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Art Museum prepares for groundbreaking on its $130 million addition

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 14, 2010 - A vanguard of hard hats and pickups has arrived. A green plastic fence surrounds the site. Behind it, a hulking backhoe scrapes the earth clean of vegetation.

The St. Louis Art Museum is already a construction zone. After announcing in mid-December that its long-awaited addition and renovation were at last a go, the museum wasted no time in getting started.

A month into the two-year job, the museum will officially break ground Tuesday, with museum director Brent Benjamin, board president John Weil, project architect David Chipperfield, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley among those expected to be on hand for the 3 p.m. ceremonial shoveling.

That necessary dirty work done, the event turns into a cake-and-champagne party under a tent across Fine Arts Drive from the museum's main entrance.

The celebration continues with special added attractions in the following few days. Nigerian vocalist and bassist Ken Okulolo will perform at 7 p.m. Jan. 22, and there will be special expansion-related tours and art activities for families from 1-4 p.m., Jan. 24. Like the groundbreaking, these events will be free and open to all and will help reinforce what has become a mantra of museum officials when speaking of the long, heavy labor ahead: The museum will remain open throughout.

The exhibition schedule leaves no doubt. Some highlights of coming attractions:

  • "African Ceremonial Cloths: Selections from the Collection," running from Feb. 14 through May 9, draws entirely on the museum's trove of striking African textiles, many never yet shown publicly.
  • "The Mourners: Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy" collects 40 15th-century pieces from the elaborate medieval tomb of John the Fearless, the second duke of Burgundy. The show, organized by the Dallas Museum of Art and the Musee des Beaux Arts de Dijon, opens in March at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. St. Louis, where it will be on view from June 20 through Sept. 6, is the second stop on a tour that will continue on to Dallas, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Richmond, Va.
  • "Joe Jones: Painter of the American Scene," opening Oct. 10, brings together works in various media by an artist who was born in St. Louis in 1909 and burst on the scene as a Depression-era social realist. The museum is curating the show, which will travel to other venues after closing here Jan. 2, 2011.

And that's just the next year's lineup for the museum's main exhibition galleries, where "Five Centuries of Japanese Screens" closed Jan. 3 after a well-received run of 2 months. Smaller new shows are also in the works. So is pretty much the museum's typical busy schedule of performances, gallery talks, lectures, seminars and classes for adults and children.
Exceptions to business-as-usual are any events that might otherwise have been held in the auditorium, shuttered because of its proximity to the construction, along with the museum's restaurant, which will reopen only in the addition. Down but not out are the cafe, classrooms and main gift shop, relocated for the time being to galleries cleared of art at risk of damage from construction vibration.

The work has permanently taken out of commission all 128 of the museum's parking spaces east and south of the existing building, leaving only 250 spots in two lots to the north. Just for Tuesday's celebration, the museum is offering valet parking for $5 a car at the building's main entrance, the only one to remain open during construction. (Hence, the museum is refitting one of the doors there for temporary handicapped access.)

The parking crunch will continue until the addition -- with 300 underground parking spaces and 200,000 square feet of public and exhibit space -- is done.

The project is costing $162 million, with $130.5 million for the building and $31.5 million for an endowment to maintain it. Toward that goal, the museum has tallied pledges totaling $135 million, all in chunks of $5,000 or more. Tuesday program shows that these have come from more than 200 St. Louis businesses, individuals and foundations.

Listed as pledging at the highest level of at least $10 million are Emily Rauh Pulitzer, Alvin and Ruth Siteman, Jack C. Taylor, Anabeth and John Weil, Gary C. Werths and an anonymous donor. The nine contributors at the next highest level -- $2 million to $9,999,999 -- include Mr. and Mrs. E. Desmond Lee, he the noted St. Louis philanthropist who died Tuesday at 92.

The museum will make up the difference between the promised $135 million and the needed $162 million with funds from its foundation and with smaller contributions that it will be seeking in the "public phase" of its campaign, which begins Tuesday.

Susan C. Thomson is a freelance writer in St. Louis.

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