The following is part of a four-part series highlighting all that Missouri has to offer in the worlds of food, art, music and adventure. Missouri – or “Mo,” as we refer to her – has no shortage of places to explore, so whatever you’re after, there’s a Mo for every M-O.
It’s not every museum director that will tell you to turn around and leave the premises, but the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (or CAM St. Louis, as it’s commonly known) isn’t exactly like every other museum — so, when Executive Director Lisa Melandri says walking back out of the museum is the best place to start a tour, you have to listen.
When the sun sets, CAM St. Louis comes to life as the exterior is transformed from a museum wall into a piece of art itself. “The entirety of the upper level of our facade, which is more than 60 feet long and 20 feet high, becomes a projection,” explains Melandri. “And as soon as the sun goes down, you see moving images that quite literally kind of turn the building inside out, but also really activates the neighborhood.” Not only is there a giant projection on one side of the building, but a giant curved wall that mirrors the curve of the street is also used as a canvas for a rotating roster of installations by local artists. It’s sort of a perfect metaphor for a museum that has made it its mission to present work that reflects the community and break down barriers to the appreciation of contemporary art.
Founded in 1980 to bring art to the city’s downtown, CAM St. Louis has been bringing cutting-edge work by living artists to St. Louis ever since. It succeeded in its mission to the extent that it had to move to a larger space. CAM St. Louis’ 27,000-square-foot Brad Cloepfil-designed building sports an interior and exterior that was crafted to showcase the art, like Ebony G. Patterson’s monumental 52-foot ebullient floral collage that recently took over the exterior project wall. Since 2003, CAM St. Louis has welcomed visitors to its spacious, eye-catching building in the Grand Center Arts District.
While the cement exterior of the building, with its mesh screen and curved wall, has become a fixture in the neighborhood, its interior is constantly changing. You never know what you’re going to see when you walk in CAM St. Louis. That’s because unlike New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre in Paris or even the Saint Louis Art Museum down the road, CAM St. Louis has no permanent collection. Instead, it fills its space with an ever-revolving body of work.
“You may see what you might think of as traditional painting,” says Melandri. “But you might also see conceptual work, time-based work, moving-image work, sculpture, installation, immersive projects – you name it.” The CAM has around 12 to 13 exhibitions a year, fully changing the art within its walls three times a year or so. And the art really changes across medium, perspective and geography, all part of the curators’ vision of what contemporary art is and can be.
They’ve hosted major exhibitions by audio artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan, photographer Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Danish art collective SUPERFLEX, installation artist Christine Corday, and Michelle Obama portraitist Amy Sherald. It’s a diverse group with a diverse body of work that all address contemporary issues in the world and the arts through intricately contemplative pieces. “We really are seeking to offer audiences a lot of different kinds of experiences with contemporary art,” says Melandri. One of the goals of the museum is to engage people of all ages and interests in the appreciation and interpretation of contemporary art and ideas, not just appealing to die-hard art lovers. By offering a wide-ranging, shifting body of work on display – and hosting lectures, film viewings, live-music nights and monthly cocktail parties – they have a greater likelihood of reaching people where they are. For a visitor, that means new experiences, new wonders and new, challenging work to appreciate every time they step foot in CAM St. Louis.
To further connect the museum to its community, in conjunction with the Gateway Foundation, CAM St. Louis hosts the Great Rivers Biennial, which recognizes locally grown talent. “We happen to have a really, really dynamic artists community here,” explains Melandri. Every two years, three artists in the Greater St. Louis area are selected by a distinguished jury (think curators and established artists) to receive $20,000 grants. The public can see their work the following summer at the Great Rivers Biennial exhibition at CAM St. Louis. Recent winners include mixed material artist Kahlil Robert Irving; Tim Portlock, who made large-scale prints of construction sites; and Rachel Youn, who created a kinetic sculpture that gyrates between spaces.
The museum is also known for its deep community outreach. In addition to working with and providing a platform for local artists, CAM St. Louis sponsors community initiatives such as citywide open-studio events and a visiting critic and curator series. They also work with local schools, such as their three-year-old partnership with Vashon High School, where students work alongside artists and are then able to display their own pieces at the museum. Embedding themselves in the community breaks down some of the barriers that seem to surround an art world often seen as snooty and snobbish, making art that is accessible, important and interesting. Perhaps the most vital community outreach that the museum did though is right at the entry – there’s no fee.
The city has other art institutions, of course, and numerous galleries and smaller artist-run spaces. Despite the competition, CAM St. Louis has carved out its own niche in both the local and larger art scenes. The people of St. Louis have enjoyed its work and its captivating exterior – the next time you’re in town you’d be mistaken to not do the same.