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For St. Louis-Based Arts Writer Jessica Baran, Criticism Is Key To Growth

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Provided / Nathaniel Farrell
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Arts writer Jessica Baran.

For Jessica Baran, the fifth time was the charm. After applications spanning a decade, the St. Louis-based art critic was earlier this year awarded an Andy Warhol arts writers grant. The $30,000 earmark is meant to subsidize Baran’s ongoing “critical engagement with art, artists and exhibitions” in the Midwest.

Her selection after all those years, she said on St. Louis on the Air, feels less like a breakthrough in her writing and more about resumed national interest in the realities of the Midwest. She sees George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis earlier this year as bringing renewed attention to the kind of Midwestern experience first brought into broader focus after Michael Brown’s death in 2014.

And that has brought new attention to the arts scene in cities like St. Louis — not just the museums and institutions, but the work bubbling up from Cherokee Street and other DIY spaces. Baran said interest in that more experimental work has been growing in the decade-plus she’s covered the scene for national publications.

“The sort of smaller spaces, the noncommercial spaces, have become clearly identified as very important to not only nurturing but showcasing some of the most exciting and interesting art,” she said.

Baran has one foot in both worlds. She is currently the director of curatorial and program development at Barrett Barrera Projects in the Central West End. She witnessed a different side of things (but no less vibrant art) as director of Fort Gondo, the now-shuttered pioneering nonprofit arts space in south St. Louis.

It’s Baran’s role as critic, though, that gets her most excited. She said she sees herself as “a kind of translator” between curators and the public. “I think it is incredibly important for the critic to be helping provide language for anyone to enter these spaces and not feel like they don't understand art and have a way to really connect,” she said.

She sees her role not just as uplifting the scene and bringing national attention to rising stars, but as pushing — carefully, and constructively — for people to do better.

“I think the key to writing criticism in the Midwest is that it tends to feel fragile,” she observed. “We really do always want to support St. Louis, we want to support the Midwest, because we are overlooked — and we know that. But at the same time, we want to be taken seriously, and the only way that we can do better work [is that] we have to accept that there will be some critical feedback.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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