Beyond Incubation: Visionary Awards Honoree Brea McAnally and Her Neighbors Discuss the Liminal and Luminous Cherokee Arts District
In St. Louis, “diverse” can be a fraught term—so divided is urban from county space, so segregated is its past and present. But a spring stroll down Cherokee Street suggests that, at least in this sliver of city life, unlikely bedfellows might make for equanimous neighbors. H&R Block abuts the striking façade of the renovated brewery for Earthbound Beer. Vintage shops sit beside vacant shops, and vacant shops hug whiskey bars selling $10 cocktails. A Spanish panadería resides across the street from The Luminary, a “platform for art, thought, and action”—and an anchor for the district since 2012.
“It’s funny,” says Brea McAnally, co-founder and “caretaker” of The Luminary with husband, James, “I was talking to some Cherokee business owners and property owners recently, and we remembered spending time with them 10 years ago, talking about plans for the area. James and I would go to aspirational meetings. We knew we wanted to move there, and we wanted The Luminary to be there eventually. It’s been a long-term, loving relationship with this neighborhood. There are ebbs and flows in all of our lives, and in every urban setting, in every natural order. Cherokee is growing, and new people are being planted—but also a resurgence of folks who’ve been here a long time bringing a different level to the street.”
Honored as this year’s Outstanding Arts Professional by the Saint Louis Visionary Awards Foundation—an independent committee that celebrates the achievements of women who work in or support the arts in the city—McAnally is clearly grateful for recognition but a bit diffident about taking credit. “It’s always such a gift to be seen, to be known for what you do,” she shares over steamed veggies at a local eatery. “I tend to deflect when the light shines directly at me. If it weren’t for every single artist—how they were thinking and moving through the world—our work wouldn’t exist.”
In the spirit of both McAnallys’ rejection of the “director” title, the Cherokee district resists strict hierarchies. Think porous, think weird, think intersectional: Rent-a-Center meets ballroom meets burlesque school meets tea shop meets airy co-working loft. “I’m a firm believer that each of us holds the piece of understanding that we can’t get at on our own,” McAnally asserts of her neighbors. “We need to be rethinking all the time. We used to say that we were incubator for the arts, but we’ve rewritten that to say that we are a platform for art and action, reimagining the role of art in public life.”
Moving from Chicago’s Wicker Park to St. Louis’ Cherokee street in 2008, creative power couple Paige Brubeck and Evan Sult (of indie rock duo and design collective Sleepy Kitty) have made art the center of a live-work ethos that has evolved with the district and its expanding population. “We knew we needed a place to make art together, and a space to make music together,” says Brubeck. “We found a space here that was 10 times the size of our Chicago apartment and $130 less.”
The 100-year-old warehouse served as a forum for the couple’s composing, recording, screenprinting, design and residence. “At first, we thought it would be like moving to really south Chicago,” jests Sult. “Then we realized that St. Louis is an intense city, and this was an intense neighborhood. When we got here, the storefronts were less than 50 percent filled. Then for a while they were occupied by artists—but secretly.”
Brubeck reflects on how squatting and creating coalesced. “The Mexican restaurants were holding it down the whole time, but there were two or three vacant blocks that became the art blocks over time.”
By 2012, five new creative outlets had moved in—printmakers All Along Press and Firecracker Press, clothing boutique STL Stylehouse, Foam coffee shop, plus concert-and-art venue 2720. “If there’s a Cherokee narrative, that was the real turning point,” says Sult.
Recounting the rapid growth of the area, Brubeck emphasizes the difference between displacement and development. “Gentrification is so extreme in other cities,” she says. “It’s not that it’s not happening in St. Louis, but I think there’s a difference between occupation and gentrification. Sometimes they overlap, but there’s a difference between someone moving into a building that hasn’t been occupied for 40 years and kicking someone out of a building who’s been there for 40 years.”
“I think Cherokee is doing well as long as you see primarily creative people living and working there,” Sult expands. “And that’s been the case for a long time. I mean pragmatically creative people—working on art, buildings, businesses. So many people in this city have started businesses. You take risks that you couldn’t take anywhere else.”
