Art Smarts

 In Feature, Style

The newly appointed Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts Director brings a new era of art to St. Louis


You only have to spend a few minutes with Kristina Van Dyke to realize she has a serious instinct for artwork—as well as the people around it. The 40-year-old with a Harvard Ph.D. is alight with excitement as she talks about art as an experience—not as information.

In addition to her previous post at The Menil Collection in Houston, she’s worked with hundreds of antiquities from Africa’s Niger River corridor in the name of research for her new book, which she plans to write in the early mornings before work at the Pulitzer. Her Nov. 7 start date is an exciting moment for the 10-year-old arts organization, which has made a name for itself among artists, scholars, architects and everyday St. Louisans alike. And if Van Dyke has anything to say about it, the Pulitzer’s next decade will be even more engaging.

ALIVE: What are you most looking forward to as the Pulitzer’s new director?
Kristina Van Dyke: What attracted me to the Pulitzer was that it functions as a laboratory and a sanctuary. As a sanctuary, it provides an intimate experience with art that I very much admire, and I come from an institution [The Menil Collection] that presents art in a very similar way. But it also functions as a laboratory, a “big ideas” place. I was really impressed by the past 10 years of experimentation here.

ALIVE: Your background is very diverse. How does your study of African antiquities fit with the modern collections here?
KVD: I see the Pulitzer as being completely open to all fields and interests. Being an Africanist requires a lot of creativity because it’s a relatively new field. The project I’ve been working on for the past five years involves scientists, lawyers,
radiologists, African scholars, historians, oral histories and Arab chronicles. That’s very much keeping with what the Pulitzer does. It isn’t interested in doing art history as usual. It’s interested in doing something new.

ALIVE: Do you have any specific plans in mind for future exhibitions?
KVD: I’m working on a project called “Love in Africa,” and I’m hoping it can manifest itself here. It questions what part of love is timeless and universal, and what part is historically and culturally specific. The arrival of the printing press changed the Western notion of love, and things like cell phones, the internet, easy access to film and the way music moves around the world give us a shared sense of love, but also allow us to make sense of it in our own context.

ALIVE: What first attracted you to art?
KVD: Being interested in objects—the way they speak to one another and how they fit in a space— I’m sure comes from my mom, who was an antique dealer. I had to spend a lot of Saturdays going to flea markets and antique shops, which at
the time, [whispers] I didn’t think was very much fun. My parents are curious themselves about how I ended up moving into this extreme, and I blame them! [Laughs]

ALIVE: And here you have a great space to arrange things.
KVD: Yes! The building is unbelievable. I swooned when I saw it. I have an enormous respect for Emmy [Emily Rauh Pulitzer, founder of the Pulitzer Foundation] and what she has created here. She’s nurtured relationships with other institutions and has created a network of possibilities, and that’s tremendously exciting.

ALIVE: How will you engage the people of St. Louis in the work you’re doing?
KVD: We provide you with an experience— works of art in a beautiful space—where you can go explore and have the confidence that you can not only handle the experience, but enjoy it. We’re not about art as information; we’re
thinking about art as experience. Success here will be shows and programs of such quality that visitors come, and keep coming back, and they feel excited enough to go do something with it. Success could also be someone having a better
day as a result of one of our exhibitions.

For more info on the Pulitzer and its current and
upcoming exhibitions, visit



Art Smarts

Kristina Van Dyke


Photo credit: Photo by Attilio DAgostino

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