I have not lived in St. Louis for seven years. Yet it remains my permanent address. Since leaving for college on the east coast, living abroad, trying out various cities like hats, and settling – for now – back east, I continually struggle with the feeling that I am failing my city by constantly leaving it. It remains home, even though the prospect of ever living there again grows further distant. That prospect has nothing to do with politics or history or pride, but everything to do with contemporary art.
Artists, curators and writers end up in certain communities for a reason. They flock to cities with well-regarded MFA programs and a strong network of museums, galleries and artist-run spaces. All of these factors simmer together to form a cultural community where engagement and dialogue become activated. Non-natives gather to partake in these burgeoning publics and bring ideas, techniques, histories and memories to connect with and contribute to great art. Collaboration among artists and cultural and civic institutions take place; grants and residencies are created; and the ability to make a living in the arts is supported.
With the opening of the St. Louis Art Museum expansion and recent public discussions on the lack of art criticism in St. Louis, the city is experiencing a reflective moment about its influence on and response to contemporary visual culture. The common arguments tell the following story: We have no full-time art critics; funding remains limited for those in the cultural sector; we have few media outlets. In every discussion we waste time explaining why we are not just a fly-over city, rather than getting to the heart of the issue.
Here is the problem that is ignored: St. Louis needs better art education.
For young citizens interested in studying modern and contemporary art at university, St. Louis – and Missouri more generally – have little to offer. State institutions may offer programs that focus on archaeology, the classics and traditional research methodology – but very few are competitive in contemporary visual culture. Consequently, those interested in art history, curatorial studies and/or art criticism leave behind the Mississippi and make their way to the cultural hubs – Chicago, New York, Los Angeles – paying for degrees that enable greater engagement. Once nurtured in an academic environment where relationships with professors and fellow students are formed, the likelihood of returning home to few connections and a tiny job market becomes even slimmer.
Further on, the only option in St. Louis for a doctorate in art history is Washington University whose art history program is ranked 26th in the nation according to the 2011 NRC report. For those interested in the Classics, Western art or Asia, it is a strong program. For those interested in the contemporary – let alone specified fields I follow such as Latin American art or photography – not so much. For art criticism there are no individual degrees and no fellowships. For evidence of this deficiency, research prominent curators and academics in St. Louis and you will discover that the vast majority received graduate degrees outside Missouri. Every full-time art history professor at Wash U, for instance, earned his/her doctorate from an east-coast institution.
For art-makers, the educational options are also deficient. Only five MFA programs exist in the state of Missouri: Washington University, Fontbonne, University of Missouri Columbia, University of Missouri Kansas City, and Webster University. In contrast, the city of Philadelphia alone has six. There is no individual school dedicated solely to art education – no Art Institute of Chicago, no RISD, no Cal Arts, no well-renowned institution that attracts artists from all over the world to work within our city’s borders.
Ultimately, our city does not have a leading reputation in contemporary art and art criticism because it has very few great academic institutions to nurture art professionals. And with few MFA programs and even fewer residency programs, St. Louis does not offer much for the livelihood of emerging artists. While a degree is certainly not required for an artist today, we all know the academic experience opens doors, creates relationships, enables collaboration and provides visibility. Furthermore, great MFA programs bring great artists as professors and mentors, who then also contribute to the city’s cultural community.
Last fall I attended a performance art piece in a warehouse turned gallery space in Philadelphia. The artist facilitated a conversation about the “geographic tiers of the art world” where US cities were ranked by their prominence in contemporary visual art. To provide perspective, the first tier included Miami, Brooklyn and Los Angeles and the fifth tier included San Antonio and Tampa. (New York was pretentiously voted into its own “super-tier”).
When St. Louis came up for its turn, I fought hard to place it in the second tier by throwing out names of cultural institutions, prominent collectors and historical influences. As the only St. Louisan in the room, I was the only voice. In a room full of artists, curators and enthusiasts from across the U.S., no one else had ever engaged with the city’s visual art community and ultimately had nothing to contribute. In one sense, as a local, they had to trust me, but the fact that participants had no reputation on which to base an opinion proved stronger. So, largely based on population, St. Louis made it into the third tier – admittedly appropriately.
Still, St. Louis has the potential to be a great place for contemporary visual art. Major hubs such as New York and LA are becoming more and more decentralized as artists turn to smaller cities that offer affordable rent, amble space and greater opportunity for collaboration and visibility (i.e. Detroit, Asheville, Pittsburgh). While this dispersive trend continues and strengthens, St. Louisans should look deeper at its cultural community. So much already exists (and probably more than I know having been gone for so long) and St. Louis itself is full of young, vibrant citizens who are passionate and loyal to the city.
But so much still needs to be done. Every time I return home, the number of vacant lots, abandoned warehouses and sprawling, empty parks shocks me. Brick sidings are perfect for public mural painting, yet I can count the number of impactful murals in St. Louis on 10 fingers. Street art culture is minuscule when – if done well – could transform communities and nurture local artist collectives (i.e. Philadelphia and Atlanta). Only a handful of institutions and individuals in St. Louis are partaking in such urgent topics as the public school system, the city’s continued segregation, the economic disparity and public space. If we want better art criticism and a greater visual culture, we need more voices – more writers, more artists, more critics.
But we also need local voices that are knowledgeable about contemporary visual culture. The best critics come with a great understanding of what came before them – manifesting in seemingly encyclopedic familiarity of artists, theories and movements. With this, they must also bring an equal understanding of neighborhoods, city politics and sentiment. To engage with the contemporary, the critic must always reflect on what the artist(s) is directly or indirectly responding to – making art education in St. Louis ever that important.
By no means does everyone interested in writing about contemporary art need advanced degrees – but they should know the history. This can be found in online artist publications or White Flag’s bookstore. Museums and educational programs, such as MoMA, offer online art history seminars at slight cost, and cultural institutions and universities are posting lectures and public conversations with leading practitioners and thinkers to YouTube and Vimeo. For those interested and dedicated, the ability to engage within contemporary art discourse is more than accessible and could make up for St. Louis’ lack of great art education – but that engagement must also be activated collectively through artist-run spaces, public discussions and local forums.
At a time when blogs and social media are enabling writing careers and providing artists with platforms to share their work, the opportunity to be a voice in St. Louis’ cultural community is possible. Online opinion platforms and public citizen forums held at the Pulitzer Foundation are asking great and challenging questions and looking for new voices to provide answers. Economically, greater options for funding are available through crowd-sourcing websites and local artist grants, such as the Artists Count grants now offered by RAC.
But we still need residency programs that keep artists in St. Louis, paid fellowships for local practitioners, and greater mentorship opportunities for emerging writers and curators (like that of CAM). Until we respond to this lack of art education, St. Louis’ reputation as a mediocre space for contemporary art – and art criticism – will remain. And our youth will keep leaving for greater opportunities.
Published on the St. Louis Beacon, September 3, 2013:
Special Thanks to Emily Thenhaus for editorial assistance.