Total Exhibitionist

Matthew Strauss has audacious plans to remake the city's art scene.

"He's done a fabulous job of marketing it by keeping it a huge secret for so long," says Humphries. "But people don't quite know what he's done yet. People still don't get it. They're not hearing that this guy's poured hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money into this project, and it's at the museum level."

Strauss has big plans for the gallery, including an upcoming show of prominent abstract painters from St. Louis, a show of emerging artists from Los Angeles and an "import/export" show, in which artists from Kansas City will exhibit at White Flag while St. Louis artists display their works at a sister gallery in Kansas City.

"To keep it neutral, and not political, the curator from Kansas City is curating the St. Louis half, and I'm going there and picking the Kansas City half," says Strauss, emphasizing that while he'll be White Flag's director, he won't be curating every show. "I'm not going to run this place like a dictatorship. Outside curation is just absolutely important — getting other people's viewpoints to make this a center of gravity for all kinds of progressive art."

With a combined 6,000 square feet of space, White Flag has 
room to grow.
Jennifer Silverberg
With a combined 6,000 square feet of space, White Flag has room to grow.
Strauss first makes small models from found objects.
Jennifer Silverberg
Strauss first makes small models from found objects.

Still, that's a ways off. In the meantime, Strauss has to make sure the building is up to code, paint a few doors and otherwise ready the space before he can really get started running the gallery. But for now, a personal ad in Biker Lifestyle has caught his attention, and he begins to read.

A few days later, O'Fallon, Illinois, artist Bill Smith is atop a ladder, drilling a hole in White Flag's ceiling. A biologist by training, Smith's kinetic sculptures mimic the natural world. Using reed-like wires and branch-like tubes, Smith incorporates syringes, beads, leaves and seedpods to form his intricately rendered mobile sculptures. He animates his delicate creations with wind currents, solenoids and rare earth magnets. Self-contained and delicately balanced, Smith's sculptures remind you of discrete ecosystems whose perpetual movement depends on the proper functioning of each part.

A pale, compact man, the 44-year-old Smith has exhibited his work in Chicago and Montreal. But even though he lives less than 30 minutes away, it's been almost a decade since he last showed his work in a St. Louis gallery.

"[His work] is all based on nature, but it's too complicated for St. Louis galleries," says Strauss, who first heard of Smith's work from an ex-girlfriend. "That's where our very conservative tastes come into play. It's too unsaleable to show in St. Louis."

Until now, that is. Smith's sculptures will be featured as White Flag's inaugural exhibition, titled Bill Smith: Structures and Systems. The show, featuring an artist with a singular style who has shown only rarely in St. Louis, is exactly the sort of exhibition Strauss says he wants White Flag to showcase.

"This is a nonprofit with no eye at all towards what we think is saleable," says Strauss. "Quality and sales are inversely proportionate: The better a piece of art is, the harder it is to sell in St. Louis, and the worse it is, the easier it is to sell."

As the eldest son of prominent St. Louis philanthropists Mary and the late Leon Strauss — perhaps best known for their renovation of Grand Center's Fox Theatre — Strauss' uncompromising aesthetic purism has occasionally prompted other artists in the city to dismiss him as a rich kid who's never had to struggle.

"Whenever someone does something new, people in the art world are always bound to criticize," says Philip Slein, owner of Philip Slein Gallery on Washington Avenue. "Artists are insecure. They get jealous of other artists' success — that's just how the art world is. It's hard to understand from the outside, but the art world is filled with petty jealousies and sniping."

The St. Louis art scene is no exception, and Strauss is often at the receiving end of other artists' resentment. Though griping about Strauss' privileged background and artistic gifts is usually reserved for late nights and private conversations, the sentiment bubbled to the surface in the summer of 2001 after Strauss wrote a letter to the Riverfront Times calling "whores" those artists who participated in the "People Project," a public art project in which corporate-sponsored artists decorated life-size sculptures of people.

"It's easy for rich kids who make art with mom and dad's money to call someone who did the project for the money a whore. I can guarantee you most of the artists didn't make a dime off this if you count time, supplies, gas, etc.," wrote St. Louis painter Sandra Marchewa. "Loosen up, Matthew — be glad you didn't submit to such a 'soulless proposition.' Maybe you should take a break from your own art and search your own soul (it might make your artwork better); you could use it, because you sound just like another boring, self-centered, bitter, whiny spoiled brat — very typical in the art world. Ho-hum."

Five years later, Strauss can recite the letter almost verbatim. "That was on my wall for years," he says. "St. Louis is a player-hatin' town. I'm probably disliked by as many people as like me. I just hope that White Flag doesn't get dragged down by my personal connection to it."

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