Flyover This: Local "advocates" shell out to ship in writers to fawn over SLAM's new addition

Flyover This: Local "advocates" shell out to ship in writers to fawn over SLAM's new addition
Jacob Sharp

A preview last month of the Saint Louis Art Museum's long-awaited new wing has, appropriately, generated an outpouring of adjectives from the local press, wherein the David Chipperfield-designed building's architectural elegance, the reinstalled contemporary collection's curatorial acumen and the wing's gestalt impressiveness have been duly fawned over.

All well and good: The new wing is luminous, uncrowded and carefully understated for optimal showcasing of art.

What's disturbing is the nature of the praise.

The headline of Diane Toroian Keaggy's story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch nutshells the media misdirection: "St. Louis Art Museum Expansion Brings National Attention to All of Area's Visual Arts Venues."

Evidently, prior to the sprouting of SLAM's new wing, local visual-arts venues weren't on the national radar. Furthermore, now all of them are.

"Local arts advocates agree a new building alone won't change St. Louis' status as a flyover city," Keaggy writes. "That's why they have launched a collaborative campaign to promote all of St. Louis' arts attractions. Their pitch: St. Louis is the culture town of the Midwest."

In the story, Regional Arts Commission marketing director Diane Kline touts her organization's Major Marketing Initiative (MMI). The RAC established the every-other-month conclave in 2007, in order to pool the marketing power of local arts organizations. What better way to spread the glow that was bound to emanate from SLAM's high-profile renovation? [A correction ran regarding this paragraph; see note at end of story.]

But who are these "local arts advocates"? And what constitutes "all of St. Louis' arts attractions"? Keaggy's story doesn't say.

When asked by RFT to identify the MMI's members, Kline says there are 24, including the Contemporary Art Museum, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, Laumeier Sculpture Park and the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, as well as the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission and, of course, SLAM.

Kline's art-cat-herding project paid off: About a dozen art and architectural journalists attended the museum's preview tour, among them out-of-town writers from the San Francisco Chronicle, Art in America and Architectural Record.

When it came to Keaggy's story, the sound bite most cited — in local e-mail blasts and on Yahoo listserves and countless Facebook pages — as game-changing praise for St. Louis came from Hilarie Sheets, a critic for Art in America:

"Being a New Yorker there is a certain chauvinism we may have about the 'heartland,' so at times my colleagues and I might be surprised when we hear someone from MOMA would take a job in St. Louis," Sheets said. "But it's happened enough that it's become clear something serious is happening here. I wanted to see for myself what that was, and, honestly, I'm stunned. Who knew there was so much? There really does seem to be a critical mass in St. Louis."

Concludes Keaggy: "That's exactly what local arts advocates want to hear."

Really?

I'd like to consider myself a local arts advocate, and I do not feel especially validated by a self-proclaimed chauvinistic New Yorker feeling "surprised" and "stunned" that a "critical mass" (of what?) has somehow coagulated in St. Louis.

What's more, as a freelance writer for Art in America, would it not suffice for me to say that St. Louis is way more than a flyover city and a thriving visual-arts and cultural center? Might that work as a takeaway quote? Or must I make a self-deprecating caveat about how it's still nothing like LA or New York or London?

Perhaps it would work better if someone paid for me to fly in from somewhere exotic and then say it.

* * *

Back to this elusive whole of St. Louis art culture. Where, I wonder, do our numerous commercial and alternative spaces fit in? White Flag Projects, the Luminary Center for the Arts, Philip Slein Gallery, Good Citizen Gallery, the Sheldon Galleries, burgeoning artist-run spaces including yellow bear, BANK gallery and mushmaus — not one of these was included in the RAC's powwows. And the foregoing is far from an exhaustive list of St. Louis' many art venues, which include independent fine-art print shops, hybrid arts-resource centers and community spaces. All actively contribute to making St. Louis a vibrant art center.

I'd hazard to guess that what local St. Louis art advocates really want to hear is that more local criticism will be written about the multifaceted work that is being done here.

In a recent article in GalleristNY, Andrew Russeth states that fewer than ten full-time art critics are at work in the U.S. (One of them is Alice Thorson of the Kansas City Star.) Russeth defines a full-time art critic as a "critic on staff at a general-interest outlet, regularly writing bylined articles only about visual art with few, if any, other editorial responsibilities...outlets that respect art critics enough to pay them a wage — and yes, provide health insurance — that allows them to focus almost completely on that one job, without having to take on other positions and projects." Such a writer, Russeth argues, is able to "expose a wide variety of art to a broad audience on a continual basis."

Here's a thought: If arts advocates in St. Louis really want to promote and bolster the "critical mass," instead of spending their money flying in critics from the coasts, why not pool their resources to endow a full-time arts writer at one of our local newspapers? (The Post-Dispatch hasn't employed a full-time critic since David Bonetti accepted a buyout almost five years ago.)

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