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Oh, My Landlord! The Luminary Center of the Arts is not a religious organization. But it's housed by one. Mystery solved. 

The Luminary's James and Brea McAnally

Jennifer Silverberg

The Luminary's James and Brea McAnally

For the past few years, the vast second floor above the former Globe Variety Store at Cherokee Street and Ohio Avenue has been a hive of activity — a jungle of color and clutter and cheap beer, an artists' loft, a music venue/rehearsal space, a shelter for itinerant misfits in need of a place to crash for the night. Ergo the nickname its tenants bestowed upon their ragtag studio space:

Pig Slop.

As of August 1, though, Zak Marmalefsky, Chloe Bethany, Jonathan Muehlke and their fellow Pig Sloppers must vacate the 22,500-square-foot building to make way for a more ambitious and deep-pocketed tenant, the nonprofit Luminary Center of the Arts.

Most members of the Pig Slop crew are accepting of their fate: It is, after all, the time-honored waltz of gentrification, a dance led by starving artists who accept sketchy environs in exchange for rock-bottom rents, elevate a neighborhood's cachet by their very presence, only to be given the bum's rush when the price per square foot exceeds their meager means.

A few, however, see in the current situation a deceitful scenario, fueled by a local-culture rumor mill that casts the Luminary as a religious outfit costumed in artsy garb, led by a missionary whose secret motive is to bring hipsters over to Christ's side.

The Luminary's current home is a former convent near the intersection of South Kingshighway and Arsenal Street, at the southwest corner of Tower Grove Park. The nonprofit group is the brainchild of twentysomething husband and wife James and Brea McAnally — he a deadpanning redhead from Mississippi, she a bubbly brunette from Sullivan. (You may have caught their rock duo, US English.) Together they established the Luminary in 2007, aiming to build a residency program to supply local artists with material and studio space. Within a short time, they'd become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that had reached that goal and then some.

By the summer of 2011, they'd exhibited work borrowed from the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim in New York City. Although their basement performance space accommodates only 299 people, they lured indie-music darlings Of Montreal, who regularly sell out venues more than three times that size, to play a Fourth of July show. And they worked with the civic group Downtown Now! to present a series of concert-art hybrid events on the plaza across Locust Street from the Old Post Office.

They even forayed into print: In March 2011 James McAnally founded the Temporary Art Review, a journal of criticism, profiles and essays, whose June issue featured interviews with the artists at Pig Slop.

Last fall the McAnallys quietly toured the space, accompanied by owner Will Liebermann.

Then, on December 2, James McAnally e-mailed Pig Slop with an announcement: The Luminary intended to purchase the building and move in.

"I can't speak for everyone in the group, but we felt that [the McAnallys] went behind our backs and talked to our landlord," says Jonathan Muehlke, one of ten artists with studio space at Pig Slop.

The announcement was, to say the least, premature. In order to buy the building and commence a renovation, the McAnallys figured they'd need to raise a minimum of a half-million dollars. For an upstart nonprofit with an annual budget under $200,000, that's a big chunk of change.

The McAnallys claimed to have secured funding from well-heeled donors, seven of whom contributed in excess of $1,000 apiece. They also launched a campaign to raise $20,000 on, an online fundraising platform that brings eyeballs from around the world to otherwise obscure projects. In the allotted 60 days, the Luminary's proposal netted $22,244 from 341 backers.

Though well shy of $500K, the nonprofit seemed well on its way to carving out a space on Cherokee.

"It was really troubling for me personally because I'd spent two years cultivating that space," says Muehlke, who was one of the first artists to sublease a studio there. "It was really psychologically stressful for a lot of us."

Muehlke had heard through the grapevine that the Luminary was operating rent-free in the old red-brick convent on Kingshighway. With a little online digging, he learned that the space was a donation from a recently established church called the Journey, which is headquartered next door. When he discovered that the McAnallys were members of the church, Muehlke wondered just how deep the relationship went.

On April 1, Muehlke unearthed a video on the Journey's website. Dated November 2010, the video included an interview with James McAnally, whom the host introduced as one of "the men who lead our nonprofit ministries here at the Journey." A 40-minute Q&A followed, in which McAnally fielded questions about how his day-to-day interactions with artists mesh with his mission to communicate the Gospel.

Muehlke says he was so taken aback by the dialogue that he watched it twice. "The first time I thought: 'What is this?' The second time, I thought: 'This is kind of serious.'"

Muehlke interpreted the exchange between McAnally and his interlocutor as evidence that the Luminary's cofounder might be a covert prosthelytizer. He posted the video on his Facebook page and commented: "Pig Slop is getting displaced by a funding organization with Christian roots.... I have nothing wrong with Christians; my father is a pastor. I just have something wrong with passive aggressive forms of religious jingoism."

The video caught the eye of Travis Howser, co-founder of the Transients, a locally based group that hosts collaborative exhibits by local and national artists inside unused spaces.

