St. Louis’ Contemporary Art Scene Flourishes

There was a time when the Southside of St. Louis was a little bit seedy. Well, parts of it anyway. There was one segment of the population, composed mostly of German and some Irish immigrants, that had lived there all of their lives. It seemed that a lot of those households had unmarried children well into their forties still living with their parents. There was another group that consisted of displaced rural people from out state who had come to the city to work at one of the many nearby manufacturing plants. They brought along some habits that were frowned upon by the other locals, like a penchant for beer drinking and Saturday night fighting, and old rusted cars put up on cement blocks in their back yards. Some of them were bikers and that meant a rusted Harley parked up in the front yard instead.

I remember stopping for gas on the Southside years ago. I was wearing a T-Shirt with some kind of surreal design on the front, (I don’t even remember exactly what it was), but below it was a logo that read: “You Gotta Have Art.” As I was filling my tank, a guy at the pump next to me looked over and asked, “WHY?” He pointed at my shirt. He was a massive man wearing oil-stained jeans, a scraggly beard, and motorcycle boots, the kind with a silver buckle on the side. He stared at me behind a pair of wraparound sunglasses. At first I tried to explain, but then thought better of it and just shrugged and quickly got back into my car and drove off.

I’ve always been fond of classical art. Art Appreciation was one of my favorite classes in school. But, there was a time when I really didn’t “understand” contemporary art. Evidently a lot of other people in St. Louis didn’t either, considering the controversy when a large Serra sculpture was first placed downtown.

I’m thinking of this as I looked last week at a couple of pieces at the Contemporary Art Museum, located just around the corner from the Fox Theatre in what is now known as the Grand Center Creative and Cultural District. One piece was a Converse sneaker with designs painted on the sole, encased in glass, and the other was a collection of old newspaper ads with pictures of people modeling wigs, etc. All of the model’s eyes had been cut out, and the pictures interspersed. There was also an exhibit featuring an oddly shaped baby crib. To the uninitiated, it may seem that anyone could put a bunch of random items together and call it art, but I think that it’s really the effect that the art piece has on you that makes it art. Sometimes you don’t even know why it has an effect, but it does.

There are now small Contemporary Art Museums popping up all over the venerable Southside of St. Louis. The Contemporary has been in St. Louis for some twenty-five years, but has just recently made its mark as one of the leading voices in the world of contemporary art.

Fort Gondo Compound, (near Cherokee on the South Side), is dedicated to providing opportunities to emerging artists, poets, musicians, and anyone interested in the visual and performing arts.

Mad Art Gallery is housed in a wonderful old 1930’s Art-deco Police Station. The center boasts some 19,000 sq. ft. of terrazzo floors and marble hallways for you to enjoy along with contemporary art exhibits from various regional artists. The main gallery space was formerly the squad car garage.

Add the City Museum downtown, the South City Open Studio, Gallery For Children, and the Center of Creative Arts, as well as new art studios in Clayton, Webster Groves, and Maplewood, and art events like Venus Envy and Artica, and it seems that “You Gotta Have Art” is all over the place in St. Louis. You might even see one of those rusted cars on cement blocks in one of the galleries. I wonder what kind of response that will trigger.

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