Word for word, no public artwork in St. Louis has been discussed more than Richard Serra’s Twain. It’s been disparaged at dinner parties, criticized in the newspaper, and one vandal-critic even spray-painted “GET RID OF THIS THING!” on its weathered Cor-Ten surface. Located on the Gateway Mall, a block-wide park that ribbons through downtown, Twain fills a city block with its eight huge steel plates. It was one of the first pieces Serra designed to be walked into; the gaps between slabs change the way your eyes track the landscape outside. When it was installed in 1982, though, St. Louis didn’t like the view. And it didn’t matter that it was, after Manhattan, only the second American city to receive a major Serra work. Twain’s inner chamber struck them not as a spot for contemplation, but a great place to get mugged.
When Citygarden opened in 2009, the conversation about Gateway Mall shifted. Located on two formerly vacant lots, Citygarden is a roughly three-acre parcel split into three areas of varying elevation. Plantings include 235 trees from 20 species as well as native plants like bottlebrush buckeye, sedge grasses, and meadow rue. Charlottesville, Virginia’s Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects designed features mimicking the natural landscape (a limestone wall echoing the Mississippi river bluffs) as well as the urban environment (narrow paths inspired by alleys on nineteenth-century Sanborn fire maps).
Owned by the city, Citygarden is maintained by a private entity, the Gateway Foundation, which also curated the art. The collection is world-class, and meant to delight; one of the most popular pieces is Igor Mitoraj’s Eros Bendato, a hollow, two-ton bronze Greek head that is guaranteed to have someone, usually several someones, playing inside it during park hours. Citygarden is also free, has a restaurant onsite, and every one of its 24 artworks can be touched, despite the fact that this increases the cost of maintenance.
St. Louisans love it. Its superlative, generous presence transforms the entire mall—especially the block containing Serra’s piece, which sits just west of it. “Twain is a great work of art, really,” says Leslie Markle, curator for public art at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University. “It’s a great complement to Citygarden being there now—the context is totally different.”
Remaking an Icon—and Re-Envisioning Empty Lots
Citygarden was in part what first attracted Michael Van Valkenburgh to St. Louis. Van Valkenburgh’s Brooklyn-based architecture firm was chosen to redesign the grounds of the Gateway Arch for the monument’s 50th anniversary (the opening is currently slated for October 28, 2015).
Working in collaboration with private and public organizations, Van Valkenburgh has unveiled a design that “lids” the I-70 highway with a park, connecting downtown to the Arch for the first time. The plan also includes a new Arch museum; renovation of the historic Old Courthouse; major landscaping improvements, including five miles of pedestrian walkways; and an overhaul of the stark and outdated Kiener Plaza, the first city block on the Gateway Mall. Van Valkenburgh explained at a public meeting on February 5 that the redesigned grounds “will feel much more welcoming to all—and that from every approach there will be a feeling of being interwoven with downtown.”
Located just west of downtown is St. Louis’s Grand Center arts district, home to the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts (site of another Serra), and another interesting project launched by the foundation and Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Art & Architecture. PXSTL (an acronym for Pulitzer, Sam Fox, and St. Louis) is an urban design/build competition for architects and designers to create temporary installations on two empty lots facing the Pulitzer building. On May 9, Lots, designed by Brooklyn firm Freecell Architecture, opens to the public. It consists of an interactive, gridded metal structure equipped with fabric tunnels and canopies; the museum will be programming heavily around it.
Leslie Markle, who oversees PXSTL with Pulitzer’s Gretchen Wagner, explains that, though funding sources differ, he sees the competition as an extension of the university’s new percent-for-art program, which he manages. The program sets aside 1 percent of campus construction budgets for public art; its first installation was Jaume Plensa’s Ainsa 1, a stainless steel figure made of letters from nine different alphabets. Markle says that Sam Fox dean Carmon Colangelo views campus projects like these as “part of the continuity of public art that you have in the city of St. Louis.”