"I realized that there was more there than just Pig Slop losing their home," Howser recounts, explaining his decision to post the clip himself — on the Luminary's Facebook wall. Within a minute and a half, he recalls, the embedded clip had been deleted. Within a few hours, it had disappeared from the Journey's website as well.

"I didn't get a message from [the McAnallys], or anything," Howser says. "All I saw is that it disappeared. To me that meant they were trying to hide something."

Sipping a bourbon and ginger beer on the back patio of the Royale, James McAnally patiently insists (again) that the Luminary is not a Christian group and that he harbors no desire, covert or otherwise, to convert anyone.

He does, however, freely admit that he has a lot to learn about public relations.

"I don't think we've done a good job of explaining what the relationship is, in part out of the assumption that people would not be all right with it," he concedes.

Avoiding the issue has cost the Luminary financially; McAnally says some current and potential donors have ceased or decided not to initiate their support. (He declines to divulge who has backed off or how much money was involved.) Now he is eager to set the record straight.

McAnally says that about seven years ago, while he was a student at Washington University, he crossed paths with Rev. Darrin Patrick. A former high school "party jock" who'd found Jesus, Patrick earned a master's of divinity at Midwest Baptist Seminary in Kansas City and then, in 2002, founded the Journey. His aim: to touch the souls of athletes and artists — two cultures that he felt weren't connecting with a stodgy religious establishment.

The Journey typified the "emerging church" trend — a loose nationwide movement of young Christians who express their faith via nontraditional means. In the Journey's case, that included pumping Sufjan Stevens and rockabilly tunes through the sound system during services, putting together a series of sermons on atheism and talking theology over pale ales once a month at Schlafly Bottleworks. (The beer drinking rankled the teetotaling Missouri Baptist Convention, which publicly regretted having loaned money to the Journey when it moved in 2005 from its original base in Clayton to the former Holy Innocents Catholic Church on Reber Place, its current home.) By mid-decade the Journey's membership numbered in the hundreds and was doubling every year.

Darrin Patrick says McAnally stood out amid the flock as "an interesting guy," all the more so after the young man with the white-frame glasses sketched out his dream to open a nonprofit arts-resource center. Patrick was sufficiently impressed to offer the convent building free of charge. The Luminary was born.

McAnally took pains to set up his nonprofit as an entity that is completely separate from the church. His annual salary — $30,000, according to the Luminary's Internal Revenue Service Form 990 — is drawn from the Luminary's coffers. The group lists an additional $24,000 in salaries, shared between Brea McAnally and Sarrita Hunn, the Luminary's residency coordinator. (McAnally says most of his and Brea's income is generated by Brea's wedding photography business and her annual wedding-industry event, the Off White Wedding Show.)

Both McAnally and Patrick say the Journey handed over the keys to the convent with absolutely no strings attached — a "wall of separation" they insist has held firm, even as the Journey provides about 25 percent of the Luminary's $190,000 annual budget. (The church donates some cash to the nonprofit, but the in-kind donation of the convent space, valued at $34,000 comprises the bulk of its support.)

"We've never controlled their programming," says Patrick. "We don't even know all that they do."

How, then, might the Journey benefit from the Luminary's work?

"We don't simply want to build a good church, we want to be part of building a great city," Patrick responds. "We know that when the Luminary is doing what they do, we have a better city, a more creative city, a more beautiful city. That's what's in it for us."

Jill McGuire, executive director of the Regional Arts Commission, would seem to concur with Patrick's view. McGuire says she doesn't understand the conspiracy theories hovering over the Luminary.

"I can guarantee you there's nothing nefarious going on," says McGuire, whose group approved a $2,000 grant for the Luminary earlier this month. "People tend to see something connected to a religion and suspect that those religious beliefs are being funded unknowingly. That's just not true in our case."

Representatives from three other Luminary benefactors — the Missouri Arts Council, the Arts and Education Board and Downtown Now! — all say that not even an overt religious affiliation would disqualify the Luminary Center of the Arts from receiving grants. [Editor's note: In 2011 Riverfront Times presented the McAnallys with a MasterMind Award in recognition of their work at the Luminary.]

McAnally says he did nothing deceptive in establishing the Luminary as a secular nonprofit.

"It would only be deceptive if we then turned around and were doing religious work, and we don't," McAnally says, adding that to his knowledge, none of the Luminary's past resident artists have joined the Journey.

Would he like to see it happen someday?

"I think that's irrelevant to what we do."

And yet there's that 2010 video, which James McAnally confirms the Journey took down at his request.

"We were, like, 'If this isn't important, we'd prefer that this not be up, because someone is using it to criticize us and to affect our capital campaign.'"

Riverfront Times has obtained a copy of the Journey video and posted it on our news blog, Daily RFT). While it does show McAnally addressing an interviewer's questions about his ministry, his responses don't support the inference that he intends to use the Luminary to spread the Gospel. If anything, they imply the contrary.

