While St. Louis isn't stuffed with major internationally recognized art galleries and museums, it does have a thriving arts community. And that might be one of this city's secret strengths: Here's where you can find the grit, authenticity and — crucially — the affordability that allows artists to create and develop.
Here, art doesn't only happen in museums. The city's scrappiness not only allows but demands innovation, and artists, artisans and curators have responded to this unique situation by embracing a key resource that this city offers: an abundance of space and previously underutilized buildings. Relative to larger cities, it's far more possible to rent a space to make or display art... which means that untraditional art abounds in St. Louis.
So with that: First things first. New arrivals will hear so many urgent recommendations to get to City Museum (750 North 16th Street, 314-231-2489) that they may think we're unduly proud of our civic history. No, no, no: what we're proud of is the most innovative, joy-inducing, wondrous structure anyone could hope to clamber on. Housed in an industrial building, and bursting out of the rooftop and windows, City Museum is the profoundly hands-on masterpiece of late artist and local legend Bob Cassilly. Inside the building, you can crawl through mystical caves, roost in a human-sized birdnest and slip down a ten-story slide. You'll come upon rooms full of architectural relics and vintage opera posters, and you may stumble upon a graffiti-come-to-life sculpture by CAWS — part of a collection of cutting-edge gallery art secretly proliferating inside City Museum. It's a place where you're meant to get lost, found and lost again. There's nothing else like it on Earth.
After (and only after) that essential experience should you turn elsewhere. And in that case, the best place to go for an artistic orientation is the graffiti wall (Chouteau Avenue and South Leonor K Sullivan Boulevard) that stretches along the western bank of the Mississippi. The city's gritty edge is literal here: This is exactly the kind of thing that many other cities would have already covered up. We're fortunate that hasn't happened in St. Louis, because what exists here in the lawless margin is a constantly evolving document and timeline of graffiti writers and artists who live in or pass through the region. Drive down this mile-long stretch of flood wall and you'll see everything from quick one-color tags and phrases to fully realized murals. Like the city itself, it's always changing — parts fade, elements get painted over, feuds and alliances unfold, artists revisit with new work. Take your time and take it all in... and come back the same time next year to see what's transpired since you left.
Not far geographically but worlds away culturally is Citygarden (801 Market Street), where glorious landscaping and attention-grabbing flora nearly mask the huge sculpture gallery tucked within. This two-by-one block of outdoor green space is free to the public and home to a robust collection of sculptures. You'll find pieces by contemporary heavy hitters such as Igor Mitoraj, whose dramatic mythical head Eros Bendato compels the viewer to contemplate scale (while composing the perfect Instagram shot), and Tom Otterness, who is best known for his quirky work adorning New York City subways, but here is responsible for the large bronze sculpture Kindly Geppetto. There's a fourteen-foot video wall with a rotating roster of time-based arts, often curated by Cinema St. Louis, as well as a more traditional piece by renowned French figurative artist Aristide Maillol, and a whimsically oversized giant empty pink suit by Austrian artist Erwin Wurm. With a canopy of bright green trees whispering above gently curving paths, waterfalls and a child-delighting splash pad, Citygarden is the definition of a family-friendly environment — for seeing art or making it yourself in the dappled light.
For the last decade-plus, the south city blocks of Cherokee Street have been a hot spot for artists to get to work. Sheppard Studios (1925 Cherokee Street) is both the workshop and storefront of local art denizen Mark Sheppard. Creatures both realistic and fantastic populate his work, alternately cute and foreboding — bats and opossums gotta trick-or-treat too! Fans of Tim Burton and Edward Gorey will find themselves right at home.
A few blocks west is Reese Gallery (3410 Wisconsin, 314-954-7638), a small but sophisticated space tucked unobtrusively within a historic two-story brick building. The art on display tends to be a combination of 2- and 3D art — much of the three-dimensional work is ceramic, though the materials and approaches are consistently innovative and unexpected. They feature artists both local and national, and the graceful layout of the gallery allows for surprisingly intimate encounters with the work.
Cherokee Street Gallery (2617 Cherokee), the Luminary (2701 Cherokee, 314-773-1533) and Untitled Fine Art (2920 Cherokee, 618-694-1018) are all more traditional streetside galleries. Luminary founders Brea and James MacAnally consider the space an "incubator" emphasizing "art, thought and action," engaging in dialogues with the arts community and hosting shows by artists both from within and without the city. Untitled, by contrast, is a curated array of art from across the country, specifically intended to entice art collectors.
Firecracker Press (2838 Cherokee) is a letterpress studio founded by Eric Woods in 2002 (it later expanded to a second, north city location as well, at 2612 North 14th Street). Woods and his team of artists and designers do custom work for hire, but the storefront also doubles as a gallery of their efforts. It's a great place to go to pick up an affordable art print or marvel at these printers' mastery of the art of letterpress, which combines hand-carved wood prints with a vast collection of metal type. If you're lucky, someone will be making prints during the shop hours, but regardless, the handmade posters justify a stop all on their own and cover a variety of subject matter — backyard chickens, St. Louis landmarks, even "robot undies."
Across town, Hoffman Lachance Contemporary (2713 Sutton Boulevard, Maplewood; 314-960-5322) brings a potent combination of academic rigor and banging street-level style to Maplewood. In addition to being creatively prolific artists in their own right, Alicia LaChance and Michael Hoffman curate a beautiful space that does what galleries were meant to do: present powerful artworks in a new context, to discover additional information within. Their gallery has been a fulcrum in the careers of many of St. Louis' most significant artists, including Screwed Arts Collective, Lauren Marx, Phil Jarvis, Jeremy Rabus, Basil Kincaid, Peat Wollaeger and many more.
Third Degree Glass (5200 Delmar Boulevard) is a beacon of the glass-and-sculpture scene in St. Louis. Despite glass being such a popular form for art lovers and collectors, it's often hard to find a place to work if this is your medium of choice. Third Degree not only provides studio space to the veteran makers who work there, but also hosts classes for all levels and all ages. For spectators, its monthly Third Fridays open house is a great way to see glass-blowing demos in a social setting.
If there's an informal folk art this city specializes in, it's probably the mosaic. You can of course goggle at the splendors of traditional mosaic work at the Cathedral Basilica (4431 Lindell Boulevard), and of course you should... but afterwards, make sure to swing by Venice Cafe (1903 Pestalozzi Street, 314-772-5994) for a taste of the St. Louis version. Every layer of every surface is covered in a crazy quilt of carefully grouted porcelain shards, toys, tinwork, glass, mirrors and other beautifully shattered ephemera. Venice Cafe isn't a gallery, of course, it's a bar, but it's only a matter of time before you realize that you are, in fact, enjoying a drink inside one of the world's largest single pieces of art. What could be more St. Louis?