Monaco: St. Louis’ Upcoming Artist-Owned Gallery On Cherokee Street

The room is bare, expectant.

Four of the twelve members behind the Monaco art collective huddle together inside the gallery, sizing up the space. In less than two short months, the blank walls before them will have transformed into an artist-run exhibition space in St. Louis, its inaugural exhibit slated to open Friday, December 1. They are painters, sculptors, printmakers, arts administrators; they have worked with Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, the Luminary, the Pulitzer; they have forged their own careers across the Midwest, in Philadelphia, New York City and beyond. Now, their disparate threads have intertwined, nestling in the mortar of the exposed brick lining the corner of Cherokee Street and Ohio Avenue.

Other members trickle in, windswept and apologetic. Inside, the main room of the gallery is airy and open, all white plaster and naked cement. While the rest of the group sets up a circle of folding chairs, Sage Dawson and Meghan Grubb outline a half-parallelogram on the floor in lime and cerulean tape. Dawson chuckles. “Is this the first exhibition here? An exhibition of tape?”

The seed for the Monaco art collective germinated in meetings of the advisory board for The Luminary, a nonprofit “incubator for new ideas in the arts” and art space located next to what will become the Monaco gallery. Last year, the closure of several galleries in the city injected the conversation with a new sense of urgency as artist representation in commercial spaces dwindled. In response, The Luminary proposed starting a collective space in its storefront as a way to extend its support of artists and experimental spaces in the city.

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Rather than take their talents elsewhere, the artists involved began seriously considering the prospect of a member-owned gallery. The group multiplied through a process of nomination and networking, expanding from six, to ten, and finally to fourteen total individuals, a team of interdisciplinary artists, graphic designers and community leaders in the local art scene: Lyndon Barrois Jr. and Addoley Dzegede of the collaborative entity LAB:D, Amanda Bowles, Bruce Burton, Sage Dawson, Kristin Fleischman Brewer, José Garza, Meghan Grubb, Allison Lacher, Gregg Louis, Cole Lu, Tim Portlock, and Brea and James McAnally of the project U.S. English.“The bottom line is that we all feel like everyone is participating,” Grubb explains. “People step in to contribute when the job suits their strengths and skill set.”

“Interestingly, the space is rooted here in St. Louis, but the members are dispersed,” McAnally points out. For example, Cole Lu recently moved to New York City, and Allison Lacher works primarily out of Springfield, Illinois. “Most have ties here in some form, but there are a lot of decisions to be made despite not being present in the space.” To streamline the decision-making process, the group has established a majority-rules voting system. “There’s real value in ensuring everyone has a sense of ownership, including over Monaco’s physical space,” Dawson elaborates. “We’ve even started conversations about gallery sitting hours—Hi, Gregg!” She pauses as Gregg Louis jangles into the gallery with a small and eager black dog named Babe in tow.

The name references the autonomous micro-state on the Mediterranean coastline and plays on Monaco’s status as a free-trade zone for art and luxury goods, positioning the gallery as a hub for cultural exchange and commercial opportunity. “We see the potential to expand the definition of what commerce is in the art world, and that can be both serious and very playful,” Grubb explains. “We’re leaving the door wide open to engage with commerciality to whatever degree any member may want to—in terms of selling their work, or using the space to spark a dialogue about selling work.”

Though the name signifies something different to each member, the many interpretations boil down to the exhilaration of possibility—the freedom and empowerment offered by artist sovereignty; the opportunities unlocked by building an alternative economy in which to pool resources, experiences and relationships; the chance to simply sell their work. “The name suggests taking risks. Like Casino Royale,” says Garza.

The members of Monaco hope the gallery will contribute to the local arts community by fostering connections across several orbitals—the Cherokee neighborhood, the city of St. Louis and ideally the entire Midwest region—with the gallery as nucleus. Throughout 2018 and 2019, each member will present a month-long solo exhibition in a predetermined slot, followed by group exhibitions. The collective will also invite guest curators to showcase artists beyond the collaborative.

Louis predicts that such a self-sustaining space for a large group of artists to show their work, and to support each other, will be good for St. Louis. “Hopefully it serves as a magnet to keep artists here and attract others.” Everyone nods enthusiastically, and a tremor of anticipation shimmers in the air. “The more artist-run spaces like this, the stronger the city will be.”

Leaving the meeting, lamplight spills from the gallery’s wall of windows onto the sidewalk, illuminating the artists’ earnest grins and animated hand gestures. Amid the subdued buzz of a Thursday night, Monaco hums with energy.

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