For example, the host asks: "For you, James, how does the Gospel connect with artists?"

Replies McAnally: "A lot of what we do is almost on this tightrope, to the extent that the people we work with are really culturally savvy, they're in the know. They're watching, almost, for: 'What are you going to do to slip up this relationship?' ...[But] these people are [on the premises] day to day, so we're working with their day-to-day lives."

The host recasts his question: "So, your relationships and your resourcing have opened doors for you to have clear communication about the Gospel with the population you're serving?"

McAnally: "Yeah, it doesn't always happen. But so many people have [unclear] a close family member dies and we're who they call. And based on our professional relationship with them, that wouldn't make any sense. But it's this ongoing, intentional 'we're here for you to help you however you need it.' It starts off with this 'we're helping you in this specific area of your artistic practice,' and then it spreads out from there.

"We've set it up intentionally [so that] it's long-term," McAnally goes on, "so people have a studio for three, six, twelve months. So they're there for a while to give time for an actual, meaningful relationship to develop."

McAnally's explanation echo what he told the Baptist Standard back in 2009. He told the Texas-based magazine he considers the Luminary to be "a way to serve the people around us.... By showing them we care about them and what they do, we are serving where it is most personal; it's a tangible way to speak of the Gospel." RFT interviewed three former Luminary artists-in-residence. All say they never sensed any religious agenda on the part of their hosts.

"I was fully supported as an artist without any religious undertones from them," says Amy Reidel, who spent nine months as a resident in 2010 and retains nothing but positive memories.

Carlie Trosclair was awarded a six-month residency that same year. She says she never felt any religious pressure but that the scuttlebutt about the Journey has made her uneasy in retrospect.

"Knowing now about these videos and him speaking about religion and that mission — it feels like something I should've known [in advance]," Trosclair says. "I'm anti-organized religion. I always knew it was affiliated, but the more it's come out, I'm just, like, 'OK, gross.'"

In an effort to clarify what he says in the video, James McAnally sent RFT an e-mail on May 15.

"Myself as an individual and The Luminary as an organization are two separate things," he writes. "The organization itself is not religious, was not formed to be that and is not accomplishing a religious goal.... I understand the reflex to wonder about our motives. It is murky; it is difficult."

In the video he was speaking as a Christian to a Christian audience, McAnally says. He goes on: "It has always been uncomfortable and little confusing on how we are supposed to address the church about why they allow us to use the space, year after year."

Taken solely in and of themselves, his recorded response "represents us incorrectly [because] our...staff, our volunteers and advisors — very few have ever interacted with the church."

Concludes McAnally: "We have misspoken, but I don't think we've misstepped in the way we program and run the space."

On a recent evening at Pig Slop, Chloe Bethany pauses and sits down for just long enough to sum up her take on the looming Luminary takeover.

"Ultimately, spaces like Pig Slop are not permanent," she says, flecks of dried paint visible on her fingers. "That's just the nature of DIY spaces." She disagrees with her studio-mate, Muehlke, who feels the Luminary is "displacing" them.

Last summer landlord Will Liebermann offered Bethany and her fellow tenants a two-year lease, she says, but they only wanted to commit to one. Over the past few months, she adds, most of her colleagues haven't shown a strong interest in staying. They were having trouble scraping up the rent anyway, she says.

Liebermann says he and the McAnallys are negotiating the terms of a lease that will likely include the right of first refusal if he opts to sell.

James McAnally confirms that negotiations are ongoing. "We'll be moving to the neighborhood and hope to be there to start out next year," he says. "There's a chance it won't be that building; we're looking at all our options."

In the meantime, Bethany hopes to throw some kind of event co-hosted by Pig Slop and the Luminary. She says she has no hard feelings toward James or Brea McAnally.

"I don't like the idea of hating on somebody that's religious just because I'm not," she explains, citing her own day job as an art teacher at a parochial elementary school. "The rent I pay at Pig Slop comes from my job working for the archdiocese," she says. "I don't see myself as that different from Brea or James."

The feeling is mutual, says McAnally. "We support what [the Pig Slop artists] do and have tried to maintain open dialogue," he says. "We basically told them that if they wanted to continue as an entity, we'd help connect them with other options and we wanted to talk through it."

Travis Howser, who posted the McAnally interview on the Luminary's Facebook wall last month, says he's pleased that dialogue about the Luminary has finally opened up, going as far as to say he almost wishes the nonprofit and the church were publicly joined.

"The idea of a church funding contemporary art in a non-censored, non-structured way is actually a really cool concept, because churches have not historically done that," says Howser, noting that some artists whose work the Luminary has exhibited are avowed atheists.

"I don't have any interest in the Luminary failing," Howser says. "I'd love to see them continue to grow. My main interest in this thing is that I want them to be open about their involvement and their purpose with the church, because if they're not open, that makes them seem dishonest — even if they're not being dishonest."

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