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The Luminary Center for the Arts doesn't look at first glance much like a place you'd find live music. Converted from a convent to an open gallery, the 9,000-square-foot space has garnered increasing attention over the years, both for art installations and exhibitions, and an increasingly high-profile series of bands coming to perform in the basement. Go down the steps, and you'll find yourself entering what once was a host to fish fries and church bingo. It's now completely renovated and, considering the circumstances, the space is expansive, with vaulted ceilings, a stage in back and projections advertising upcoming events. And they're not shows you would expect in this sort of space: Destroyer, Lightning Bolt and Of Montreal have all played here in the past year.
Since its establishment in late 2007, the Luminary Center for the Arts has featured contemporary arts, mixed media and artist residency from the beginning. As the brainchild of Brea and James McAnally, the Luminary is making a place for itself in the art world even outside St. Louis as a 501(c)(3) artist-resourcing institution. In an interview, James explains that while the Luminary is still primarily known as a studio and events space, it far surpassed their initial goals when it started hosting musicians as well as visual artists.
The Elevator Music Series was launched in March 2010, and the Luminary has brought in national bands that normally play much larger venues. Acts like Warpaint, Javelin, Cold Cave and Bear in Heaven have graced the stage, strengthening a continually growing music community and simultaneously helping to establish St. Louis as a worthwhile stop.
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Still, the Luminary is one of the city's smaller venues, and many may wonder how the McAnallys managed to land the most unexpected show of the summer, Of Montreal, with its massive theatrics in tact.
"The Of Montreal show actually came out of a conversation with their agent about bringing in Deerhoof." McAnally says. "They [Of Montreal] were planning to be coming back from a festival in Iowa, and he thought they would be interested in an atypical opportunity to play in a creative setting."
The last time Of Montreal came to St. Louis, it played the Pageant, a venue five times the size of the Luminary.
"I think the band was attracted to the fact that we take both art and music seriously and try to provide something out of the ordinary each time we do an event. Obviously, we were incredibly excited about the opportunity to present something this rare, both for the band and the audience," McAnally says. (For a review of the show, see page 37.)
The McAnallys curate concerts like they would art shows: San Francisco's Deerhoof is playing its first-ever St. Louis show on September 21 at the Luminary.
"Nearly every show we've brought in has been specifically picked for the concert series, but even in cases in which the band or booking agent approaches us, it is typically a band that we would have sought out." McAnally says. "We typically trust our instincts; if it's something we are excited about, it usually translates to be something that a lot of other people are excited about."
The Luminary typically books five to six shows in a season, leaving it free of the demands of the weekly show schedule most venues must maintain to stay in business. The limited supply has proved an asset. "At first, we always approached the bands. But as we built relationships with bands and agents, we began to be approached more and more often with great opportunities," says McAnally. "Since we don't have to host shows every night or even every week, we can wait for the opportunities that we — and hopefully our audiences — are really excited about."
As an extension of the McAnallys' concert programming efforts, the Post Performance series was created in the summer of 2010, taking place at the then newly renovated Old Post Office Plaza downtown. Nestled in the heart of downtown, the 30,000-square-foot plaza is the perfect locale for open-space design and event planning. Fit with a wading pool, open seating and the night sky above, the plaza is both intimate and encompassing.
"Brea and I had walked past the Old Post Office Plaza soon after it was finished and talked about how it would be perfect for creating an outdoor installation alongside a performance. At first, the idea was for our own band — US English — but a few months later Downtown Now! put out a call for proposals to award grants to local organizations to create events at the plaza. So it quickly changed into a Luminary project instead." McAnally says.
They won a grant with a proposal to design a mixed-media collaboration in the space, and the Luminary created something both inspiring and truly singular. Marrying live sound with visual installations, the inauguration of the series last summer included acts such as Phaseone with a work by Daniel Shown and Black Spade with one from Alex Petrowsky.
"The vision of the Post Performances is to create meaningful interactions between visual art and music and to cultivate an appreciation across the different platforms," says McAnally. "So much of our work balances between those two spheres that we wanted an opportunity to actually commission the artists and musicians to work together to create something truly unique. In many ways, I think the Post Performances is one of the clearest examples of what we do and what we hope to do in the future."
The Luminary's operating standpoint as a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization allows it to work within the community inciting cultural change through original programming in the worlds of art and music.
"I think the most important aspect of being a nonprofit is that your goal is social benefit rather than financial gain. We approach everything in terms of how it will benefit the area culturally, serve a particular group of people or provide opportunities that were not there before."
The Luminary's quickly gained notoriety serves as a propulsive force in the space's evolution. "We definitely did not expect the kind of response we have seen over the past few years," says McAnally. "We initially intended to only be an artist studio space and resourcing center, so the development of everything else has come pretty organically."
By allowing its vision to evolve and expand, the Luminary has become a unique inspiration in a city full of potential.
"I think our ambition only grows with our ability to pull things off, but we want to create something that is unique not only to St. Louis, but nationally," McAnally says. "The more we see other places, the more we realize that what is possible here is truly extraordinary, and we hope to be a part of that."