‘Art Along the Rivers’ celebrates centuries of art at the confluence
Even as Missouri celebrates its bicentennial, a major new exhibition at the St. Louis Art Museum surveys a longer period of local history — and a differently defined region.
“Art Along the Rivers: A Bicentennial Celebration” focuses on the area where the three most powerful rivers in North America come together: the Mississippi, the Missouri and the Ohio. It erases state lines to survey a creative heritage that flourished from Carbondale, Illinois, to Sikeston, Missouri. And in the process, it illuminates not just the art made in the St. Louis region, but the communities that settled here and the history made in these floodplains dating back to the 1200s.
“We really saw this more as an opportunity rather than to think about statehood, to think about a region that we all know really well, that feels like home,” said Melissa Wolfe, the museum’s curator of American art. “And so we really took this small region that is defined by the confluence of the three most powerful rivers in North America, to look very closely at the communities and the art communities that have formed there.”
Wolfe curated the show with Amy Torbert, the museum’s Andrew W. Mellon Foundation assistant curator of American art. They spent months criss-crossing eastern Missouri and western Illinois, soliciting not just the best pieces in local museums and galleries but also the rare treasures held in individual homes.
One example: Torbert explained that during a trip to Hannibal, the curators stopped at a museum called Jim’s Journey, named for the enslaved character in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” It chronicles the African American experience at the time of the novel. Executive Director Faye Dant showed them around.
“On our way out, as we were talking about possibilities that we might be able to borrow for this exhibition, Fay said, ‘Well, my husband's family has this really phenomenal quilt that was made by one of his ancestors, who had been enslaved before the Civil War, and then made this really terrific, creative, interesting quilt in the 1880s, maybe early 1890s. Could this be something that you'd be interested in?’ And we did backflips.
“And so this beautiful quilt is in our first gallery,” Torbert continued. “When you walk into the space, it's one of the first things you see.”
The curators took pains to expand the exhibition beyond the males of European descent considered “artists” during Missouri’s first century and a half of statehood.
“One reason why we didn't try to cover the entire state is because statehood is an Anglo definition of land. And even it's an Anglo definition of time — just 200 years,” Wolfe noted. “We go back 1,000 years to the Mississippian culture, all the way up to I think the most recent work was made in 2020. … There's a very strong contingent of work by African Americans, by women, by Native Americans. And they're mixed completely in. It isn't like we say, ‘OK, well, here are women artists,’ because that's just not the way the show is. They're all in a dialogue about the experience of the same landscape.”
What: Art Along the Rivers: A Bicentennial Celebration
When: Oct. 3-Jan. 3, 2022
Where: St. Louis Art Museum, 1 Fine Arts Drive, St. Louis, MO 63110
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