One such creative venture sure to enrich—and expand—the Cherokee district is set to open this summer just a few blocks south on Jefferson Avenue, in what was previously St. Matthews Church. Vacant since 2014, the nearly 150-year-old brick edifice is a vestige of the city’s German architectural heritage—wrought iron chandeliers hanging from the vaulted ceiling, stained-glass windows stretching toward the sky. Purchased by developer Jason Deem and dubbed “Treffpunkt” (which means “meeting place” in German), the church is soon to host more secular spiritual fare as a music-and-art space spearheaded by creative polymath Darian Wigfall.
“The plan is to build a state-of-the-art music venue,” explains Wigfall from Treffpunkt’s lower-level “Gold Room,” complete with vintage shuffleboard floor graphics. “We want custom sound; a full board. Basically, I want a space where people can feel comfortable displaying their art—whether it’s music or visual.”
A founding member of FarFetched Artist Collective—which also serves an independent record label—Wigfall crowdsourced $3,600 in 36 hours to invest in Treffpunkt’s future, besting his goal by 20 percent.
“We’ve done a lot of work on Cherokee street,” says Wigfall of FarFetched folks—including Damon Davis, Eric “Prospect” White, Basil Kincaid and Larry “Fallout” Morris. “We were integrated in the birth of that district. It makes sense to be in South St. Louis, because that’s where most of our people are.”
Passing antique stores and flower shops on the east side of Jefferson, then moving into Treffpunkt terrain, the area feels Brooklynesque in terms of wildly disjunctive spaces. Pedestrians interact more than they would otherwise in practically any other part of the city. “Me being in here helps people of color in the area who want to do art,” says Wigfall. “They might not have necessarily felt comfortable going to other spaces, but they see a familiar face and will come here. I’m already experiencing that—people from the neighborhood are coming to check us out.”
It’s important for Wigfall that the cultural topography remain tied to the people of the neighborhood. “Cherokee is going to change pretty quickly in the next five to 10 years. I wanted to grab some of this space to keep it the way it’s been.”
As tempting as it may be to wax exclusively nostalgic, Wigfall also readily grants progress its due. “We want to look toward the future of St. Louis,” he says, glowing in the late-dusk light of the chapel. “In cities in the Rust Belt, and across the country, there are so many cities that are crumbling. But I think we have an opportunity to rebuild these cities right.”
Giving away power in ‘the middle space’
In person, McAnally is about as far from frigid gallerina as could possibly be conceived. Her blue-green eyes emanate warmth matched by a sense of humble wisdom. At 30, she has the buoyancy of an 18-year-old and the experience of someone who has been building an arts center from the ground up for over a decade. “I think a lot about ecosystems, The Luminary’s space in relationship to the DIY, artist-run and pop-up galleries and the amazing art institutions in this city,” she explains. “But there aren’t a lot of places here in the middle space. I really like the middle space—understanding and honoring our position within it—to recognize the power that we have and use that well. To give it away whenever we can.”
This month, The Luminary relaunches the “Counterpublic” exhibition that premiered in 2015, commissioning artists to work within Cherokee storefronts and parks into the summer. “We’ve a nice mix of local artists and people across the country who are working on some of the same themes,” says McAnally. “‘Counterpublic’ is a perfect example of a space that becomes an art space informed by what is not typically considered art.”
José Guadalupe Garza and Miriam Ruiz will be showing in El Chico Mexican bakery; indigenous filmmaker Sky Hopinka will be creating work in response to the giant Cherokee Indian statue that has historically (and problematically) greeted visitors to the district. “We’ve been intentional about trying to invite everyone in,” says McAnally. “We want to grapple with the history here. Some of ‘Counterpublic’ will be outside, but other pieces will require that you enter into these spaces more fully, to look more closely for what’s already there. Art doesn’t have to be this thing that lives within the walls of a gallery space. It can be a lived practice. I think the street has always shown that.”
This is the final story in a six-part series featuring the 2019 Visionary Awards for Women in the Arts honorees. The awards ceremony is April 22 at 6 p.m. in Grand Center’s Sun Theater. Tickets cost $50 and can be purchased online here.
Images courtesy of Diane Anderson.