St. Mark’s has long been a center of creative ferment in the East Village, serving as a home for cutting-edge artists and cultural pioneers, who have also nourished the spiritual side of St. Mark’s.
In the early 20th century, the Rev. William Norman Guthrie, eager to grow the St. Mark’s parish, opened the church to performances of dance, music, and poetry. He created the St. Mark’s Arts Committee, with local people including Kahlil Gibran, Vachel Lindsay, and Edna St. Vincent Millay as members. Special guests were invited, including William Carlos Williams who lectured in the Sunday Symposium Series in 1926 and Martha Graham who danced in the Sanctuary in 1930. In 1933 Guthrie read aloud the poems of Ruth St. Denis as she performed ecstatic dances. Guthrie also invited Hindu, Baha’i, and Native American spiritual leaders to hold services in their own traditions. He turned the church’s yards into contemplative and inspirational gardens for artists, members of the community, and churchgoers, and had two prominent Native American statues—Aspiration and Inspiration—by sculptor Solon Borglum installed. Rev. Richard E. McEvoy, who served from 1943 to 1959, introduced a visual arts program.
When Rev. Michael Allen arrived, W.H. Auden was a parishioner. As the Lower East Side attracted more and more poets, writers, dancers, theater people, and musicians, St. Mark’s became synonymous with creative expression. In 1966 the first reading held at the Poetry Project was given by Paul Blackburn. Free jazz concerts were offered in the west yard. In 1963 the Umbra collective held a festival that featured African-American painters, poets, musicians, and others. In 1964, St. Mark’s congregant Ralph Cook founded Theater Genesis, a playwrights group, and Sam Shepard’s first plays were among the early productions. Rev. Allen also welcomed the screening of experimental films. The U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare recognized the unique role of St. Mark’s as a cultural institution with a first significant grant for readings, publications, and workshops in 1966. The Danspace Project was founded in 1974 by Larry Fagin and Barbara Dilley. That same year, Friends of St. Mark’s was formed by neighbor Georgia Delano. Members included William S. Burroughs, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Allen Ginsberg, Margaret Mead, Dore Ashton, LuEsther Mertz, Meredith Monk, and Lewis Mumford. In 1976, with the approval of the Bishop of New York, the Preservation Youth Project removed the remaining pews in the church and replaced the old linoleum floor with a sprung hardwood floor.
St. Mark’s Church is home to three important arts projects:
Danspace holds performances in the Sanctuary Thursday through Saturday evenings during their season (from September through May). Danspace Project’s Commissioning Initiative has commissioned over 540 new works since 1994. Print catalogues, e-books, a discussion series and other projects offer a responsive framework for artists’ works. Danspace has an office on the second floor of the Sanctuary.
The Poetry Project holds readings in the Parish Hall Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and workshops
Tuesdays and Thursdays. The annual New Year’s Day Marathon fills the Sanctuary to capacity, and symposia and panels are usually sold out. The Poetry Project has an office on the second floor of the Sanctuary, storage space in the basement and extensive archives of the Poetry Project were acquired by The Library of Congress in 2007.
The New York Theatre Ballet offers classes throughout the year at pre-ballet through advanced levels for children and adults during the day in the former theater space on the second floor of the Parish Hall. Today, an active and inclusive Episcopal congregation makes St. Mark’s one of the oldest sites of continuous worship in the country, and the church remains one of New York City’s most important centers for art and performance.