Peanuts Gallery

The stories of St. Louis resemble the motifs of the late Charles Schulz

Charles Schulz died, and no death was as notable, in the arts or otherwise, this year. The indelible images he left on the American consciousness -- the universe packed within those comic-strip panels -- were an ongoing display of the perpetual human conundrum. "What's wrong will always be wrong," is how the poet Richard Hugo put it. Lucy would always pull the football away before Charlie Brown could give it a kick. The tree would devour the kite. The little redheaded girl would send her secret admirer into paroxysms of anxiety. Schulz knew that, for the most part, most of us, confronted with the reality of our own desires, are little more than frightened children with brown paper bags over our heads. Charlie Brown, the American Sisyphus, will always lose the baseball game -- and will always take the mound again.

Seen in a sympathetic light, the St. Louis art scene can be viewed as being caught in the same eternal narratives of failure. From a less favorable perspective, these stories lack the drama or amusement contained in Peanuts' serials of folly. Performers hunting for space; arts organizations hunting for space; venerable old spaces slated for the wrecking ball; performers with space being warned, "No sex, please," in those spaces, or, more precisely, "No gay sex, please, we're St. Louis"; spaces kept closed for fear of -- who knows? success? All this in a city that, if it has anything, it has space. Good grief.

The fate of the Regional Arts Commission (RAC) fits in the Lucy/football scenario. RAC had outgrown its facility in Grand Center and began looking for new digs in March 1999. Not wanting to lose one of the organizations that, at least according to Grand Center Inc. PR, makes the area St. Louis' "premier arts, entertainment and education district," Grand Center operatives Jim Holtzman and Tom Turner gave RAC the not-so-grand tour of buildings that in no way figured to be available for use by the time RAC's lease ran out in the summer of 2000. They even offered, at just about the last minute, a renovation of the Medinah Temple, a building Grand Center Inc. owns that has been discussed as a performing-arts facility for years in another one of those perpetual discussions that comes around as sure as Charlie Brown is going to be knocked prone by a line drive.

Grand Center Inc. sold City Arts the option on the Medinah Temple for $1. Now the arts consortium finds itself with a dilapidated building and wonders whether that dollar was money well spent.
Grand Center Inc. sold City Arts the option on the Medinah Temple for $1. Now the arts consortium finds itself with a dilapidated building and wonders whether that dollar was money well spent.
Grand Center Inc. sold City Arts the option on the Medinah Temple for $1. Now the arts consortium finds itself with a dilapidated building and wonders whether that dollar was money well spent.
Grand Center Inc. sold City Arts the option on the Medinah Temple for $1. Now the arts consortium finds itself with a dilapidated building and wonders whether that dollar was money well spent.

But RAC didn't have the year it would take for the renovation of the Medinah to be completed and was prepared to select a space in the Washington Avenue loft district when Grand Center Inc. threw an absolute hissy fit. Just what sorts of leverage or coercion or pleading were employed, nobody is saying, but RAC didn't move. Grand Center Inc. then offered space in the KETC building for 18-36 months while RAC set out again for a new locale, presumably elsewhere in Grand Center. Then, oops, Grand Center Inc. got the dimensions all wrong, and it turned out the KETC space wasn't appropriate. RAC remains in limbo; Grand Center Inc. remains smug -- smug as, say, Lucy every time she pulled that ball away. RAC's executive director, Jill McGuire, is on a much-needed vacation and was unavailable for comment in reviewing this never-ending story, but she once praised Turner and Holtzman for the "real sense of urgency" they brought to Grand Center Inc. Others might say, in Peanuts-speak, "You blockheads!" Or, in language Schulz would never have employed, Turner and Holtzman couldn't pour pee out of a boot if the instructions were on the heel.

Because Grand Center's ineptitude lacks the sentimental value of a comic strip, isn't it time this whole concept of a central arts district be given up as a dream inappropriate to the character of the city? What does it matter if RAC is housed on Washington and Grand or a few blocks closer to downtown? The only reason it matters is that Grand Center Inc. exists, and the only way it can prove its legitimacy -- given that the organization has little to boast about other than improved sidewalks and lighting in more than 10 years of futility -- is to at the very least (which is the level at which Grand Center works) keep what it has and maintain the PR.

Risks are taken by entrepreneurs with capital at stake: Joe Edwards in the Loop, the investors in the Washington Avenue lofts, Bob Cassilly at the City Museum. The blockheads at Grand Center perpetually stall the district's own development through their dual nature: They're both Lucy taking the ball away and Charlie Brown making the wrong choice over and over again. In a comic strip, this is entertaining pathos. In city administration, it's just pathetic.

RAC's plight brings up other space issues. The Medinah was optioned to Metro Theater Company and Gash/Voigt Dance Theatre -- a consortium that calls itself City Arts -- for $1. Everyone knows the need for a midsize performance/rehearsal/education space, yet the Grand Center folk sit in their offices and call themselves facilitators. Meanwhile, City Arts finds itself with a dilapidated building and wonders whether that dollar was money well spent.

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