This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Recent meetings of the people in charge of the St. Louis Art Museum have begun with a NASA-like countdown of how many days were left until the debut of the museum’s eastward expansion.
And with the museum now closed until the grand opening set for Saturday morning, June 29, director Brent Benjamin says the new space ideally will help the institution rise to a new prominence not only among St. Louisans but among art patrons elsewhere as well.
"Clearly this is an opportunity to talk about the art museum to a larger audience who have never been to St. Louis and may never come to St. Louis," he told the Beacon in a recent interview.
"But it's a moment to talk in a national forum about aspirations of this great St. Louis institution. That is a really important opportunity for a city like ours, because there are institutions in St. Louis that are well beyond the size and caliber you would expect in a city with our population."
And for regular visitors to the museum, Benjamin said, the new expansion, which the museum calls a contemporary counterpart to the original 1904 building, will serve a threefold purpose.
Its 200,000 square feet will increase the museum’s gallery and public space by 30 percent, including 21 new galleries. Its initial exhibit will feature 230 works from the museum’s collection; of those, 55 have not been available for viewing for 20 years or more.
Second, the facility designed by British architect David Chipperfield will provide visitors with a more enriching experience, with water fountains and a 100-seat restaurant overlooking Art Hill. Such amenities are important to today’s museumgoers, Benjamin said.
“Visitors today have goals that visitors to the World’s Fair might not have had,” he said.
And third, but hardly least, it will provide a partial solution to a chronic Forest Park problem – driving around looking for a place to park. With more than 300 additional spaces for cars, the underground garage will help ease what Benjamin calls “a gigantic issue,” even with a $15 price tag that is discounted for museum members.
“It dwarfs all other complaints I get by a factor of 10,” he said of the parking crunch.
Overall, Benjamin said, the entire project is designed to provide a more fulfilling experience.
“There’s more art on view,” he said, “thoughtfully reconceived and reinstalled. There are many old favorites, but also many things nobody would have seen.”
By the numbers
A ribbon-cutting ceremony at 9:30 a.m. on June 29 will kick off a two-day grand opening celebration that Benjamin expects will draw large crowds, if the number of people who showed up at the ground breaking for the new building is any indication. The museum will try to keep the momentum going by remaining open on Monday, July 1, a day when it normally is closed, as well as the holiday on Thursday, July 4.
Visitors to the museum will be able to appreciate not only the new exhibition space but also the reinstallation of 1,450 works of art in 68 galleries in the original building. Many of those works also have been out of the public eye for a couple of decades or longer.
The expansion has won Gold LEED certification for its energy-efficient design and environmentally sensitive construction practices.
Part of the construction project also helps to integrate the original building and the south building, which will have a new education center with classrooms, meeting rooms and an art study space. The 480-seat auditorium is being upgraded along with the lobby.
The entire project will be completed with a sculpture garden to the south of the new building.
The fund-raising campaign that will pay for the improvements and additions brought in $160 million, including $130 million for construction and another $30 million to increase the museum’s endowment to pay for increased operating expenses. The museum plans 25 new hires.
Its annual attendance of 450,000-500,000 is expected to receive a bump from the new facilities that will last for at least six months.
Spreading the word
Combine all those numbers with the 1,200 items on the punch list for the construction project and it’s easy to see why it took so long between the idea for an expansion first came up and the grand opening later this month.
Benjamin says the need for greater exhibition space and other updates had been under discussion before he arrived in 1999, just a few years after a master plan for Forest Park had been drawn up.
A strategic planning process for the art museum was completed in 2000, starting a formal analysis of the space it needed to display its collection properly along with possible solutions to the parking problem and other issues.
“It’s one thing to say we want to build more space for the collection,” Benjamin noted, “but that doesn’t really give you very much to go on.”
Still, there was little doubt that to provide for the museum’s entire collection, and make it easier to change things around without disrupting a visitor’s experience, something had to be done.
“There is no backup to that building,” he said “Every space in that building essentially is used, so there is no way for the institution to conduct its daily business and move art and move building materials from place to place. We don’t want our visitors to have to see two-by-fours and sheetrock.”
With the new space, more items on display and a better integration among the museum’s three main structures, it’s time for the institution to make a new push to introduce itself to new audiences, not just locally but worldwide.
