to that organization,” said Brunson. But even if faith communities do rent to a for-profit group, they only have to pay property tax on the space rented — it won’t compromise their tax-exempt status overall.

That’s an important distinction for faith communities in New York City. The Rev. Arden Strasser, pastor of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Hell’s Kitchen, is careful to only rent to other nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations to avoid paying taxes on the income from renting out parts of the 99-year-old building for recitals, rehearsals, lectures and concerts.

Looking ahead, St. Luke’s plans to use Venuely to rent its stained-glass adorned sanctuary as well as a multipurpose room to members of the arts community. For Strasser, opening the space up for nonprofit arts groups is an extension of what the church does on Sundays.

“On Sundays, I preach Christ very clearly. But the rest of the week, we preach suffering love by the activities we support,” Strasser told media. “Artists, I think, have deep love for the world, and they want to give something to it and be received. If churches could help artists share from their heart with others, it would be a blessing to the city.”

Kathryn Post es una escritora que vive en Washington DC. Se graduó de Calvin College y es asistente editorial de la revista Sojourners. 

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7 pensamientos sobre “Sanctuaries Become Art Hubs Thanks To New Space-Sharing Website”

  1. Thanks for link to IRS guidance about rent not subject to unrelated business income tax (UBIT). Religious organizations are often unaware that tax-exempt status does not apply to any and every activity or type of tax, even if revenue from such events is used to fund their primary charitable function.

  2. “the church gave sanctuary to several dozen Black folks”

    Why do Black people consistently get the label “folks” in journalism? Nobody automatically says “Swedish folks” or “Venezuelan-American folks” or “Vietnamese folks.”

    Why not “Black people” or “Black men,” if they were men, or “Black refugees from the Draft Riots”?

    That said, it’s nice that the church is making its space available for other uses when appropriate. My church will have a new sanctuary early next year in a location a couple of miles from our current building. We’re looking for ways to put our worship space to use, both for income and to avoid being wasteful. Eventually, we will complete subsidiary buildings at the new site and sell the older property.

  3. In principle a good idea, I think, as long as it has a mission focus; I mean the Christian mission of making disciples. I wouldn’t see hosting a Buddhist group as being compatible with the Christian mission, for example. Same for the views that might be promoted by theatre or visual arts groups…Mapplethorpe photos for example?
    |
    I like that the Church of the Transfiguration has ties to anti-slavery…so does the entire United States! It is one of the very few countries ever to reject slavery in its own polity, and spend huge in lives and treasure to extirpate it; one of the marks of the astonishing wonder and moral greatness of the USA . Great Britain shares this rare distinction, and both used their naval forces to oppose slavery internationally.
    We should all be deeply grateful that this movement emerged in dominantly Christian nations that we are part of.
    |
    Pity that some spend their energy beating up on a historic victory of freedom over oppression, instead of campaigning against the vast business of contemporary slavery in other places.

    1. Daffy –

      You are conveniently neglecting two important facts that establish context:
      1. The UK established and perfected the Transatlantic slave trade as part of expanding its colonialist empire.
      2. The US is one of the ONLY nations that mentions the freedom and equality of all men in its actual founding documents. It is one of the ONLY nations founded on Christian principles. Theresfore, it was violating its own documents – and proclaimed faith – by participating in the slave trade. You can deflect with “well they have slavery in other places”, but it does not change the hypocrisy and resulting cruelty here. It’s like a 5 year old saying, “well they did it too!” to deflect attention from their own bad behavior.

      And because these nations “course corrected” (after the death and enslavement of MILLIONS), we are supposed to cheer? No. It’s like wanting credit for doing what you know you should have been doing in the first place. I don’t give fathers credit for taking care of their kids. They are SUPPOSED to do that. I don’t give kids credit for perfect school attendance. They are SUPPOSED to go to school daily. And no, I don’t give the UK and US credit for freeing slaves. They were SUPPOSED to be doing that from the start.
      I’d rather give credit to those who SURVIVED and THRIVED under the hand of God despite the oppression of slavery. As a descendant of slaves myself, one of my favorite verses is Genesis 50:20: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” My family’s history is living proof of this verse.

    2. It’s too late. America falls to the globalists. There will be ten kingdoms. The antichrist will rise. All will be forced to take a mark in order to buy or sell. We will be jailed and killed by our own people.

    1. There’s actually nothing in scripture that places rules on what church buildings are to look like or be used for. In the first century, the church was mostly meeting in people’s homes. I know of many churches that – before having a building of their own – were meeting gyms, school auditoriums, YMCAs, and office cafeterias.
      A good reminder that the church is supposed to be the people.

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