St. Louis as “Sculpture City”
Located on 105 acres in the suburb of Sunset Hills, Laumeier Sculpture Park is an innovative hybrid between public park and contemporary art museum. When it opened in 1977 with a donation of 40 pieces by the late St. Louis sculptor Ernest Trova, there was nothing like it in the country. Some of its best-known pieces include Alexander Liberman’s The Way, constructed of steel oil tanks painted bright red; Beverly Pepper’s epic earthwork Cromlech Glen; and Tony Tasset’s Eye, a 38-foot fiberglass reproduction of the artist’s own eyeball, which is arguably one of the most popular pieces among Laumeier’s 300,000 yearly visitors. “People love that piece,” says Meridith McKinley, partner at public art consulting firm Via Partnership. “And it’s not an easy piece!”
This year, McKinley and Laumeier executive director Marilu Knode co-convened Sculpture City Saint Louis 2014, an initiative that celebrates public art on the occasion of St. Louis’s 250th anniversary. Its projects have included a content-rich website, sculpturecitystl.com; an Instagram feed that instantly uploads photographs hashtagged as #sculptstl; and events in partnership with other institutions, including the Saint Louis Art Museum. In April, Sculpture City hosted Monument/Anti-Monument, an international conference that attracted artists, curators, urban planners, and historians to St. Louis to discuss “the intersection of sculpture and the public realm.”
Laumeier’s current exhibit, Mound City, which opened during the conference, includes a permanent commission from artist Geoffrey Krawczyk. The New York–based artist was struck by the renovated and collapsing houses he saw standing side-byside in the Old North St. Louis neighborhood. The Recess Project is an architectural folly that mimics the decaying remains of one of the neighborhood’s distinctive four-family brick flats. Using bricks from a neighborhood brickyard, Krawczyk worked with local architects and bricklayers, and invited locals to submit short phrases to be inscribed on the bricks. Krawczyk sees the piece as a historical time capsule, as well as a counterpoint to the Arch. “If the Arch stands for a smooth, shiny narrative about our history,” Krawczyk says, “then Recess seeks to look more closely at the rough edges.”
Reconnecting the Urban and Suburban
Recess also connects the city and the county—a particularly profound and often acrimonious disconnect in St. Louis. The often-cited stereotype that culture thrives only in the city is disproved by Chesterfield Arts, which in nearly 20 years has spent $5 million placing public art. Executive Director Stacey Morse says public art makes up about 40 percent of its mission, and includes the University Sculpture Competition, a competition for students in the region. Last year’s winner was Rod Callies’s Aspire, a 5,800-pound sculpture made from steel pipes cut at angles and painted white, which Chesterfield Arts paid to fabricate, then placed alongside a stream walk in Chesterfield Central Park. “We’re working to make that an ongoing initiative,” Morse says, “so that every other year we’ll be able to launch a new project where we can put a call out to the next wave of student sculptors throughout Missouri.”
Clayton is another St. Louis suburb with a deep commitment to public art, says Gary Feder, outgoing president of the Clayton Century Foundation, a nonprofit formed in 2008 to focus on the city’s history, arts, parks, and sustainability. In conjunction with the city’s 2013 centennial, it commissioned James Surls to create the site-specific, bronze and stainless steel Molecular Bloom With Single Flower, which references both Clayton’s modern skyline and the natural setting of the park. “I think it says something about the population that people in Clayton care about public art, and want to support it,” Feder says.
Another of Clayton’s public works is Fernando Botero’s Man on a Horse, a permanent loan placed by the Gateway Foundation, which is overseen by philanthropist Peter Fischer (who prefers to stay out of the public eye). Gateway has long been working to suture together the city’s fragmented built environment with public art—and heal its social divisions in the process. Gateway places sculpture in welloff inner-ring suburbs such as Clayton and Webster Groves as well as on community college campuses; it has lit antique water towers and landscaped a playground in distressed North City. And of course, it created Citygarden.
Via’s Meridith McKinley says the Foundation’s work has “elevated the conversation about public art and sculpture and what an asset it can be in the community.” But she adds that multiple organizations in St. Louis participate in that conversation: “It’s the zoo. It’s private foundations. It’s municipalities. It’s the sculpture park. There are lots of different organizations—Arts in Transit, the airport. It’s a really diverse group of organizations that are doing this type of work, and engaging people in this conversation.” The only uniting thread of these good works is that there is no uniting thread—each player is helping to translate broken fragments into an artistic kaleidoscopic pattern.