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Reflection: Called to work on studio tour, learned about breadth of art scene

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 3, 2012 - The Contemporary Art Museum has presented an event called City-Wide Open Studios for the past seven years. This is a time over one weekend out of the year when St. Louis artists open their studios to the general public.

This past Sunday, I represented the St. Louis Beacon on what was billed as an Arts Writer-led Bus Tour that visited artist studios in the Hyde Park area of north St. Louis, in the Washington Avenue area downtown and in Grand Center.

Given that I regularly write on music for the Beacon, my role as a co-leader of a tour of artist studios may seem puzzling. But I was a late replacement for Nancy Fowler, the Beacon’s cultural reporter, who was called out of town.

Although I’m very interested in art, I was more than a little concerned about passing myself off as an “arts writer.” But thanks to the in-depth arts expertise of my co-leader Jessica Baran – arts writer for the Riverfront Times and her willingness to take the lead – those on our bus were not shortchanged.

The tour included the Rebuild Foundation on Mallinckrodt Street; the home studio of Philip Slein, owner of the Slein Gallery; the Rad Lab studios on 20th Street, housing studio space for four artists; and a space at 3737 Olive set up by CAM to showcase the work of artists whose own studios are in outlying locations in the region.

City-Wide Open Studios provides a glimpse of the rich culture that is in St. Louis – the program highlights the area’s creativity (artists, organizations, galleries, etc.) and asks people living here to recognize and support it. We are a city of neighborhoods, incredibly diverse, profoundly interesting, and always willing to engage in dialogue about life, art and culture. City-Wide Open Studios’ request for local artists to open their public and private studios is rare. But the tours connect all parties involved – the public, the artists and the museum.

“This year, we have over 170 artists opening their studios this weekend,” says Alex Elmestad, manager of public programs and interpretive technology for CAM, as the bus rolls up Grand toward Rebuild Foundation. “We’re growing it every year, adding this bus tour as well as a bike tour of studios organized by Big Shark Bicycle Company. In future years, I hope to provide walking tours of two really great emerging arts districts: Downtown and Cherokee Street.”

The bus tour proved to be a fascinating and enlightening experience – both for those attending as well as for Baran and me. Here are a few highlights:

Rebuild Foundation

Founded as a nonprofit organization by artist and urban planner Theaster Gates in Chicago, its mission says: “Rebuild Foundation activates creative community resources to build vibrant neighborhoods. We act as a catalyst in local economies by integrating small business incubation, creative architectural rehabilitation, hands-on education and artistic intervention.”

Rebuild has projects underway in Chicago, Detroit, Omaha and St. Louis. As we learned when the bus stopped across from Holy Trinity Catholic Church, the focus of activities is very much on incorporating the work of artists into rehabbing the foundation’s building – as well as teaching young people in the nearby community about the arts.

“What we’re really about is building a community art training program – and doing it in these historic buildings,” says Program Coordinator Dayna Kriz as she leads a tour through the work in progress at the site. “We have visiting artists come in and help redesign the space and make it work for what we’re trying to achieve. But we definitely don’t want to give those visiting artists all the ‘shine.’ It’s really about a collective contribution by everyone involved in the project.”

Rad Lab

After an entertaining stop at the home studio of Philip Slein, featuring a hands-on tour of Slein’s eclectic assortment of collectibles that jam almost every inch of his walls, the tour went to Rad Lab on 20th Street just north of Washington. The second floor space houses the studios of four artists – including photographer David Johnson, whose work is being exhibited at CAM.

Contacted after the tour, Rad Lab artists Andrew Brandmeyer and Jessi Cerutti, talked about their interaction with those coming to visit their studios – as well as the advantages of sharing studio space with other artists.

“We were happy with the turnout,” says Brandmeyer. “We had almost 80 people come through. One of the cool things about it was that they got to see something very different from the finished work that’s in a gallery or in an exhibition. They got to see not only the process of creating the work – but the environment in which the work was created.”

“It’s also important that we had the chance to talk one-on-one with people,” adds Cerutti. “And that interaction carries through having a studio space with other artists. It helps all of us to be in a space where there are other artists working hard – and it’s an inspiration to get to work and pay the rent!”

My takeaway from the tour? A much deeper appreciation of the diversity and commitment of St. Louis artists – both in terms of talent and dedication to building the artistic community, and extending that community to embrace neighborhoods and larger communities as well.

Baran, who has in-depth knowledge of St. Louis artists and their work, put it best.

“It was an encouraging experience to be part of an event that attracted a broad audience genuinely interested in and excited by art,” she says. “The diversity of spaces and practices we witnessed drafted a truly dynamic and unique portrait of the local art culture that tour-goers and artists alike seemed equally enthused about. It was a hugely welcome antidote to my own cynicism regarding the current state of art culture and appreciation.”

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