This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: I have not lived in St. Louis for seven years. Since leaving for college on the east coast, living abroad, trying out various cities like hats, and settling – for now – back east, I struggle with the feeling that I am failing my city by constantly leaving it. Though it remains home, the prospect of living there again grows further distant. That prospect has everything to do with contemporary art.
Artists, curators and writers flock to cities with well-regarded MFA programs and a strong network of museums, galleries and artist-run spaces. These factors simmer together to form a cultural community where engagement and dialogue become activated. Non-natives join in and bring ideas, techniques, histories and memories to connect with and contribute to great art. Collaboration among artists and cultural and civic institutions takes place; grants and residencies are created; and the ability to make a living in the arts is supported.
With the opening of the Art Museum expansion and public discussions on the lack of art criticism, St. Louis is experiencing a reflective moment about its influence on and response to contemporary visual culture. The common arguments include: We have no full-time visual art critics; funding remains limited for those in the cultural sector; we have few media outlets.
Here is the problem that is ignored: St. Louis needs better art education.
For young people interested in studying modern and contemporary art at university, St. Louis – and Missouri generally – have little to offer. State institutions may offer programs that focus on archaeology, the classics and traditional research methodology, but very few are competitive in contemporary visual culture. Consequently, those interested in art history, curatorial studies and/or art criticism make their way to the cultural hubs, paying for degrees that enable greater engagement. Once nurtured in an academic environment where relationships with professors and fellow students are formed, the likelihood of returning home to few connections and a tiny job market becomes slimmer.
The only option in St. Louis for a doctorate in art history is Washington University whose art history program is ranked 26th in the nation according to the 2011 NRC report. For those interested in the Classics, Western art or Asia, it is a strong program. For those interested in the contemporary – let alone fields I follow such as Latin American art or photography – not so much. For art criticism there are no individual degrees and no fellowships. Research prominent curators and academics in St. Louis and you will discover that the vast majority received graduate degrees outside Missouri. Every full-time art history professor at Wash U, for instance, earned a doctorate from an east-coast institution.
For art-makers, only five MFA programs exist in Missouri: Washington University, Fontbonne, University of Missouri Columbia, University of Missouri Kansas City, and Webster. The St. Louis area has no individual school dedicated solely to art education – no Art Institute of Chicago, no RISD, no Cal Arts, no well-renowned institution that attracts artists from all over the world to work within our city’s borders.
Ultimately, our city does not have a leading reputation in contemporary art and art criticism because it has very few great academic institutions to nurture art professionals. While a degree is not required for an artist, the academic experience opens doors, creates relationships, enables collaboration and provides visibility. Furthermore, great MFA programs bring great artists as professors and mentors, who then add to the city’s cultural community.
Last fall I attended a performance art piece in a warehouse turned gallery space in Philadelphia. The artist facilitated a conversation about “geographic tiers of the art world” where U.S. cities were ranked by prominence in contemporary visual art. To provide perspective, the first tier included Miami, Brooklyn and Los Angeles; the fifth included San Antonio and Tampa. (New York was pretentiously voted into its own “super-tier”).
When St. Louis came up, I fought hard to place it in the second tier by throwing out names of cultural institutions, prominent collectors and historical influences. In a room full of artists, curators and enthusiasts from across the U.S., no one else had engaged with the city’s visual art community and ultimately had nothing to contribute. In one sense, they had to trust me as I had lived there, but the fact that participants had no reputation on which to base an opinion landed St. Louis into the third tier – admittedly appropriately.
Still, St. Louis has the potential. Artists are turning to smaller cities that offer affordable rent, ample space and greater opportunity for collaboration and visibility (i.e. Detroit, Asheville, Pittsburgh). While this dispersive trend strengthens, St. Louisans should look deeper at its cultural community. So much already exists (and probably more than I know having been gone for so long); and St. Louis itself is full of young, vibrant people who are passionate and loyal to the city.
But we also need local voices that are knowledgeable about contemporary visual culture. The best critics come with a great understanding of what came before them and bring an equal understanding of neighborhoods, city politics and sentiment. To engage with the contemporary, the critic must always reflect on what the artist(s) is directly or indirectly responding to – making art education in St. Louis ever that important.
People can find the history without advanced degrees. There are online seminars, artist publications or White Flag’s bookstore. And cultural institutions and universities are posting lectures and public conversations with leading practitioners and thinkers to YouTube and Vimeo. The ability to engage within contemporary art discourse is more than accessible – but that engagement must also be activated collectively through artist-run spaces, public discussions and local forums.
The opportunity to be a voice in St. Louis’ cultural community is possible. Online opinion platforms and public forums such as those held at the Pulitzer Foundation are asking great and challenging questions and looking for new voices to provide answers. Economically, greater options for funding are available through crowd-sourcing websites and local artist grants, such as the Artists Count grants now offered by RAC.
But we still need residency programs that keep artists in St. Louis, paid fellowships for local practitioners, and greater mentorship opportunities for emerging writers and curators (like that of CAM). Until we respond to this lack of art education, St. Louis’ reputation as a mediocre space for contemporary art – and art criticism – will remain. And our youth will keep leaving for greater opportunities.
Editor's note: Rachel Heidenry is a fellow at the Slought Foundation in Philadelphia. She is the daughter of Beacon Voices and Features Editor Donna Korando and interned for the Beacon and for the Regional Arts Commission several years ago.