There He Goes Again

If you liked the City Museum, just look at what Bob Cassilly is doing now

The charge that doing public art or receiving commissions for casting large animals is somehow not staying true to your art baffles Cassilly, because so much of today's art scene is supported by government funds. "How can you be avant-garde when the government supports you? It's like subsidizing the Eskimos and they all turn into alcoholics. You've got third-generation welfare artists," says Cassilly.

When Bob and Gail Cassilly started the City Museum, the intent was to have a for-profit corporation run it. When that didn't pan out, they opted to go nonprofit and seek funds from the Danforth Foundation and others. The Danforths kicked in $250,000. Without that assistance from the foundations, it's unlikely the City Museum would be where it is today.

As for the City Museum, his relationship to it has been affected by its success and his current separation from his wife, who is the executive director of the museum. On the museum's Web site, Bob's official title is "creative director," but he is listed as the "Idea Man." Gail is listed under "Idea Orchestrations."

"I've got to build somewhere, and I'm at an impasse at City Museum, so I'm going to build here," Cassilly says about the cement-plant project. "I have this compulsive building problem. I have to do it somewhere, and I see this as an area of unlimited opportunity."

Griping about not fitting in at the now-successful City Museum or talking about how much better it is to start something up than keep it running may sound like he has "Steve Jobs syndrome" or a case of "sour grapes," Cassilly admits, but then he adds that it may be "partially true, maybe completely true."

Cassilly is also building on the roof of the building that houses the City Museum. His bus still hangs off the 10-story roof, and he's purchased the hull of the interior dome of the McDonnell Planetarium. He plans to cut a hole in the roof for it, plant the dome on top of it and make an auditorium out of it.

As part of their separation, Gail and Bob have split ownership of the building that houses the City Museum. As creative director, he's paid $1 a year. Dave Jump, principal owner of American Milling Co., bought Gail's 50 percent of the building in April. Jump, a multimillionaire from the barge industry, is also backing Bob's purchase and development of the cement plant on Riverview Drive. Jump also owns several buildings along Washington Avenue.

Cassilly traces his real-estate activity to 25 years ago, when he bought his first house in Lafayette Square for $2,000, rehabbing it and selling it at a profit. From there on, it was just a matter of scale.

As for those in the art world who carp at him about "selling out," he dismisses that view. "There's nothing worse for an artist to accept than another artist's success, to the degree that one is a success is the degree that someone else is a failure, because everything is on a sliding scale."

As for someone else's opinion of his work, he sees no point in wondering.

"How would I know if I'm crass or tasteless?" Cassilly asks rhetorically. "It's other people who sit back with some perspective who can look at me. I just do what I'm compelled to do."

For at least one fellow sculptor, Cassilly's variance from the norm is a plus. Tim Curtis taught sculpture at Washington University before moving to the University of Miami, where he is head of sculpture and an associate professor of art. He's a fan of Cassilly the man, the sculptor and "the mover and shaker."

"I find myself talking to students about Bob all the time. Here's a guy who figured out a way to make it on his own. He's an entrepreneur," says Curtis. "As far as I know, he's a self-made man. He has total confidence. Most people have a little voice inside themselves that questions themselves and says, 'Hey, gee, maybe I'm not good enough, maybe I'm not strong enough.' Bob seems to not have that voice. He goes for what he wants and 90 percent of the time achieves it. I'm amazed by that."

Curtis says he sometimes thinks of Cassilly as "the American equivalent to Gaudi," referring to Antonio Gaudi, the Spaniard whose abstract sculptures atop the Casa Mila Apartments and the unfinished spires of the Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona drew criticism at first but later praise. Cassilly has similar vision and willpower to make things happen, Curtis believes. "It's a compliment when I say a Gaudi. Here's a guy who decided he was going to build those things that nobody thought they needed, and 100 years later they continue to admire it.

"This is not a naïve artist," Curtis says. "He knows his art history, he knows his place in contemporary society. This is a guy who is pretty savvy all the way around."

One longtime Washington Avenue acquaintance of Cassilly credits his work ethic, his real-estate acumen and his willingness to go where others fear to tread.

"He's not afraid to put himself on the line. He wants to do something on the north riverfront? Go for it. Because you know what? Nobody else has the balls to do it. He's not afraid to do things that other people would have feasibility studies done on first and then go to the investment committee. He just does it, and people later on go, 'Wow.'

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