By Margie Smith Holt
If you were lucky enough to be at the Center Gallery at 66th and Columbus Friday night, you would have seen two global icons—His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu—giggling, cracking jokes, and mischievously teasing each other as if, to use Tutu’s daughter Mpho Tutu’s description, they were “8-year-old boys”—all while imparting their combined decades of wisdom, inspiration, and advice for living a life of joy and meaning in these not-exactly-joyful times.
The meeting of these Nobel Peace Prize-winners wasn’t in person, of course. Tutu died in December at age 90. The Christian cleric’s conversations with his Buddhist friend, the exiled Tibetan monk, came to the Upper West Side via the film Mission: Joy—Finding Happiness in Troubled Times, and these days—after nearly two years of COVID-induced isolation, Zoom calls, and social distancing—film almost counts as live.
The spiritual leaders and social justice activists were certainly larger than life on screen, and the depiction of their equally grand friendship left the audience alternately laughing and crying—just as award-winning UWS photojournalist Jane Feldman, one of the creative forces behind the screening, promised it would. She even brought the tissues.
“He changed my life forever,” Feldman says of Tutu, or “The Arch,” as she began calling him during 25 years of traveling with and photographing him. “It feels so important right now, to be doing something to keep his legacy alive…Everyone needs to see this movie.”
For screening information, contact the distributor here. On the same website, there are tabs to connect schools, churches, and nonprofits for free screenings.
The trailer is below.
The Center Gallery event sprung from another friendship, one forged when Feldman accidentally stumbled into the gallery across the street from Lincoln Center (“I thought the front door was an entrance to the adjacent American Folk Art Museum”) and got to talking with gallery manager Glen Nelson. Feldman’s a native New Yorker (three generations); Nelson’s got the bona fides (hasn’t had a driver’s license since 1986 when he left Utah to study at NYU). They discovered they’re now neighbors on the Upper West Side. And they kept talking.
“During COVID, it was a good place that I could go to talk about art and philosophy and spirituality,” Feldman said.
Feldman thought the intimate, 1,000-square-foot gallery—big enough for 40 seats and “a magnificent space—one that I often refer to as a sanctuary in the middle of Manhattan”—would be a perfect fit for Mission: Joy. The film, directed by Louie Psihoyos and Peggy Callahan, premiered during the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival but wasn’t widely distributed. Nelson agreed, saying he hoped the one-night-only event would provide “a chance to see how people from very disparate places and cultures can find overlap, common ground, and joy. I definitely could use that right now.”
Nelson also invited Feldman to exhibit some of her photographs: Tutu and the Dalai Lama captured mid-chuckle at an interfaith event in Seattle; a portrait of a regal Nelson Mandela on a return visit to Riverside Church, where he gave an historic address after his release from prison in 1990; Tutu posing with young adults at a global healing conference in Bali.
Feldman pointed to the Bali photo. “I love this shot because he just comes to life with kids. He loves young people.” She paused to correct herself. “I still get my tenses mixed up. I’ll say love versus loved… But he would laugh.”
The Center Gallery opened last summer in the space that used to be the Europan Café, in a building owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The gallery is a project of the non-profit Center for Latter-day Saint Arts but is not, Nelson said, “a religious visitors center experience.”
“We don’t get money from the church, we don’t have to have approval from them to do things…It’s a fine art gallery in the greatest city in the world.”
In addition to curated exhibitions, there are special events—concerts, lectures, readings, classes—every Friday at 7pm, all free.
Center Gallery currently has a one-year lease. Nelson is hoping to graduate from pop-up gallery to a more permanent fixture on the UWS arts scene.
“People really want to reconnect with other people,” Nelson said. “We’ve had such a wonderful experience. We get up to 400 people a week in here. And that’s during COVID. I feel really good about that kind of community engagement.”
Check the Center Gallery website for a full listing of events. The gallery at 135 Columbus Avenue is open Tuesday – Saturday, 11am – 7pm and Sunday 11am –3pm. Admission is also free.
To see more of Feldman’s work, visit janefeldman.com.