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Art on the Ole Miss

With the Sept. 19 opening of the Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis is seeking to define itself as a major cultural destination.

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As the illustrious home to Anheuser-Busch and Super Bowl champs the Rams, St. Louis has long been known as a beer-and-football kind of town. But with the Sept. 19 opening of the new home for the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, the city is seeking to define itself as a major destination for contemporary art.

At the museum’s helm is director Paul Ha, 40, whose résumé includes stints at the Yale University Art Gallery and at White Columns, New York’s oldest nonprofit art gallery, known for discovering and exposing some of today’s most prominent artists early in their careers. As the director and curator of White Columns from 1996 to 2001, Ha exhibited such artists as Damian Loeb, Rachel Feinstein, Jenny Gage, Sarah Sze and Dana Hoey. To keep his finger on the pulse of the art world, he would visit 800 artists’ studios a year. Since moving to St. Louis 10 months ago, his vision for the Contemporary has been in part inspired by his work at White Columns.

“The heart and soul of the museum is to promote and support living artists and to help them realize their vision — giving them a place to show, supporting them financially so that they can finish up the projects that they had in mind, and having space available that they can display their work in,” said Ha in a telephone interview.

At 27,000 square feet, the new museum is quadruple the size of its predecessor. Founded in 1980 as the First Street Forum, it has gone through several name changes but its focus has remained constant. The Contemporary is a kunsthalle-style institution, or non-collecting museum. “For a contemporary institution you ask yourself, ‘At what point is the art not contemporary anymore?’” says Ha, who adds that the housing, storing and conserving of a collection seriously impacts the staffing and funding of a museum. “The board of directors decided not to collect and I think it was the right decision. We present what is happening in the studios.”

Located in Grand Center, the hub of St. Louis’ arts district, the Contemporary features three galleries, a multimedia performance and lecture space, a media lab, lobby, courtyard, café and bookshop. Its opening exhibition will be “A Fiction of Authenticity: Contemporary Africa Abroad,” co-curated by the museum’s assistant curator, Shannon Fitzgerald and Tumelo Mosaka of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The show includes commissioned pieces from 12 African-born artists who have since left the continent.

The Contemporary’s commitment to the cutting edge is reflected in its choice of architect for its new building. The museum hosted a design competition that drew a list of celebrated architects and firms including Rem Koolhaas and Herzog & de Meuron, but a relative unknown, Brad Cloepfil, landed the commission. It was Cloepfil’s first freestanding building outside of Oregon, where his firm, Allied Works Architecture, is based.

“He provided an amazingly flexible, open and utilitarian space that can be used — every square inch of it,” says Ha of the $6.5 million construction project. “Whenever I walk an artist through, they see places that we weren’t intending to use and they say, ‘Oh, I could do a video projection here or an installation there.’ We’re absolutely willing to use every part of the space that the artists want to use.”

Cloepfil deems it “a building turned inside out.” Constructed of concrete, glass, stainless steel mesh and painted sheetrock, the two-level building shares a courtyard with the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, which was designed by Tadao Ando. From one angle, passersby can look straight through the museum, an important design feature, according to Cloepfil, because it provides a democratic approach to viewing art. “Whether you are driving by in your Mercedes or in your ’67 Chevy headed to the night shift, or on public transportation, you are given the same vantage point into the museum,” he says.

Cloepfil’s design is such a success, he has since landed two more museum commissions, one for the expansion of the Seattle Art Museum, the other for New York City’s Museum of Arts & Design (formerly the American Craft Museum) located at 2 Columbus Circle.

Ha says that wooing artists to show in St. Louis has not presented any major challenges. “Since we haven’t had a contemporary art museum in St. Louis, most of the famous artists that we’re talking about don’t have St. Louis on their résumé,” he says. “So, when I contact Cindy Sherman and ask her if she wants to have a show in St. Louis, she replies, ‘Yes,’ because it makes sense for her.”

Next up for Ha is the museum’s inaugural gala benefit and ribbon-cutting ceremony on Sept. 19, which will be led by Missouri governor Bob Holden and St. Louis mayor Francis Slay. Ha says his new post hasn’t kept him out of the artists’ studios, though. “I can’t help myself,” he says. “Whenever I travel, I do try to do a couple. I come to New York on a monthly basis and I’m still reconnecting with the artists who I’ve discovered, and also trying to find new ones.”

And when it comes to the Contemporary’s legacy, Ha knows exactly what he hopes people will say. “I would love when there’s a conversation about contemporary art that they talk about the Contemporary and say, ‘Have you seen this?’ That would be an amazing accomplishment.”

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