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Commentary: Retiring Area Arts Institution Heads Will Not Be Forgotten

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I'm usually giving a warm, welcoming hello to art directors, curators and others who are coming to St. Louis to head our arts institutions. I'm always telling them how culturally rich St. Louis is and how I know they will be happy here. Today, I'm saying a sad farewell to those who are about to retire or have done so recently. I'm telling these special folks that they will not be forgotten and want to highlight some of their accomplishments.

Father Terence Dempsey, SJ is a Jesuit priest and had a career of over 30 years at St. Louis University. He was the founder and first director of MOCRA (the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art) which opened in 1993. Dempsey described MOCRA as having a unique approach to contemporary art which arose from his insight that artists still engage in meaningful and interesting ways with the religious and spiritual dimensions, often in unexpected ways.

Personable, friendly, an excellent curator and scholar, Dempsey brought exhibitions of the highest level, of artists known both locally and nationally.

My two favorite exhibitions were, "The Spiritual in Art in the Time of AIDS" (1994) and the largest ever installation of Andy Warhol's "Silver Clouds" (2001).

Paul Reuter became the Executive Director of the Sheldon Arts Foundation in 1994 and was like a one man band. He created The Sheldon's long running signature concert series, he wrote and created educational programs for students in jazz, folk, classical and world music. He expanded The Sheldon in 1998 with a capital campaign to create The Sheldon Art Galleries and the 500 seat Louis Spiering Room. He founded and coordinated the city-wide American Arts Experience Festival and he opened the Steward Family Plaza in 2019, a gathering space and vertical garden on the west side of The Sheldon.

Reuter was always open to new ideas and collaborations with other institutions city-wide and especially in Grand Center.

Jeffrey Bonner, PH.D was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of The St. Louis Zoo in 2002. During his tenure he maintained the zoo's premier status as not only a top tourist attraction, but as an institution which is nationally and internationally recognized. He modernized the century-old campus with world class habitats and experiences. And most recently, the zoo has acquired a 425 acre property in North St. Louis County called the St. Louis Zoo WildCare Park which will be home to conservation and breeding programs and wildlife adventures for the public to enjoy and connect with nature and animals.

I was lucky enough to get to know Dr. Bonner on a trip with the St. Louis Zoo to see the Polar Bears in Churchill, Canada and get a dose of his never ending enthusiasm and to learn that our zoo is much more than just looking at animals on the zoo property.

Mike Isaacson, Director of The Muny, in reference to Dennis Reagan, President and CEO of The Muny’s, retirement, refers to Reagan as stalwart and faithful in every way to The Muny. He is there both mentally and physically and is a REAL part of The Muny.

Reagan has worked at The Muny for 53 years and actually began as an usher and on the cleaning crew. Not only did his status grow to the "top of the heap," he was awarded the very prestigious Arts and Education award in 2018 among many other awards and accolades. He is not at all "snooty" and is at the entrance to the seats greeting all and making each guest feel special and welcome.

According to Charles Lowenhaupt, Chairman of the Board of Commissioners of The St. Louis Art Museum and past chair, John Weil, retiring Director of the museum Brent Benjamin has put the museum in a fiscally and extremely well respected position, nationally in these difficult times. Weil says most of us know that Benjamin was responsible for raising the funds for the new wing designed by world famous architect David Chipperfield, but few remember that he was responsible for the wonderful print and drawing study room.

Lowenhaupt also reminded me that the art museum has had a 20% increase in acquisitions during Benjamin's tenure of over 20 years.

Terry Suhre, Director of Gallery 210 at UMSL for two decades, has curated shows of nationally known artists and has given local artists a chance to exhibit their works.

Suhre is beloved in St. Louis's contemporary arts community and has seen to it that his exhibitions are socially relevant and very much a part of today's issues. An example of one of his powerful shows was Damon Davis, multi-media artist and filmmaker, who directed the critically acclaimed documentary about Ferguson and another powerful exhibition

was Jess T. Dugan's photographs which documented the lives of trans individuals.

Dan Reich, Curator and Education Director of the Kaplan/Feldman Holocaust Museum, says it was very rewarding to see the museum grow in stature and over the years to educate hundreds of thousands of visitors, mostly students, about the history and lessons of the Holocaust. He notes that a major accomplishment as a curator was re-installing one of the major areas of the museum, the renewal of life in St. Louis, and now he is part of team designing an entirely new and updated permanent exhibition.

These are just a few of the recent retirees that I have known well and worked with in the arts. There are others as well and I wish them all the best, and now I am looking forward to welcoming the new folks on board in our great art filled city.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than thirty years on numerous arts related boards.

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