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Six Houses of Worship Where Artists and Musicians Can Borrow the Basement

In these churches and synagogues, the underground art scene thrives — literally.

Kristine Dreuille (center) and Drew Straub (right) at the Elvis Presley Memorial Party at Club 57, 1980 (photo by Joseph Szkodzinski and courtesy Joseph Szkodzinski and MoMA)

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the underground art and music scenes were often literally that — underground. Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983, currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, celebrates a New York nightclub that thrived in the basement of Holy Cross Polish National Catholic Church — and once hosted the likes of Keith Haring, RuPaul, Fab Five Freddy, and Madonna. Although 57 St. Mark’s Place hasn’t served as a religious space for many years, other houses of worship in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC continue to open their basement doors to artists, musicians, and performers, regardless of their religious affiliations. So if you’re looking for a community-minded space to host your next art show, band, or performance, take note. Here are six spaces that welcome event ideas of all kinds.

McDermott & McGough, “Oscar Wilde Temple, 1917, MMXVII” (2017) (installation view), Russell Chapel, the Church of the Village, New York (photo by Elisabeth Bernstein, © McDermott & McGough)

The Church of the Village (Greenwich Village, Manhattan)

Last year, the Church of the Village hosted David McDermott and Peter McGough’s Oscar Wilde Temple in its basement. On the main floor, the church has also shown art installations and commissioned a mural for the narthex walls. Although no other art projects are currently planned for the church’s basement, “we are always open to and always thinking about such possibilities,” Pastor Jeff Wells told Hyperallergic in an email.

Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square South between Thompson and Sullivan Streets in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City, seen from the east (photo by Beyond My Ken, via Wikimedia Commons)

Judson Memorial Church (Greenwich Village, Manhattan)

Just across the street from Washington Square Park, the Judson Memorial Church has been hosting experimental art events for over 50 years. As the church’s website explains, “We offer a haven for creative bursts that may evaporate in a puff of smoke, may send sparks flying, and may explode our comfortable complacency. And we cherish every one of these moments as sacred.” Artists like Claes Oldenburg and Yoko Ono have shown there; the church has also hosted dance and theater companies. Today, the basement, nicknamed The Gym, serves as “a workout space for the arts” and houses rehearsals and productions, experimental theater, performance, and beyond.

Park Church Co-op (Greenpoint, Brooklyn)

Among the many community events at Park Church Co-op, one of the oddest is a pitch-black basement dance party called “No Lights, No Lycra.” For now, it appears this is the church’s only regular artsy basement event, but they do have a public event submission form, so if you’re looking for a space to host your weird art or music project, you might as well fill it out and see what they say. (Unfortunately, it appears the church may be forced close in April for lack of funding.)

Led by interim minister Rev. Dr. Susan V. Rak, the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia dedicates their new Black Lives Matter banner on February 28, 2016 (photo by Oh.hello.caro, via Wikimedia Commons)

First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia (Philadelphia)

Since the 1990s, local DIY promoter R5 Productions has been booking indie and punk bands to play low-key, all-ages shows in the basement of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. In the past, the church has hosted bands like Arcade Fire, King Tuff, and Mumford and Sons.

Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, DC (photo by David Monack, via Wikimedia Commons)

Sixth & I Historic Synagogue (Washington, DC)

Although the DC institution has rebranded itself under the less religious name “Sixth & I,” it’s still as much a functioning synagogue as it is an events space. Upstairs, Sixth & I has hosted readings with authors like Zadie Smith and Madeleine Albright, while the basement is reserved for more alternative events, like Found magazine launches and low-key indie concerts.

St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, 2015 (photo by Farragutful, via Wikimedia Commons)

St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church (Washington, DC)

Known colloquially as St. Stephen’s, this DC church has hosted all kinds of underground culture in its basement: an activist collectivehacker space, punk shows, and a hip-hop conference, among many others. St. Stephen’s often opens up its nave to outside events — they even let organizers move all the pews out of the way — which makes room for things like subversive puppet theater and regular BYOB square dances.

Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983 continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd St, Midtown, Manhattan) through April 1.

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