Benjamin notes that while patronage for the museum comes primarily from the St. Louis area – “Many people have grown up with it. It’s part of their DNA.” – an aggressive program of lending art to other cities has helped the museum make its mark more widely in the world of art.
To reinforce that impression, the museum engaged a New York public relations firm to help spread the word, and Benjamin took his show on the road to London and elsewhere.
“They can call a reporter at the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times,” he said of the outside PR help. “That’s been successful. They have been here.
“There’s also been a whole additional range of coverage you might not think of initially, like design magazines or monthly journals that have a wide readership. They might be a little off the beaten track of what we might think of, but they are extremely important avenues. We were in Architectural Digest a few months ago, and I’ve never had as much response to any review of anything at the museum as I have had with that.”
International lending to venues in Germany, Switzerland, France and Britain has also helped spread the word. And having an acclaimed architect like Chipperfield doesn’t hurt.
“David is quite a celebrity in Europe,” Benjamin said. “He’s not so well known here, so we knew it was an important opportunity to tell the story of the St. Louis Art Museum and St. Louis more broadly. We went to London and hosted a press briefing there that was well attended. There was really a positive response, with follow-up interest and coverage in international journals.”
So now that the big day is finally at hand, can Benjamin’s hard-working staff afford to sit back and catch its breath? The museum has a number of initiatives in the works to capture the momentum the new space will bring and reach out to new audiences, so even when the construction crews are gone, efforts to build new segments of support will be going strong.
“The reason you do this is so the public can have a greater experience with original works of art than it had in the past, a more varied kind of experience,” Benjamin said.
“We’re certainly excited about the opening weekend, and that kind of enthusiasm and excitement can last for several months. I don’t know there is any rest for us in the short term, and that’s exactly how we would have it. That’s why we did it.”
Still free after all these years
Though the focus at the museum in the next few months will be on what is new, anyone who walks through the door without having to pay admission should stop to look at the inscription above the main entrance of the original building: "Dedicated to Art and Free to All.”
The museum gets $21 million a year in tax revenue from the Zoo-Museum District, about three-quarters of its annual budget. Periodically, the question comes up whether free admission to the museum and other institutions in the district that don’t charge an entry fee means residents of St. Louis and St. Louis County are unfairly subsidizing visitors from elsewhere.
When the Beacon put that question to sources in the Public Insight Network, the response was mixed.
Lori Allen of Maplewood, who has worked for an arts institution, likes things the way they are.
"Art should be accessible to everyone and fees reduce accessibility. Even a nominal fee will reduce attendance. As an institution that represents our city and region the museum should not be local biased. Charging a fee for tourists only seems snotty and opportunistic. The funding system we have benefits all."
In an email, she expanded on that thought, saying:
"I have no problem paying that tax and have even explained it to my visitors who were significantly impressed that St. Louis is far-sighted enough to set up such a tax. Many have even commented that they wished there was something similar where they lived. Many of my out of town guests are impressed with the cultural amenities for a metropolitan area our size….
"I have traveled and been to museums around the world. And as a tourist, I know that admission fees are a deterrent. I also did two years of grad work in a museum studies program. I have worked and volunteered in museums and arts orgs for years. Our cultural amenities should be open to all to provide an inclusive cultural community."
Moritz Farbstein of Creve Coeur, who has been a member of the Art Museum for many years, added:
"It should be free to all, just as it is set in stone. Non-residents are perfectly able to put donations in the donation boxes. It is a cultural treasure, unique in the art world, and a powerful draw for tourists."
But Sadiyyah Rice, a freelance video editor from Florissant, thinks a charge for people who aren’t paying taxes to support the museum woudn't be a bad idea.
"As a (resident) of St. Louis County," she wrote, "I believe non-residents should be obligated to pay a reasonably priced entrance fee to the museum. This may 'lighten the load' on taxpayers of the city and county and provide further financial backing to any future renovations to the museum and other parks."
In an email, she acknowledged that the charge to non-residents could result in a smaller out-of-town group of visitors.
She added that "some out-of-state visitors may be 'turned off' by the new charge, but several bigger cities charge admission fees to in- and out-of-state visitors, and I believe they have some of the world's most beautiful art pieces and facilities to show for it."