The Space Is the Place

As the Contemporary Art Museum celebrates its buildings 10th anniversary with a birthday gala this month, we take a look back at how the beloved institution came to be a leader in the St. Louis arts scene.

 

WHEN CITY OFFICIALS, arts visionaries and the curious gathered at Washington Boulevard and Spring Avenue in 2001 to break ground for what is now the Contemporary Art Museum, there was an overwhelming feeling that something big was happening on that corner lot. For years the space was home to a run-down parking garage, but it would soon host an architectural triumph that would launch its namesake organization into a new realm. “We were just very hopeful that this organization was on the cusp of becoming a real player in St. Louis,” says former board chair Susan Sherman. So with the sound of a shovel plunging into soft earth, one era ended and another began.

Drawing Board
More than 20 years earlier, a group of city leaders, concerned that there weren’t any art venues Downtown, set out to form a cultural center in Laclede’s Landing. With Executive Director Laurel Meinig at the helm, First Street Forum opened in 1981 with a first-year budget of $151,000, a fraction of the nearly $2.5 million annual budget required to run CAM today. First Board Chair Jean Tucker wrote at the time the Forum was a “new and refreshing kind of institution, part cultural and part something else.”

The early 1980s was a flush time for the arts. Corporations were generous with arts funding and First Street Forum grew. Harriet Traurig became the second executive director in 1984, followed by Andrea Kirsh, who was hired in 1988 just as the organization moved to a larger space on Washington Avenue, shortening its name to The Forum in the process. But corporations began tightening their belts and arts funding became increasingly difficult to acquire. “It was financially dire,” says Betsy Millard, who became executive director in 1991. “They were kind of floundering a little bit in terms of what the institution was, so that’s when they decided to change the focus to contemporary art.”

Grand Art
In 1992, the organization, now under the name Forum for Contemporary Art, would move again when the building on Washington was sold. “We were kicked out,” Millard now says, but they settled in the newly established Grand Center Arts and Entertainment District, where they remained for several years and continued to build an international reputation. Then in 1997, longtime board member and major donor Emily Rauh Pulitzer instigated the biggest move yet. With her own Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts being built down the street, she offered the neighboring lot for free if the museum could raise the money for a building. “That got us going,” Millard says. “How often do you get that opportunity?”

After launching a successful fundraising effort, an intensive search for an architect began. Six finalists were brought in to give lectures in front of the public. A young architect without major exposure at the time, Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture, emerged as the clear choice. Cloepfil had respect for the Tadao Ando-designed Pulitzer building that would rise next door, but he would also challenge it. Moreover, he critically understood the necessity of designing a highly adaptable building able to show contemporary art of the future when no one knew what that art would be.

Onward & Upward
The re-christened Contemporary Art Museum opened on Sept. 19, 2003, with a star-studded gala, signaling a new beginning under Director Paul Ha that would feature cutting-edge exhibits like Michael Lin’s chapel installation, which featured a live wedding, to Maya Lin’s stunning landscape sculptures created from two-by-fours. The museum also expanded its reach into the community, continuing New Art in the Neighborhood, launched in 1995, and introducing the Great Rivers Biennial in 2004, Open Studios in 2006 and other outreach programs. Ha, who became CAM’s director in 2002 and served in the role until 2011, built the museum’s international reputation as a contemporary art museum while simultaneously growing one of the most vibrant and extensive lineups of cultural and outreach programs of any museum in the region.

When Ha departed to take a position at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center, the search for a new director led to Lisa Melandri at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Since Melandri took the reins at CAM in 2012, she has lived up to her promise to “use every available space to display art.” Trips to the bathroom reveal audible sound sculptures, there’s art in the elevators and for the first time video art is being projected onto the building’s facade. CAM’s 10th anniversary gala on April 26, Space for Possibility, will celebrate the milestone with a sophisticated night of cocktails, dinner and dancing, featuring an honorary committee of every past and present board member that the museum has ever had as a way to honor them and to look ahead to the next 10 years. “There were a lot of people involved to make that institution work,” Millard says. “It’s 10 years and it’s still fresh—it’s wonderful.”

 

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Forum for Contemporary Art original space in Grand Center

Photo courtesy of Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis and Craft Alliance.

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Paul Ha, Brad Cloepfil & Susan Sherman at the Inaugural Gala in 2003.

Photo courtesy of Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis and Craft Alliance.

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CAM Director Lisa Melandri at the 2013 Dada Ball & Bash

Photo courtesy of Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis and Craft Alliance.

 

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