St. Louis in America

A writer for Art in America takes a three-day tour of St. Louis and assesses the art scene

Ann Wilson Lloyd parachuted into St. Louis for three days last fall to research an Art in America article on the city's art scene. "Art under the Arch" appears in the July issue, offering what AiA's corresponding editor from Boston culled in the time it took Jesus to fall and rise. Local response to the article is predictable -- if you're in, you're pleased; if you're out, you're pissed. In her overview, Lloyd begins with the Arch and ends with the Arch, providing an optimistic view of a city that can accurately be characterized as "conservative" in relation to art, "But it's important to remember," she concludes, "they did build that amazing Arch."

It's been nearly 40 years since the Arch happened, and it's been a while since Lloyd left Missouri -- 1967 -- after growing up in the small town of Monette, near Springfield, and attending Mizzou before embarking on a career in the East Coast art world. Her mother still lives in Missouri, and a daughter recently moved to St. Louis, although it was after the article was researched and written.

Nostalgia isn't what drew Lloyd's appraising eye, however. St. Louis began to catch the attention of the East Coast intelligentsia with news of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts and last summer's Wonderland exhibition at the St. Louis Art Museum. Lloyd says from her Cape Cod home that Wonderland impressed her with its ambition, as well as the economic support SLAM put behind a contemporary-art exhibition: "Boston, of course, has a major museum, but for that to happen in Boston would be a miracle."

Lloyd has written other such articles. "I've done these several places, and I've done them in way more exotic places, like Japan and Santiago, Chile, where I didn't even speak the language," she says. The strategy she has developed involves starting at the top. "I start with the major institutions and contact the curators or directors, whoever I can get hold of, and I ask them for references of where other interesting places are to go look for. Since my specialty is really contemporary art, that's what I looked for -- who was doing interesting contemporary-art programming and who were some of the more interesting contemporary artists in town. I kept going from place to place and lead to lead and accumulating references and phone numbers and people to call."

Starting at the top in St. Louis means Emily Rauh Pulitzer, founder of what Lloyd calls the "much-anticipated" Pulitzer Foundation housed in the soon-to-be completed concrete structure in Grand Center designed by internationally renowned architect Tadao Ando. Pulitzer begins the article with comments on the primacy of the Arch. "It is probably the most significant sculpture of the 20th century," she tells Lloyd, which moves the discussion immediately to "Twain," the Richard Serra sculpture promoted by Pulitzer "in an earlier role as a public-art activist," Lloyd writes, the Cor-Ten steel rectangles "deliberately placed on a downtown sight line centered on the vast portal" of the Arch.

Lloyd neglects to mention (or maybe her interview subject didn't bother to talk about it) how "Twain" settled into the beleaguered downtown mall with considerable controversy and remains the public art St. Louisans most love to hate.

"Art under the Arch" isn't about the relationships among art, artists and the city, however. The article is a superficial reflection of what can be seen here, and, hitting the ground running, Lloyd locates major and minor institutions of value. The Forum for Contemporary Art receives deserved attention, as does Laumeier Sculpture Park, with an uncomfortable nod to the shenanigans of former director Beej Nierengarten-Smith and her supporters over the years. "Some members of the city art community say, off the record, that the poor maintenance is due in part to a convoluted institutional structure," Lloyd writes guardedly. "That was a touchy thing to research," she comments over the phone.

Without leaving Grand Boulevard, Lloyd came across two art spaces that do not receive the regard they deserve locally: the MacLennan Gallery of Asian Art and the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, both on the campus of St. Louis University. In Lloyd's most impressive act of discovery, she found her way to the new Crowe T. Brooks Gallery, founded by Webster University grads Jason Wallace Triefenbach and James Wohlrabe. Landing on the Brooks before it actually opened, Lloyd perused a slide sheet and came up with "savvy and distinctive" as descriptions of the work offered there, the sorts of art-writing terms that can keep the hopes of careers afloat for at least a decade.

Two artists are featured prominently in Lloyd's overview: Michael Byron and Dawn Marie Guernsey, both of Washington University. Lloyd says she selected Byron because of his status as head of painting at the school, plus his presence in galleries in New York, Boston and elsewhere. He gives what she calls an "outsider" perspective.

Guernsey was referred to her, and Lloyd recognized students of Guernsey's who have made splashes in the wider art-world sea, Tom Friedman and Laylah Ali. "I sensed a maturity there on her part," says Lloyd of Guernsey.

Lloyd says her optimistic overview of the St. Louis art scene was genuinely felt. "I was impressed by the energy, and I was impressed by the sense of cooperation. At least people were talking and eager to bolster the whole scene together and work together. Other places I've lived, that has not been the case -- there seems to be a lot more competition rather than cooperation among institutions [in other cities].

"I was impressed by that, and I was impressed by the fact that things like the Pulitzer and the Forum were locating in an area of the downtown that was still not prime. That's a good sign to me that things were happening to reclaim the downtown. It's good to see an urban center start to come back through the arts. I've seen this in other cities, and it's great when you see that starting to happen.

"So I think, comparatively with other cities I've been to and done this kind of research, I felt pretty good about St. Louis."

The Forum's Elizabeth Wright Millard shares Lloyd's sense of optimism but admits it's a requirement of her position, being that she's in the midst of trying to fund that new building. Millard notes, however, that in terms of referencing academic institutions, the article is "Wash. U.-centric": "It sounds like we're a one-horse town in terms of art departments, and we really aren't."

The article also mentions Webster University, which, Millard says, has "a quiet program, but it's an extraordinary one in the sense of the kind of freedom the kids have." If Lloyd commits sins of omission in the article (Lemp Brewery happenings and the City Museum being two of the most remarkable), the inclusion of St. Louis University as having a major art program is a sin of commission.

Phil Robinson, professor of fine arts at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says SLU's inclusion is a reflection of "money and power speaking." Robinson, who moved to St. Louis as a Freund fellow at Wash. U., goes on to say, "UMSL is invisible, and Wash. U. is the main honcho of a small town." He's bemused about the status conferred on his former employer by the national art monthly: "One person said to me, '[Wash. U.] is a safe school to send rich kids to in the middle of the country.' That's right. It's not as big as Chicago. It's certainly not New York, and what the hell are they doing out there in San Francisco? You can't send your kids out there."

Robinson is most perplexed by the exclusion of UM-St. Louis' Gallery 210, curated by Terry Suhre, which brings in consistently engaging artists and artworks. "That upset me more," he says. "If the RFT can make a recognition of the quality of the work this institution produced, how is it no one outside can even allude to that we're here?"

No good deed goes unpunished. Art in America gives St. Louis ink, but, because of the nature of the magazine and the methodology employed, that ink is bound to be insufficient. Lloyd calls back after our discussion, saying that folks who were missed should write letters to the AiA editors. The arts professionals she spoke to didn't mention the Lemp Brewery or the City Museum, she says: "Those were holes that didn't get filled. That's the chance that you take, but I always hate that when it happens. If you don't make the right connection, things get totally missed."